Stepping Up

By Steph Hay

When I started co-organizing the DC Lean Startup Circle, I made a commitment to involve more women in the group — because I usually was only one of a few ladies in a room of a hundred dudes.

Now we routinely see 20 to 30 ladies at each of our monthly meet-ups — which is awesome.

But getting women to speak is like pulling teeth — and this was a huge eye-opener to me. Because never has a man rejected a speaking invitation I’ve sent; and many hunt me down for a chance to speak, too.

Ladies, on the other hand, have given me these reasons:

  • “I’m not ready.”
  • “I prefer to keep my company details private.”
  • “I don’t know who gave you my name, but I’m not a public speaker.”
  • “Thanks, but I’m not interested.”

I’m not judging women who choose not to speak; their reasons are just as valid as any.

What I’m perplexed by is that in January, when we — two women who co-organize a tech meetup — failed to secure a woman speaker, another woman attendee publicly complained. But didn’t offer herself, or any other woman, as an option for a future meetup.

What gives? We’re busting our lady-tails to find ladies, pep them up enough to speak publicly, and keep doing it every single month, even when it feels like we can’t win.


Fortunately, Ladies in Tech and other encourage-women-to-come-out-of-the-woodwork resources WILL help. So can I, although it’s not instantaneous as I might like, by refusing to believe my event-planning experiences are a trend rather than the growing pains of trying to fold more women into the conversation.

For example, I once persuaded the co-founder of a local accelerator, who always told me her partner “does all the speaking” for her organization, to speak at a startup launch party. Afterward, she admitted, “Whew, I didn’t die.”


Steph presenting her first talk at Refresh DC.
Photo credit: Nick Whitmoyer

Of course, not every experience is victorious. I’ve told jokes that don’t work and fumbled my words plenty. And I also have been rejected by (here we go) An Event Apart, FOWD, UX London, dConstruct, Inspire Conf, Reasons to Be Creative, Industry Conf, and MANY more.

But I can learn from these. Organizers like Jeffrey Zeldman and Jeremy Keith took the time to review what I proposed talking about and gave me solid feedback I could act upon. They even thanked me for speaking up and they kept the door open, too.

Having someone open a door is so important. Choosing to help other women build their voices by supporting them honestly — rather than complaining like a big jerk — is also huge.

Fortunately, getting more active doesn’t have to be scary:

  • Local Refresh groups, as Val noted last week, are perfect places to start. That’s where I started, and the people listening couldn’t have been more supportive. It was the confidence boost I needed to know that I wasn’t a giant tool.
    • Contact Refresh organizers through Meetup; these people (if they’re not assheads, and I’m guessing they’re not since they run a Refresh) will work with you to help you find and refine a topic.
    • Local niche-topic groups also are gold. Content Strategy, UX, mobile, or women-in-tech groups are on Meetup, too. Find yours — or start one.
    • If you don’t yet have a specialization, create your own meetup of “People who like cool shit.” That’s what I did with, and it’s been massively great.
  • Contact a speech coach like Jill Foster (of Women Grow Business and LiveYourTalk). Do an hour or two with her — even without a talk yet planned. She helped me immensely nearly three years ago when I started public speaking.
  • Submit articles to A List Apart or Web Standards Sherpa or Ladies in Tech. These publications will provide you feedback on your writing and even publish your sweet ideas. When you know that people want to hear what you have to say, it can be a huge boost to start shopping it around as a talk.

But ultimately, this all relies on a willingness to put yourself out there because you know that you’re a super-smart woman who has things to say.

And I’m at least one woman on this Earth who’ll stand behind you, cheering.

10 thoughts on “Stepping Up

  1. Van

    So, I’m not a woman, but I am sensitive to this lack of participation from women in the tech industry.

    My mom earned her masters and stalled while getting her doctorate—or is she still writing it, not sure. But I grew up with good ol’ mom always speaking at her industry events and always leading teams. For right or wrong. I think she pleaded with NY City’s Mayor Kotch and company not remove phone booths at one point. Her argument was that they could be used in the future to do full body walk-in self MRIs and such. Pretty nuts, pretty out-there, but she said it, in front of many rich dudes in ties.

    So when I hear that there are smart women in the field who would rather remain silent..I’m confused. But maybe I can help by sharing some of my experiences.
    As an adjunct instructor for almost four years, and a professional designer for almost 20 I can confidently say that the presence, participation and hard work of women in the classroom and in the office have been key, if not pivotal to excellent ideas and work being generated.
    But I don’t give the ladies all the credit. I am careful to write “..presence, participation and hard work..” Meaning that what I believe, what I have seen, is that when women inject themselves into the mix the quality of ideas and of what is produced is generally on the whole superior. I have been in meetings with men, only men, and we’ve seem to have stalled, when all of a sudden a female voice comes by to shake up the thinking and helps the problem solving or idea creation greatly.
    The point I’d like to make is that: It’s all about balance, and any industry that is out of balance is frankly under performing.

    1. Steph

      @Van — Your mom sounds awesome. And I appreciate you sharing what you’ve experienced as an instructor; more men (like you) encouraging women to speak up in institutional settings is only going to help!

  2. Jill Foster

    Steph – Thanks for your candor here on this issue (and the great shout-out, I’m grateful). Another thought to add to the reasoning you’ve heard, on why women resist speaking, is perfectionism. Specifically, many women have shared a perfectionist view toward their expertise i.e. they believe they don’t know enough or don’t have enough experience on which to draw. It’s like they view their expertise in all or nothing terms: either they know “everything” or then they assume they know “nothing.” This is mightily unfair, right?! It would be fantastic if potential women speakers would iterate their confidence like they iterate their businesses — isolate what they can teach, and then assert it with a few audiences. If one topic or approach doesn’t work, re-think then re-do….one audience at a time. I admit, this self-awareness piece can be muddled and complex. But achieving that type of clarity and willingness to assert are the game changers in, I believe, getting to the more involved participation which you crave as a Lean Startup organizer. Thanks again for saying what you did.

    1. Steph

      @Jill — So true. I just recently discounted myself during an event; I thought I didn’t have enough of “what the other people had” to be valuable. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Ana

    I never spoke before at events till about 2 years ago. I do now. For me, it started with teaching. I am very interested in learning. I find the best way for me to learn new things is to explain them to someone else. Also, makes me very proud to see someone learn and progress. Working in corporations, where questioning things is not encouraged, I had suppressed my interest in teaching for a long time. An email request to teach to the coordinator for java programs at UW got me started in teaching some basic java courses. I needed a lot of help in the beginning (still do). Fortunately, University classes have a really good system of anonymous feedback to instructors. It helps me improve. Had to learn to slow down. I teach an android course too now. It’s all very new, and I don’t always have the answer to student’s questions. When that happens, I ask the class if they know. I ask them what their educated guess would be. And, then, we research it later. Thinking of it as part of my learning too helps me get up there and talk.

    The University teaching gave me the practice to start talking at other meetings – user groups. Those are actually a lot easier to present to. I am just facilitating a discussion there, with a few diagrams or bits of code to get it going. There are usually enough people in the audience with knowledge that I can always ask if I don’t have an answer. I usually end up learning how to improve my code or product by presenting at user groups.

    1. Steph

      Thanks for sharing, Ana. This is exactly the kind of “how I got started” story that LadiesInTech is all about! And you’re exactly right — the flipside of speaking is what you LEARN from the audience/attendees and from the experience itself. I bet that could be an entire post (or series) in and of itself.

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