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how to take your baby to a design conference

I had the privilege of attending the UX London conference earlier in the month. I was accompanied by my then 5 week old baby. I’ve not taken a baby so young to a conference before, and you don’t tend to see many of them at conferences.  I thought you might be interested in what the experience was like in case you’re considering it for yourself.

When contemplating the event there were a few things I was concerned about:

  1. equipment – what gear to bring and what to leave behind
  2. noise and disruption – how bad would it be, how can I minimise it
  3. effort v return – would the hassle and hard work of taking a baby to a conference allow participation make it worthwhile
  4. is it appropriate to bring your baby to a professional conference?

With the benefit of hindsight, here are my thoughts.

Travel light but invest in the right gear

Having as little gear as possible but the right gear is, I think, key to giving you as much flexibility as you can possibly have with a babe in arms. Personally, I find a buggy to be high risk for hassle – it makes it difficult to do public transport in peak hour (which you’ll no doubt have to do) and it makes getting from place to place, often up and down stairs, more difficult. I used a Moby Wrap sling most of the time I was at UX London and found it fantastic for moving around, for hands-free holding while attending talks (allowing me to tweet through the sessions when my baby slept or was sufficiently settled), and for relatively discreet feeding.

The other essential piece of kit was the Samsonite Pop-Up Travel Bassinette which gave me somewhere to lay him down when he was settled in for a good sleep (and when I wanted to participate in the workshop activities). The bassinette fits in my small backpack and weighs less than a kilo (more than can be said for my MacBook which I had to swap for my husband’s tiny netbook on this occasion!). It was quick and easy to put up and take down and gave us both a bit of a break from each other!

Don’t forget to bring your own decent changing mat – the chances of finding a changing table in the bathrooms at a conference centre are pretty remote so you’ll probably find yourself doing rapid changes in the field (often at the back of conference rooms in my experience!). You can get those great clutch style mats that are sufficiently robust but small –  Isoki is my clutch changing mat of choice.

Minimising noise & disruption

The younger your baby, the more likely they are to sleep all day and make hardly a peep, thus nearly-newborns make ideal conference companions. I tried to sit close to an exit point so I could get out the door really quickly if we were going to be making a disruptive amount of noise, but found that the close cuddly sling meant that he did sleep quite a lot and when he woke, giving him a quick feed (yes, in my seat at the conference, apologies to the squeamish) worked most of the time. We did miss bits and pieces of a few talks throughout the days, but saw the majority of proceedings.

The biggest tip I have is to get to the conference room early to stake out and secure the ideal seat in the house for you (usually closest to the door!) You *really* want to get this seat and, although it’s far from the best vantage point in the house, you’ll be surprised how quickly it seems to get snapped up.

Effort vs Return: was it worth it?

It was really very hard work taking a 5wk old baby to a 3 day conference and, I confess, we did sneak away early on the afternoon of the second day for an afternoon nap. (Having said that, we were at the conference from 9am until 9pm the previous day attending the UX Bookclub in the evening).

Personally, I found that I was able to attend many of the sessions and actually pay attention to most of them, I was able to meet with lots of people who I haven’t seen for a while and to meet some new people as well, and – most importantly – I was able to escape from the relative isolation of maternity leave, to keep in touch, to feel active and engaged in my community and profession, all of which are very rewarding. So, on balance, I did find that it was worth the effort and, if needs be, I’d do it again and encourage others to do likewise.

It’s certainly very different from doing your conference solo, and you’re not allowed in the bar for drinks because you’ve got an underage drinker with you (yes, even at 5wks they’re still apparently worried they might accidently be served alcohol). I think it’s important to keep your expectations pretty low – I was prepared to turn around and head home without seeing a thing if it came to it – then hopefully you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Is it appropriate to bring your baby to a professional conference?

I have to say, this is actually the issue that plagued me most of all. I don’t bring my baby to my meetings, but I do take on work while I’m still at home with him and often do phone conferences with him on my shoulder and many of my clients are aware that my working schedule is sometimes impacted by his sleeping (or not) schedule.

I didn’t experience any negative feedback whilst at the conference or since then, and I had several people approach me to tell me they thought it was great to see a baby at the conference and that they’ll do it themselves or tell someone they know etc. I’m very aware that I’m probably the last person to hear any negative feedback though… so I’m not assuming it didn’t exist.

Ultimately – tiny babies are very portable and very sleepy and much less noisy (mostly) than you’d imagine. They’re also far to young to be separated from their mothers. If said mother particularly wants to attend a conference and has a very small baby, I think there’s no reason why she should feel that it was inappropriate for her to attend. So, it is appropriate and perhaps even necessary. I look forward to helping other mum’s at conferences in the same way that others were able to help me at UX London.

Meanwhile, interested in your thoughts, experiences & tips…

Practical Solutions for the (lack of) Women in Tech issue

Geek Girls

Earlier this week I participated in a panel to discuss the perennial question of ‘why aren’t more women involved in tech and what can we do about it’. It’s always a treacherous discussion to get involved in and if you think you know how it would have played out, you’re probably right, except you probably wouldn’t have expected Milo to have been quite as … let’s go with ‘provocative’ as he was.

It is very difficult to engage with this subject area without offending people, people people feel excluded or defensive – the sad thing is that I don’t think anyone who tries to start these conversations  intends to do any of these things (and many thanks to Mike Butcher for finding a place for this discussion in the GeeknRolla program).

What we want is something practical we can do about it.

There was on this panel, and elsewhere, a lot of talk about improving the ‘image’ of tech so that is is more appealing to women and infiltrating the education system, reaching women whilst they are still young girls and showing that tech can be a cool, sexy, creative and rewarding career. I think this is probably the best longterm strategy we can put in place and I’d love to help get involved in making this happen (ping me if you’ve got something going on already or need help getting something off the ground).

I also think there are a lot of women who ARE women in tech, but who define themselves as marketing people, or managers, or PR people or designers, or researchers who just happen to only ever work in the tech sector. I’m not sure if there is something we need to *do* about this, although I’m starting a personal (informal) research project to better understand why these women exclude themselves from the ‘women in tech’ label. Perhaps it’s the information architect in me, but I have a feeling that a lot of this is taxonomy / labeling related.

All of these are long term and somewhat philosophical. What can we do NOW?

I have TWO suggestions for what you can do RIGHT NOW that I think will start to make an immediate difference.

1. That woman you know who works in tech, who is really smart and talented and should be doing more. Give her a nudge and say ‘you could do that’, ‘you should do that’. Be directly encouraging.

I know we shouldn’t have to do this, but in my experience we do. Many of the smartest women I know do need a little encouragement to be a little bolder in the way that they present their work, whether that’s just writing a blog, getting up and speaking at a conference, or starting their own business. Having someone pick you out and say – yes, sure, you can do it, you should do it, just a tiny bit of encouragement and confidence building can be the spark that sets people on their path.

You may think it is obvious that your woman-friend/colleague has everything it takes to be ridiculously successful, but all too often the response you’ll get would be ‘do you think so? you really think I could do that?’

I don’t know why and for the moment I don’t really care why. Let’s just start giving individual people who we *know* have what it takes a nudge, a little confidence boost and see what happens.

2. Write & speak about women in tech, and do it respectfully and supportively

Aside from cold hard cash there are two other incredibly important currencies when it comes to professional success – respect and visibility. The way you choose to write and speak about women can make a big difference with regards to their access to both respect and visibility.

Let’s take a case study. Here’s an article that impromptu panel participant and journalist Milo Yiannopoulos wrote for the Telegraph covering the panel discussion and his thoughts on it. Let’s ignore his pretty woeful argument that there is no place for this discussion at these conferences and the way that he referred to women as ‘girls’ throughout the piece. Notice the difference in the way he treated contributions to the discussion from Sophie Cox and myself compared to those of Joshua March and Paul Walsh. Sophie and I get first name treatment only and no links (despite both being very easily Googled), Joshua and Paul get full names and at least one link (Paul gets two!).

On the surface, this may appear accidental, lazy, coincidental, but that fact is that even if Milo disagreed with the points that Sophie and I were making in the way he has presented us in this article we are utterly unimportant, except that we provide the foil for his argument. Joshua and Paul on the other hand are obviously important voices because of the way they are treated.

If you *really* want women in tech to be confident and successful in tech, then treat then a really great way to start is to give them respect and visibility and if as a part of your trade you happen to be writing then:

  1. write about them
  2. use their full names (and try to spell them correctly, ahem Guardian)
  3. link to them

Sometimes it’s the little things that really make a big difference.

Now go! Get to it!

Picture: (CC) Benjamin Ellis – benjaminellis.org and nabbed from the UK Techcrunch Post

Ada Lovelace Day – Rachel Dixon

With apparently thousands of others, I recently made the following pledge:

“I will publish a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire but only if 1,000 other people will do the same.”

I’d like to open with a hat-tip to Suw Charman-Anderson for actually doing something about the Women In Technology (or lack there-of) issue. Well done Suw. May we all be as constructive and proactive as you have been with this initiative.

The woman in technology I’d like to pay tribute to today is Rachel Dixon, who I was fortunate enough to work with several years ago, and who today, I consider to be a friend and mentor. It says something about Rachel that the only options I have to link to her are a LinkedIn profile and a holding page for her consulting company. Rachel, you see, is mostly too busy making other people look good (or, more to the point make smart decisions) to have time with self-promotion.

I first met Rachel when she joined the interactive agency I was working at as the Managing Director. Rachel is brings what I think is a truly magical mix of experience and insight to discussion about technology in business or the public sector – she has a strong understanding of technology (current and potential future), respect for and engagement with creativity and design and strong business sensibilities.

After a brief dabble with architecture, much of Rachel’s work was as a Producer in the film industry. In more recent years, many an interactive employee has been given the title ‘producer’ but I think that, particularly from the  business side of things, interactive producers could learn a lot from our film counterparts and the tricky path they walk between the competing demands of the creative genius and the investors.

Rachel has since extended her reach into technology, particularly web based technology and, although she may not be a ‘rock star’ on the interactive scene, her influence extends far beyond the bounds that many of more public players. Rachel is, I think, the only woman I know who declines dinner invitations because she has board meetings to attend. I probably should have interviewed her in advance of writing this post, but off hand I know that she has been a board member of AIMIA (the Australian Interactive Media Industry Association) and Choice (the consumer advocate) for some time – I’m sure there are many others among this. She’s always involved in one committee or another either advising or lobbying the Australian Federal Government to act sensibly with regards to the internet (and goodness knows they need it!). Rachel is acting at a level that many of us only aspire to and others of us know we’ll never quite be up to!

For myself, I have long since abandoned any hope of achieving such a broadranging expertise myself, but it has been inspirational to have been in such close quarters with someone who can really hold their own in each of these three quite different arenas.

It is hard for me to quantify what it is that I have learned from working with and knowing Rachel. In some ways, some of insights she has given me are tiny little, almost-self-obvious nuggets. One that I think about probably at least once a week is to think about the medium I’m using to communicate – don’t default to email. Don’t underestimate the power of the telephone, or better still, meeting in person.

For better or worse, it was through Rachel that I first found myself speaking at a conference – doing an appalling job of trying to squeeze 30 minutes of content into 10 minutes on a panel, but also meeting some incredible people and (obviously) getting a little hooked on the experience.

On the grander scale though, Rachel’s confidence in herself and those around her, and her willingness to engage in such a comprehensive way with the challenges she takes on for herself, and perhaps even her inability to say ‘no’, has been and continues to be an inspiration. So, from me and from the others that I know you’ve similarly touched, thank you! I sincerely hope we have the opportunity to work together again in the future.

ALSO: if I were going to

What are you doing about diversity?

The old debate about the lack of women on the speakers rosters at conferences is doing the rounds again. Jeremy Keith has a good round up if you’ve managed to miss it.

For me, I’m going to think local for now. I’m going to put my hand up, I’m going to say yes when asked, I’m going to try to do a good job, and I’m going to keep looking for other great chick talent and to do what I can to make people who make the decisions know about the talent that’s out there.

What are you going to do?

(If you’re in London, you can come along and be a friendly and supportive audience member at the NMK Event ‘Usability: Whose problem is it anyway’ on Monday night (26/2) and witness my local action for diversity in action!).

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