[Guest Blog] The Case for Diversity of Speakers at Conference Circuits and the MVP program

In this post, two women in the industry – Jess Dodson, Premier Field Engineer at Microsoft Australia and former MVP; and Kirsty McGrath, a Microsoft MVP in Office Apps & Services – give their insights into what they believe we can do to encourage more women to be seen up on stage at conferences and user groups, as well as become part of the MVP program. 


How did you first get into public speaking? 

Jess: I was actually encouraged to apply as a speaker with the offer of free conference registration. I couldn’t afford to attend Microsoft Ignite on my own dime, so I was told that I could get a free ticket… if I gave a talk. And I ended up giving TWO talks that year – one big talk and one small chalk talk. 


Kirsty: I was running some business presentations and then started attending User Groups to keep my knowledge up.  I was invited to present at a local User Group, and it snowballed from there into other user groups, and then conferences. 


What encouraged you to speak? 

Jess: After the initial shock of “Oh my god, what have I just agreed to?!” I realised that I wanted to share information and present it to lots of people and have a partially captive audience. There’s also the idea of learning a new skill, getting outside your comfort zone and pushing just that little bit harder to do something you’re afraid of. 


Kirsty: I was a trainer, so I was expected to talk in front of audiences all the time and it ended up being a somewhat natural progression. I dearly wanted to be able to help more people and get messages across to larger audiences rather than battling User Adoption constantly in 1:1 scenarios.  I had made a New Year’s Eve pact to ‘Step outside my Comfort Zone’ and speaking to hundreds of people at conferences certainly did that! 


Do you apply to speak at events, or do you wait for event organizers to approach you? 

Jess: I’ve only ever approached events- I’ve never had an event come and ask me if I want to talk. It’d be lovely to be approached though! 


Kirsty: I’m lucky that I usually get co-ordinators asking me to speak at events but occasionally I put myself forward where I feel it is an audience that would have value for specific messages that would support their journey.   


Is there anything you think conferences or user groups could do to attract you to speak? 

Jess: It would be great to have a consolidated list somewhere, hosted in something like GitHub, that can list all of the conferences and user groups in our country that we could narrow down by region so speakers can find events that they might be interested in speaking at; as well as a similar spreadsheet for people who want to get up and speak, with their top 3-5 proficiencies, so conference organizers can go looking if they’re interested in finding speakers on particular topics. 


Kirsty: Knowing which conferences and/or User Groups of value is a constant battle.  I’m not in the technical space as such, so knowing where I should be presenting can get a little harder.  Having a database of conferences and the general speaker/content type for them would be a big help.  


Have you seen limitations at conferences for women? 

Jess: There doesn’t appear to be a central location to go looking for Call for [Content] Proposals (CFPs). And tied to that, women are notoriously bad at selling themselves, let alone Australian women! Trying to get your talk picked up can be difficult, especially if you’re an unknown speaker. My biggest annoyance would be the tendency for conferences to ask if you’ve spoken before – because I’m going to assume that they’re using that as a measure in order to invite speakers.  It’s a catch-22. You can’t speak if you don’t have experience, but you can’t have experience if you don’t get to speak! 


You can’t be what you can’t see – which is probably why we don’t have more women speakers, or racially diverse speakers, or speakers with disabilities. We need to make being a speaker very inclusive, so that includes thinking about how the CFP is advertised as well as the event itself. It’s also important to ensure that there is a code of conduct that outlines certain behaviours and language that are not acceptable, and that if there are issues there’s someone people can speak to and know they’ll be heard. It’s a long process and it won’t be fixed overnight. But we just need to keep making these small changes. 


Kirsty: I think with the decentralisation of Microsoft conferences in Australia, knowing what, when and who to connect with for conferences has become harder and for those fairly new to the program, they may not know who to connect with.  Women often do not naturally put themselves forward – sometimes they may need to be invited to talk.   


If you hear of a suitable conference, help put their name forward so that we see more of them on the stages around ANZ.  It can be a little competitive to try and get a speaking spot as naturally everyone wants to have it as part of their contributions, but if you know it’s a topic coming from Microsoft and you (as a male ally) already have a speaking spot and you know a female that could potentially do it and doesn’t have a spot, consider inviting them to do it instead.   


Where are you seeing Diversity & Inclusion regarding women still stalled? 

Jess: Everywhere – you just need to look at the numbers of women enrolling in computer science and IT degrees. We need to start young and get younger women interested in this industry and, as I’ve said before – you can’t be what you can’t see! 


Kirsty:  At approximately 9% representative females in the ANZ MVP community, I know I feel both disappointed that we don’t have more and yet immensely proud of those that have made such a difference to the community.  


How did you become a Microsoft Valued Professional (MVP)? 

Jess: I became an MVP through speaking at an event – I spoke at Microsoft Ignite 2015 and from there was nominated to become an MVP due to my conference speaking as well as my online engagement through my blog and my social media presence. 


Kirsty: I became an MVP after running user groups in Australia, speaking engagements as well as my Infographic “Wheel of Fortune” (the nickname by others).  I was lucky to be nominated by a few people who believed I would benefit the community.   


How are you seeing Diversity & Inclusion for women moving forward in the MVP program? 

Kirsty: As quick as we find female MVPs, we are losing them to roles inside Microsoft as they are just as hungry for great female tech talent. It’s a great transition (moving from MVP to full-time Microsoft employee), but leaves a hole in the program when it comes to diversity.  It’s slipped backwards over the last few years rather than forward but with some effort from us all I think we can take it forward.   


Jess: As Kirsty has mentioned, we’re losing them quickly into Microsoft, which ultimately means they lose their MVP status. We need to cultivate far more women IT Pros into the program so that we’re still showcasing that diversity. 


Why do you feel having women in the MVP program is important? 

Jess: Again – YOU CAN’T BE WHAT YOU CAN’T SEE! We’re not going to have women wanting to be in the MVP program if there aren’t other women there. They’ll see it as a boy’s club, as something that isn’t “for them”. We need to find ways of encouraging them to want to be part of this program and the community in order to give diverse viewpoints – and that just doesn’t go for women, it also goes for race, sexuality and disability. 


Kirsty: Because we are brilliant! OK, back to reality! It’s well known that to have balance is important when it comes to opinions, but we also need to recognise that our audience comprises women who want to hear from other women in the industry.   


Where can it be awkward in the MVP program? 

Jess: I’m not a fan of meeting at a pub. I much prefer meeting at offices or at restaurants – somewhere with good lighting. As Kirsty says, not everyone drinks. Many of these meetups are associated with drinking, and I personally can find that a bit daunting – especially around people I don’t know or don’t know well. 


I’ve also found that MVPs can be very intimidating to approach in general – as experts in their field, they are exceptionally good at what they do… and they know it. This has also led to a few incidents of being “tested” on the spot, and almost having to prove your worth to be part of the program. This can be really daunting, especially as a woman when you feel that you’re going to be the example they use to benchmark all women. 


Kirsty: A lot of catch-ups aren’t conducive to supporting females and making them feel comfortable. I personally don’t mind meeting at a pub, however, not everyone feels comfortable in this situation. Some don’t drink for personal or religious reasons. We need to find other ways to catch-up. When there is a room full of men, women can feel intimidated so reach out to them, involve them in conversations and if you’ve pre-planned get-togethers as friends, invite them along and get to know them.  


How can other MVPs support women to enter the program? 

Jess: Put forward the women you know to be an MVP – worst that happens is that they’re asked to increase their community contributions, which will then get them out and seen more, and that in turn encourages even more women to be a part of the community and be seen more. I know, personally, I’m more likely to attend a technical talk if a woman is giving it – just because I’m excited to see another woman speaker! 


Impostor syndrome is also a curse on our industry, and not just for women. It means that so many women don’t feel they’re good enough to be a part of the community. I know I felt that way until someone nominated me! If you know someone – NOMINATE THEM! As an MVP, you can nominate other new MVPs, and we should be nominating every person we find who meets the criteria. 


Kirsty: When we meet women in the industry that do already have some social presence, they may even ask how they can present at conferences but may not quite have all the required contributions required. In such cases, put yourself forward as a mentor to support their journey to MVP. Often women tend to feel like they are ‘impostors’ (whether true or not), and might have a false perception that what they already have would never be enough. Challenge their perceptions of themselves -usually they are already doing the work anyway – remind them that they often have the support of their company, and then nominate them! Note that only a current MVP or Microsoft employee can nominate an MVP candidate now, so you (as an MVP) play a critical role in this process.



Want to learn more? Follow them on Twitter!

Jess Dodson: @girlgerms

Kirsty McGrath: @KirstyMcGrath13



#WomenITPros #WomenMVPs

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