Some conference organisers will say "we didn't get any submissions from women" to explain the lack of women on their stages. As of two years ago, the Ohio LinuxFest was in that category. With a little outreach effort, and embracing diversity as a core value, the Ohio LinuxFest has successfully recruited more women to share their experience at OLF.
How'd we do? While last year only five of the speakers at Ohio LinuxFest were women, out of a total of 31, this year 14 of the 38 speakers are women. That's a third of the conference speaking slots! One of the two keynoters is a woman. There were 107 talk proposals for the 27 general speaking slots. Before anyone tries to suggest that we simply took them all, it should be noted that a full 48% of the proposals for talks categorised as not assuming high levels of prior knowledge (making them suitable for the most attendees) were from women.
We believe that much of this success is attributed to community outreach. This year, we contacted Ubuntu Women, Debian Women, LinuxChix, DevChix, and the FSF's Women's Caucus mailing list about the call for presentations, and did it have an effect!
Recognising the various concerns women speakers can face, we tried to specifically address potential issues in the email sent to women-focused mailing lists. Some of these known issues include lack of confidence in new speakers, not being clear what the intended audience is, or the "imposter syndrome," where someone doesn't recognize that they are qualified to speak on a topic. The woman to woman dialog made the difference.
We wanted to make sure people weren't refraining from submitting because they lack confidence in their technical abilities (an excuse we'd heard before), so we explained the attendees' demographics, hoping to get more proposals that would fill the gap we had for user-aimed talks. Ohio LinuxFest has everything from home desktop users who started using Ubuntu a week ago (or even that day!) to seasoned system administrators who love Slackware, Gentoo, or NetBSD. Nevertheless, beginner proposals have tended toward introduction to development topics, not leaving enough for people who want to be users, not developers. We also made sure to mention that it's a great crowd who is very welcoming of first-time speakers.
Women are involved with more than just speaking at the Ohio LinuxFest. Beth Lynn Eicher has been actively involved as a director for 6 years now, and the current staff, all volunteers, is about 35% female.
The Ohio LinuxFest takes pains to create a weekend conference friendly to all people, not just women. The diversity statement includes gender, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, and even operating system -- folks who don't use Linux are just as welcome as those who love it. There are regularly talks about or including BSDs, interoperability in heterogeneous environments, and cross platform free software.
Additionally, all speakers are instructed to keep the content of their presentations clean. The Ohio LinuxFest bills itself as a family friendly conference and aims to keep it that way. As an effort to make a positive effect with the community at large, the Ohio LinuxFest will host the second annual Diveristy in Open Source Workshop on September 12, 2010.
Looking at the growing trend of more female influence on the OhioLinuxFest we'd like to see it be the leader for more women to attend and become more involved with other free software interests.
For those interested in pretty graphs, I've been graphing women speaker proportions at various LinuxFests on the GeekFeminism Wiki.