A friendly fellow named John Parkinson got in touch a few weeks back about doing an interview for his community series on WordPress.tv. Of course, I said yes! We chatted about everything from how I got hooked on WordPress forum support, to my experiences mentoring with Ladies Learning Code, to how Montreal Girl Geeks ditched the “dinner” part of the “Girl Geek Dinners” equation.
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].
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.
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.
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 WordPress.org 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.
If you’ve ever wanted to know more about what it’s like to work at Automattic or are curious about the role of a Happiness Engineer, check out this short video for a peek at what my workday is like. And if you’re a feline fan, watch for a brief cameo by my most camera-friendly cat, Finnegan.
I was honoured to be part of this Career Spotlights series for YES Montreal, an organization that provides resources and encouragement to English-speaking Montrealers looking to build a career in this city.
Every year at the Automattic all-company Grand Meetup, we each have to give a short presentation in front of our colleagues. This “flash talk” can be about anything at all – and it can be in any format we like, whether a more traditional talk with slides, a song, video, or interpretive dance: pretty much anything goes.
This year was my fourth Grand Meetup flash talk, and I decided I was finally ready to do something more personal. My past flash talks had been about growing garlic, the peculiarities of Quebec English, and foods from Quebec that everyone should try at least once… but this time would be different — it would be a story about me, my dad, and our hair.
I hope you like it.
Last year, my flash talk was on growing garlic. This year, I’m going to talk about growing hair.
Even before my birth, the subject of hair in my family was fraught with anxiety. You see, my dad Bob had an autoimmune condition called alopecia areata. By age six he’d already lost much of his hair.
He wore a hat constantly from 6 to 13 so the other kids wouldn’t bully him. They bullied him anyway; they knew what the hat must be hiding.
By 14 he began wearing a wig.
A pretty bad wig.
What had started out as alopecia areata was becoming alopecia universalis – as in hair loss everywhere. Eyebrows, eyelashes, leg hair, my dad was losing it all.
By his early twenties when he married my mom Ellie, he’d ditched the wig, and was attempting to pencil in the missing patches on his head instead.
Doctors didn’t know very much about alopecia back then – they don’t know much more today – but they thought there MIGHT be a genetic component, so my parents were understandably concerned this condition might be passed on to their kids.
So when their firstborn – me – came out with a small little head of dark hair, my folks were pretty relieved that I appeared to take after my mother in the hair department.
Still, my parents held their breath a bit as I grew older. Watching. Waiting.
The hair grew. And grew.
My dad stopped penciling in his head every day and eventually shaved off the last stubborn locks. They never grew back.
By the time I got to elementary school, it was clear that my thick, curly, unruly, hair was here to stay. My parents were very happy.
Ironically, I decided around that point I hated my frizz and wished I could just have straight hair, like the rest of my friends. My mom would blow-dry it for me in a vain attempt to turn tight curls into the straight hair I’d never have.
After certain really terrible haircuts – by hairdressers who hadn’t the faintest idea how to cut curly hair – I would go home feeling like I looked like Little Orphan Annie – but with MUCH less optimism.
After one particularly horrific haircut I professed to my mother quite earnestly that I needed to become a nun so I could hide my hair every day. Never mind that we were Jewish, that was just a detail. The Catholics needed nuns, surely something could be worked out.
When I got into acting, my hair took on a leading role.
Hair got big.
Hair got short.
I went through my own hat phase.
My yearbook photo was a big disappointment. I detested it so much I covered it up with a retake. This time, with a hat.
I went prematurely grey the summer I was 17. But it was just for a play.
As I got older, I gradually began to hate my hair less and less. Adolescent angst turned to adult apathy. It just didn’t matter so much anymore.
After meeting a cartoonist named Shane, he took a stab at drawing me. My hair had made an impact. You can see how he was trying to get it just right.
Five years later when we got married… he made this for our wedding cake
These days, my dad & I are both pretty accepting of our heads and our hair.
As I get older, grey hairs have come along. Real ones this time. I used to pull them out as they appeared, but in the wise words of a former hairdresser, “That’s probably not a good coping strategy.”
Will I dye my hair? Time will tell.
A few years back, a relative shared this picture of my great-grandmother Rose. I wouldn’t mind rocking the grey frizzy look as well as her someday.
It’s a much more personal talk than I’m used to giving and it made me pretty nervous to give it, but I’m happy that it seemed to resonate with some people.
You can also watch the original over at WordPress.tv, along with dozens of other talks from WordCamp US, with more still to come.
First, a story
Let’s start with a story my mother told me.
There was a website she wanted to show her co-worker – who I’ll call Barbara – so my mom gave her the URL. After a few minutes at her computer, Barbara became incredibly frustrated and said, “I can’t find the site!”
My mom went over to Barbara’s desk to see what was happening, and quickly realized that her colleague had put the domain into Google’s search box instead of the browser’s address bar. My mother couldn’t believe it, and patiently showed a wide-eyed Barbara how to get to the site directly.
Now, there’s something else you should know. This didn’t happen many years ago in the early days of the web when people were just getting used to browsers, it happened earlier this year. My mother is 70 years old, while Barbara is decades younger.
It’s so easy to assume that everyone knows how to put a URL in a browser’s address bar. Sometimes it takes this kind of story to remind us that not everyone does.
Don’t assume everyone knows what you do, even if it’s something you consider extremely basic or obvious.
We’re all wrapped up in our own little bubble of knowledge. It’s so easy to forget that not everyone knows what we know.
Do I know enough?
It’s something I’ve asked myself many times after getting involved with web design and WordPress, and maybe you’ve asked yourself the same question.
When referring to myself over the years, I’ve always adamantly declared that despite whatever skills I might have, “I’m not a techie.”
I didn’t study computer science and I’m not what I’d call a “hard-core programmer.”
And yet some might point out the obvious. I’ve been sharing WordPress knowledge in forums and at conferences since soon after I started using it. My family and friends come to me for tech support of all kinds. I spent over a decade building custom websites for clients. I now help folks with technical issues all day, every day, and even get paid to do it. I solve people’s WordPress problems, quash quandaries, clarify conundrums.
Expert, guru, unicorn
Even so, I still wouldn’t dream of referring to myself as an expert, guru, or unicorn.
(And let’s not even talk about “rock star”)
Whenever good things have happened to me in my WordPress life, I made up explanations for them that didn’t involve my skills, experience, or knowledge.
Got accepted to speak at my first WordCamp! Ah, they just needed more women.
Helped someone at a WordCamp Happiness Bar? Their question was easy. Anyone could have answered it.
Asked to speak at WordCamp San Francisco? Well, that was only because someone else dropped out at the last minute. It had nothing to do with me.
Got hired by Automattic — to do, uh, tech support? Ha, I must have fooled them really well. Uh oh, wait til they find out I’m a fraud.
Does any of this sound familiar to anyone? Does it sound ridiculous?
Here’s an actual dream I had shortly after landing my job at Automattic, where I would be working alongside people I admired greatly.
Actually, a nightmare
My new boss, some guy you might have heard of called Matt Mullenweg, looked at the code for a website I’d built, decided I didn’t know what I was doing — and rescinded my offer to join Automattic, before I’d even started. I was going to have to tell all my friends and family that I didn’t actually have my dream job, after all. How embarrassing.
Subtle, huh? Interesting what comes out through our subconscious in dreams.
A combination of low self-esteem, imposter syndrome, and, let’s face it, a severe case of Canadianitis — has prevented me until very recently from truly believing that I may actually know a few things. Some stuff that might benefit others.
But how did I start to overcome this, and how can you do the same?
Start small, like I did.
Pass it on
What’s one little thing you know how to do?
Know how to change the colour of a site title with CSS? How to set a scheduled post?
Help someone do it in one of the WordPress support forums.
Is someone in your local meetup group asking for plugin ideas for their project? Suggest your favourite and tell them why you love it.
Did you just learn how to do something cool with WordPress? Write a blog post and show others how to do it.
Before you know it, you’ll start to get more confident.
Help a friend or family member set up a WordPress site.
Volunteer at a WordCamp Happiness Bar. There’s nothing quite like seeing people’s faces light up in person when you’ve just solved a problem they’ve been struggling with – sometimes for months.
Then suddenly, after a short while, you might start to find that helping people with WordPress is addictive. In a good way.
You’ll probably starting getting some thank-yous from people you’ve helped.
Hugs and kudos
At Automattic when WordPress users thank a Happiness Engineer for something we helped them with, we call those “hugs” and we share them with each other. Save your hugs. Show them to someone.
Has someone helped or inspired you? Send them a hug, privately if you like but especially in public. Send them a tweet, leave a comment on their blog. Lift up someone else and make their day.
We have an system at Automattic called kudos, which lets us send a short written message to a colleague we want to recognize for something they did to help us out, a job well done on a project, or anything else we want to call attention to. Kudos are visible to anyone within the company and I go back and re-read mine every once in a while, whenever I could use a warm fuzzy or two.
Dwell on praise
Dwell on your praise. Revel in your successes, small or big. Save it all up and look at it when your brain starts to have doubts again. You deserve it. Just think, if you’re afflicted with imposter syndrome there’s zero risk of your head getting too big. At some point along the way, I stopped saying “I’m not a techie.”
The techie continuum
The way I see it now, everyone can be found somewhere along the techie continuum, and perhaps, just maybe, I’m somewhere toward the higher end of it.
No matter where you are on the techie continuum, chances are you know a bit more about something than someone else. Don’t be afraid to share your knowledge with them. It feels good. It’s giving back. And maybe some day you’ll even start to feel like you know a few things.
If you have a WordPress site you’d like to tweak the look and feel of — but you aren’t sure how — you might like to check out my CSS Adventure presentation from this year’s WordCamp Montreal. During the 40-minute session, I walk you through the basics of using CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) to make small changes in the design of a site. Follow along with the accompanying workshop site and demo site.
Very special thanks to my colleague Michelle Langston, who originally co-developed this workshop with me.
When I get excited about something to do with WordPress, my usual inclination is to create a presentation to share my enthusiasm with others. That’s what I did for child theming, a handy way of making changes to a pre-made theme for a self-hosted WordPress site – without losing all your tweaks the next time you update the theme to its latest version.
I’ve presented this talk at a couple of WordCamps, and the video from last year’s event in Montreal is now online. Curious about child themes? Check out the talk – about 35 minutes including audience questions – and slides below.