Why women don’t speak at conferences
Why women don’t speak at conferences
It takes balls to speak at industry conferences, but you don’t need balls to do so.
Apart from that being the cheekiest intro I’ve ever written on my blog, it’s true.
Where are all the women speakers at industry conferences? This question is gathering pace after the recent Online Influence Conference in Cardiff, Wales.
IBM’s Andrew Grill gave up his panel seat to a woman in the audience who asked where all the female speakers were.
This isn’t a new problem – there’s even a Tumblr called Congrats you have an all-male panel.
It’s rife across all industries, not just Comms, PR and Tech. Why is this?
Following the conference Miranda, who is a social media trainer and consultant, published a post on LinkedIn called Why you should find female speakers for your panel.
She says: “I was the woman. Now I certainly don’t think the organisers went about thinking ‘Let’s have an all male panel because women clearly can’t tech’. What I do think is that a lot of people in the room were disappointed that there wasn’t much diversity in the panel.
“Diversity creates debate, it educates by sharing different viewpoints, it’s profitable, it’s great for business and it makes the audience feel more thoroughly represented and connected. Andrew made a statement by asking me up on stage – I wasn’t the most qualified just because I asked the question – this doesn’t take away from the fact that there were plenty of more than qualified women in the room.”
— Miranda Bishop (@Miranda_Bishop) May 7, 2015
Mind the gap
What’s going on? Why don’t women speak at conferences or feature in panels? Is it because we’re not asked by organisers or because we don’t put ourselves forward?
I think it’s a combination of both. I remember feeling inspired watching women speak at comms conferences back in 2006/7 and thinking “I’d like to do that.”
Opportunities presented themselves and I accepted them, and have been speaking at various Comms and PR conferences since 2010. And I love doing so.
Could I improve? Definitely. I strive to be better every time I present and constantly seek feedback and advice. I consider each speaking opportunity carefully.
But there is definitely a gap, I’ve been the only female on a panel a number of times.
There were two male speakers and I joined them because she asked me to, and I agreed as I have huge respect for her.
We were talking about social commerce. Despite that not being my area of expertise, I knew I had insights I could bring to the discussion. I trust Katy, so decided to join the conversation, and am glad I did as I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Writing in Stephen Waddington’s @wadds, recent article on improving equality in professional life, Katy says:
“The answer it seems is a matter of confidence. The Internet and technology industry is a harsh place. Say something wrong, fumble your lines or just find yourself unable to answer a questions and a legacy of blogs, Tweets and posts will let the world know of your mistakes.
“Women, especially slightly older and more senior women do not want to put themselves at risk. They are just too scared. I know how scary this is having had Tweets commenting on my appearance at a speaking event, for instance. It is hard to be brave in an industry that is dominated by men and is alpha and brutal in its communications.
“It’s a vicious circle. With so few that are prepared to be brave, there are no role models. And with no role models, we encourage few women to join in.
I spend time coaching other women, helping them build confidence and be brave. I also am rather noisy about insisting conference organisers ask more women.
“But it is more than just being invited to speak. I have found myself and other women often side-lined on panels, talked over or interrupted, not a pleasant experience.
“Organisers need to change the way events are managed. Make them less adversarial and create a safe environment to collaborate and discuss. The same often applies to blogging or other forms of self-publicity. It is tough to push yourself.”
Can you see why I rate Katy? Inspiring stuff. We were on the panel together at Facebook in 2012 and she was incredibly encouraging in enabling me to have the confidence to get up there and speak. Thank you Katy.
What I think
Over the years I’ve spoken at Google’s Atmosphere London event, at Facebook during Social Media Week 2012, in front of 200 Government communicators, and in Rome to launch their version of Engage for Success.
I particularly like watching the reactions of people who are listening and seeing them having “aha” moments, when something I say resonates with them.
But it does take balls. Standing at the side of a stage waiting to go and speak in front of hundreds of comms pros can be daunting.
From wondering if your microphone is switched on, to concerns about heckles or complicated questions, there are multiple reasons to stop you standing there in the first place.
But if it’s something you would like to do, whatever your gender, I encourage you to do so.
There are various ways you can practice and opportunities to speak. I’ve included info about 300 Seconds and Ignite below, which are just two options to try.
If speaking isn’t for you, why not consider asking a question during a conference?
Have you noticed this gap or do you think there’s a balance?
Why you should find female speakers for your panel
I asked Miranda today why she thinks there is a lack of women speakers at events.
She told me: “Aside from the larger cultural problems of how women are perceived differently to men, because there are more men seen at conferences I think sometimes women don’t see themselves as potential participants because it’s not something that is in their frame of reference.
“So the problem is more than under-confidence in putting yourself forward. It’s that if you can’t see someone you identify with in a role that you could be aiming for, you might never even think of aiming for it.
“For example, when I was graduating, I never even thought of running my own business. It didn’t even enter my head. It wasn’t until I was in an environment where I was surrounded by start-ups founded by people (and women) who were just like me, that I thought ‘You know what, I could do this!’
“So women and conference organisers alike need to identify that by bringing more women forward, they’ll be ensuring more women aim higher in the future.”
I think Miranda is right and I agree with her points here. It was seeing women on stage presenting that made me consider doing the same.
She has published the diagram above showing how the lack of role models will lead to a cycle that won’t be broken. Do you agree with it?
Why is there a gap?
Sarah Hall, @Hallmeister, MD of Sarah Hall Consulting told me today: “There is a dearth of women speakers. They are out there, but when a female keynote is required, for some reason the usual suspects are rolled out time and time again. All too often there are male only panels. Astonishing in this day and age.
We all have a responsibility to create change. (Tweet this)
“Conference speakers need to look more widely – including to the regions – and we as women need to put ourselves forward more. How many of us who would be prepared to speak actually have that within their bio. I’m prepared to bet not many.”
How you can get involved
I publish a calendar of comms events and update it every week. If you would like to speak at events, why not take a look and rather than wait to be asked, put yourself forward – whether you’re male or female.Let’s hear new voices and create fresh opportunities.
Miranda has advised me of Ignite events. They’re short talks that take place in over 100 cities worldwide, including Cardiff at www.ignite.wales. She says they “have a perfect gender balance of speakers, plus a warm and welcoming crowd.”
If you were approached today and asked to speak at a conference full of comms professionals, what would your answer be?
What are your views on this whole topic? You’re welcome to comment below or Tweet me @AllthingsIC
- Miranda Bishop: Women who I consider role models: http://mirandabishop.com/2015/03/leaning-in/
- Stephen Waddington: Reflections on improving equality in professional life
- Andrew Grill: I gave up my seat at an all-male panel to a woman – and why you should do the same
- Amanda Coleman: Stand up and be prepared to share
Post author: Rachel Miller
First published on All Things IC blog 29 May 2015. Updated October 2016 and March 2017.
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