Why women don’t speak at conferences

It takes balls to speak at industry conferences, but you don’t need balls to do so.

Miranda Bishop on stage at OI Conference

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.

Nice move (or #panelhack) Andrew, and well done Miranda Bishop @Miranda_Bishop for speaking up.

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?

2017 update: Ketchum’s Stephen Waddington @wadds has just published a list of women speakers.

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.”

Writing on his blog, Andrew Grill @andrewgrill, who is Global Managing Partner at IBM Social, says: “I offered to give up my seat on the panel and invited Miranda Bishop onto the stage. There was some encouragement from those sitting around Miranda, and she came forward to sit on the panel for the rest of the session.”

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.

panelSTThe excellent Founder and CEO of Immediate Future, Katy Howell @KatyHowell was moderating a panel at CIPR’s Share This Live conference at Microsoft in 2013 (pictured).

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

Rachel__MillerOver 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.

A A milneBut 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!’


Miranda Bishop details the “vicious cycle” caused by lack of good representation for women in top leadership roles

“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.

Update: Sandi MacPherson @sandimac, is creating a list of women speakers who are happy to participate in events, podcasts etc. Add your name here: http://bit.ly/w2s_surv


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.

If you would like to discuss me speaking at your event, do please get in touch to advise the fee and how I can help.


Further reading

Picture credits: Andrew Grill @andrewgrill via Twitter. Katy Howell via Liberate Media.

Post author: Rachel Miller

First published on All Things IC blog 29 May 2015. Updated October 2016 and November 2017.

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  1. Ian Harris says:

    Great post Rachel. I’m very interested in this, although I don’t know what the answer is.

  2. Hi Ian, thank you for commenting. I don’t think there is an easy answer. Certainly having a “token female” at every conference is not the way forward. Equally, having an all-female event isn’t either. I think as much as possible it should be a 50/50 split, Rachel.

  3. Jenni Lloyd says:

    I’m really glad you’ve published this – it’s a topic dear to my heart. You might be interested in this further exploration of the issues by Debbie Cameron:
    I was part of the team at NixonMcInnes for many years and one of the best things I experienced was the support of my colleagues in developing my confidence and skill as a public speaker. We had a stated goal to help each member of the team develop their personal profile so people were encouraged to take up opportunities and we had a process to help develop the content and then practice it in front of the team to get feedback. It was this experience that I wanted to replicate when I started the Brighton chapter of 300seconds – so we have a mentoring event the week before the formal event to help out speakers practice and get feedback. The best thing we can each do is to mentor and be mentored – we need to encourage each other, to listen, to reserve judgement and only critique the ideas – not the person. And we need to leave the ladder down.

  4. Doug Shaw says:

    Hi Rachel – thanks for writing this. The dominance of people like me in this space, white, male, middle aged, is depressing. I firmly believe that diversity leads to better stuff, and in the conference world, as in many others, this is not practiced anywhere near enough. Articles like this help to highlight the situation and I believe people take note of stuff like this and act differently. Maybe not as fast as we would like, but it does happen – so keep pushing the point, please.

    I couldn’t help but notice that your post from the previous day includes a podcast from the CIPR featuring…guess what? Yep – an all male, all white panel. I’m not knocking that panel in particular – but your own experiences are highlighting the current state of affairs very well.

    Cheers – Doug

  5. Meg says:

    Great writing, I think an important subject and such a good call.
    I have thought quite a bit about this; speaking is typically a space inhabited by males, speaking much of the time to audiences that are often predominantly male.
    There is something about testosterone and adrenaline – men have more testosterone and in this male designed space, women use more adrenalin – so it’s more exhausting. Takes more energy.
    In interviews research on equality tells us that men are more likely to say they can do something, when they haven’t done it before whereas women are more likely to highlight for themselves and other areas where they feel they have shortcomings. Put these two together (biological differences and ego differences) and then perhaps that gives an answer to manels, and manspeakers.

    What’s the answer? Perhaps a question – what are we buying into at conferences? Who’s buying it? Who really wants it?

  6. Thank you for your comment Jenni, I like the fact it was built in at NixonMcInnes, that sounds smart. Great to have a “safe space” to practice in – I think that’s very often part of the reason why people don’t step up.

    Will keep an eye on the Brighton chapter, do please let me know any future dates so I can add them to my comms calendar.

    Hi Doug, thank you, been surprised and delighted by the response to this article, by both men and women.

    Thank you for commenting Meg. I hadn’t thought about it from that perspective. It’s certainly exhausting, but in a good way – I get a nervous energy, even if I don’t feel nervous.

    That’s an interesting query re: what are we buying into. When I book a ticket to be a delegate it takes into account many factors but it’s all about people – who I will learn from and who I will see. Plus having the opportunity to meet new people,


  7. Good post, Rachel (and good to see Jenni and Doug on the comments listing).

    I organised a CIPR CAPSIG event (admittedly on diversity in construction) recently and had an awesome all-female panel (and then got some feedback that it ought to have been more diverse!).

    With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps it could have been more inclusive (it was too pale, for a start), but the subject matter was something all the speakers were passionate (and knowledgeable) about. To me, the quality of the discussion more than vindicated our speaker selection!

  8. Hi Paul, thank you for your comment. Refreshing to hear of an all-female panel! Having knowledgable and passionate speakers is certainly key, Rachel.

  9. […] women speakers, again: Why women don’t speak at conferences takes a new look at the topic, noting one conference where a member of an all-male panel gave his […]

  10. […] women speakers, again: Why women don’t speak at conferences takes a new look at the topic, noting one conference where a member of an all-male panel gave his […]

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