From Shadows to Limelight: How Women Found Their Voice At WordCamp Montreal

At WordCamp US a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to share the story of what the Montreal WordPress community has done to get to more women speaking at our WordCamp. Thanks to some speedy work by the video team, the talk is already online, along with many other talks you might want to check out – and more still to come.

I’d like to extend a special thanks to photographers Elida Arrizza, Jeremy Clarke, Kirk Wight, and Eva Blue, who’ve documented our WordCamps so well over the years. Your images were a treasure trove and helped to bring the talk alive.

The slides for this talk can also be viewed separately.


Welcome! I’m Kathryn Presner, and I’m from Montreal, in the province of Quebec, Canada. That’s about 450 miles directly north of here [Philadelphia].

It begins

The first WordCamp Montreal was held back in 2009. It was a two-day, two-track event – pretty ambitious for a first-time event. Talks were mostly in English, a couple in French.

Two women gave solo talks and two women co-presented with men.

And if you’ll notice here on the schedule, two of the women’s talks were scheduled at the same time.

It was a really good inaugural WordCamp in many ways, but something that bugged a lot of people was the real gender imbalance, and even the fact that you couldn’t even see all four women speak, because of the way things were scheduled.

As a community, we went on a journey to change things.

Our transformation was slow and steady, and happened over the course of years. It wasn’t easy, and it took persistence and hard work by a lot of people. So I want to clarify that when I say “we” and “our,” I’m referring to the whole community in Montreal, both official organizers and supporters. And when I say “women” I’m referring to anyone who identifies as a woman or non-binary.

Earlier this year, Rachel McCollin said:

If a WordCamp has a healthy proportion of women speaking at it, then that will tell the women attending that this is a community they can feel part of, and that they too can aspire to speak at WordCamps and WordPress meetups and pass on their knowledge.

My hope is that you’ll find some things from our journey in Montreal that you can bring back and try in your own WordCamp community.

2010: The Shannon factor

In our second year, Shannon Smith stepped in as the first woman co-organizer, alongside founding organizer Jeremy Clarke and new organizer Brendan Sera-Shreir.

And here they are after a very successful WordCamp weekend. Do you notice anything?

Shannon had two of her four kids during her seven-year tenure as a WordCamp organizer.

That second year we again had just four women speakers — this time, two of them were Shannon and me. We’d attended and met at last year’s WordCamp and decided that WordCamp needed a good overview talk for beginners, so we created one. This time we also didn’t put any of the women speakers up against each other in any of the same time slots.

As a bilingual city, we also wanted to see more talks in French. This year there were a couple more talks in French, and even one in Franglais, a pretty uniquely Montreal combination of English and French.

Looking back, 2010 was also a very blue year, do you notice? I don’t know how that happened…

2011: Where are the women?

2011 was our third year, we’re moving along now, and we had some more solo talks by women and a couple more joint talks as well. Our percentage of women speakers went up to 28%.

That year we tried something different. Shannon had an idea to have an informal discussion to brainstorm why there were so few women making their voice heard in the WordPress world at the time.

We called it: Where are the women? or Où sont les femmes  — we did it bilingual-style.

The room was pretty packed and there were tons of ideas flying. People of all ages shared personal stories. We brainstormed what the problems were and possible solutions. Men asked how they could help. It was pretty inspiring.

I used a wacky mind-mapping tool to try to capture the gist of the discussion, and looking back, it’s kind of hard to look at, I’m not quite sure how well it worked out. But looking back, it did bring back some of the salient points and reminded me what we talked about.

One of the things that really struck me was looking at this little cluster about how to get more women speakers. Things that came up a lot were feeling like an imposter, as being the reason why women didn’t want to present, feeling like a fraud, being worried about expressing strong opinions.

2012: Front and centre

We tried a few new things. We wanted to make a conscious effort to put women’s images right on the website as speakers, to make us like we belong, and that we’re welcome, and have a place there as speakers.

This is Roseanne Harvey in the header of the website itself — she’d given a talk the year before.

We even used the same image on our little badges that we gave to speakers, attendees, and volunteers.

Our proportion of women speakers jumped by 10% that year to 38%.

Here’s something Aaron Jorbin said:

It also is about inspiring. When you look at a career path and see only people that look different than you, it becomes a lot easier to drop out and say it’s not for you. [W]hen you look at the breakdown of speakers and don’t see anyone like yourself, you question if you even want to buy a ticket to attend.

2013: Nudging

In 2013, another woman joined the organizing team – this is Alex.

And something else happened — we went from two tracks to three, so now we had even more speakers to find!

Shannon started doing something. We have a very active Facebook group in our community, and she started putting little reminders, saying how many people had submitted so far, how many women, and do you know anyone who might be able to submit a talk. And this started to show the community that this is something we care about. Maybe it prompted someone to consider submitting, who might not have considered it.

I also made a habit to get up and pitch our local community at other events for women in tech that I would go to. We have a pretty active community for women in tech in Montreal, and I would always get up if there was an opportunity for announcements, and invite people to submit a talk to our local meetup group, or if the time of year was right, to submit a talk to WordCamp itself.

I’d also keep an eye out whenever I went to WordCamps in nearby communities — for example, in Ottawa or Toronto. If I’d see a really great woman speak, I’d invite her to submit a talk to Montreal.

We did something else in 2013 — we ran a troubleshooting workshop for women. And Shannon led another Women and WordPress discussion session.

2014: Flatter-nagging

We have about one community meetup a month, and we started doing some more participatory-style meetups. Things like a plugin slam, where anybody could get up and talk about their favourite plugin. Or we’d share tips on things you wish you’d known when you first started using WordPress. Or we had a panel on the business of WordPress. This would let people get a little taste of what it’s like to get up and share something in front of a group, without having to commit to a whole talk.

Something else really key for me also happened in 2014, and these are some pictures from it. The Vancouver WordPress community was facing a situation where almost no women were submitting talks to their WordCamp. And they decided to so something about it, something extremely concrete. They ran a public-speaking workshop for women. It was a half a day, and they did things like look at how to brainstorm and narrow down talk ideas, how to write pitches, how to structure a talk — things that beginners can find very challenging.

I was extremely inspired reading about this. I thought it was an amazing idea, and I thought it was something I’d like to try. I asked two of my colleagues, Tammie Lister & Cat Rymer at Automattic, if they’d be interested in developing a workshop similar to this for our colleagues within Automattic. And they said yes. And we ran bunch of those within the company through videoconferencing, since we’re distributed. And then Tammie & I took this on the road, and continued to give the workshop in other WordPress communities, local workshops, and AdaCamp, and Montreal Girl Geeks.

Along with the things they’d covered in Vancouver, we looked at things like how to handle stage fright, how to avoid common beginner speaker mistakes, and how to handle post-talk questions and answers, something that beginners can get very nervous about.

We also created a companion site called Get Speaking, full of resources for beginners.

We continued — mostly Shannon continued — tweeting and Facebooking our submission stats, so, how many talks in French, how many in English, how many talks by women. And this started to get the community talking. Here you see in French, Elise Desaulniers, saying that her and Kaylynne were going to help each other with their pitches, and if anyone else needed help, to get in touch. As a side note, Elise is speaking here at WCUS this year.

This started to nurture a really supportive environment in our community, rather than a competitive, individualistic one.

I continued to do something a little bit more strategically that I had started to do, and that was to make a list of all the women I thought would be great speakers for our Montreal WordCamp, and invite them individually to submit, and ask if I could do anything — if I could look over their pitch, or anything at all. And a friend who I’d been doing this with for a couple of years gave it a name. She said, “Kathryn, you’re so great at flatter-nagging!” I said, “Flatter-nagging, that is amazing!” She said, “Yeah, you’re asking me to do something, but you’re also complimenting me at the same time, so I want to do it!” So I wrote up a blog post about this technique to share it with others, because it was very effective.

2015: Turning point

A 2015, a third woman joined the organizing team — this is Veronica.

We also put up a diversity statement on our WordCamp website to show the community that diversity in all forms is very important to us. This is alongside our existing Code of Conduct.

We continued with the Facebook nudges.

We started to get some really good results. Belinda Darcey, who’d done my beginner workshop the previous year, gave her first solo talk and did an amazing job.

We reached a milestone this year, 2015: 51% women speakers.

This is something Shannon said, from the perspective of an organizer:

[T]ransparency helps let people know that you have [diversity] on your own radar. Publishing your participation stats is really useful. We let people know how many women speakers we have, how many apply, how many attend, and we talk about how we want more. It does help. And we talk about wanting to be diverse in other ways too, and that also encourages people to participate.

2016: Passing it on

We lost our organizer Veronica to the charms of Berlin (we miss her!) but invited Andrea Zoellner to replace her on the organizing team.

And if you remember this person from the top left, this is Elida Arrizza. And she had been a photographer at WordCamp, and a speaker. And last year, she ran a great beginner workshop the week before WordCamp, because we do a series of workshops. And we asked her if she’d like to do it again this year. And she declined — but said, “I’m going to get a new speaker to do the workshop. And indeed she did. She got Alice Phieu to do the beginner workshop, who did an amazing job.

And Elida really took this flatter-nagging to the next level. She started really mentoring new speakers. This is Lara Binamé — Elida helped her with her pitch, helped structure the talk, rehearsed with her, and Jes Nudo as well. And they both gave their first solo talks this year.

And if you remember Belinda, who’d given her first talk the previous year? This year she took it to the next level as well, by organizing a panel on the business of WordPress, and invited three other entrepreneurs to be with her. So you could say went from being flatter-nagged herself to flatter-nagging her own panel.

I continued my flatter-nagging — even people who’d turned me down before, I would come back and ask them if maybe the schedule would work out this year. And we got Linn Øyen Farley and Dara Skolnick from Toronto. And Michal Bluma in our local Montreal community got Shelly Peacock, who is here in the audience, and Jamie Schmid to come up from the US.

And remember those speaker workshops? Speaker training is now part of the official training materals, so it’s available to anyone. Some of our workshop material is incorporated in there, along with material developed by the team in Vancouver. So anyone can now give a beginner public-speaking workshop in your own community.

Where are we now?

This is a pretty cool graph showing how we got from 20% women speakers in 2009 to 50%. And it also correlates it with the percentage of women organizers, and the number of women’s T-shirts ordered.

This was Shannon’s last year as organizer, she retired after serving the community for so many years.

We realize we still have more work to do. We need to develop diversity in other areas besides gender. We need to keep working on this.

I hope you’ve gotten some ideas of things you might try in your communities, and also maybe you’ve thought of things you have been doing in your communities that have been successful, that you’d like to pass on. I’d love to hear about them.

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