Monday, November 24, 2008

what does it take to get on the program?

What does it take for a conference to feature more women speakers on the program? Women have been blogging, writing and researching the question "Where are all the women speakers?" in a variety of professions for some time now--and sometimes getting pushback from male organizers of conferences who dismiss or defend speaker rosters with low percentages of women. While the complaint often comes from professions in which women are in the minority--like the high-tech world--just as many can be found in professions where women are abundant, like library science, public relations and the medical professions. Here's a sampling of what women are noticing:
  • In the journal Academic Psychiatry, this letter calls attention to and documents the lack of women speakers at psychiatry grand rounds.
  • Nina Simosko asked "Women speakers where are you?" when looking at the Web 2.0 conference agenda earlier this year. Only 20 of the 200 scheduled speakers were women; among keynote speakers, just two of the 20 were women. In addition to the dearth of female speakers on the program, she noted that many women speakers had not yet filled out their profiles on the meeting web site, but all of the male speakers had done so.
  • Misbehaving.net, a blog on women and technology, noted that a public relations blogging conference had the same problem, generating lots of comments.
  • Free Range Librarian looks at the issue in library conferences, asking whether women are less likely to pursue speaking opportunities, or whether organizers are less likely to recognize their acoomplishments?
Elizabeth Travis, Ph.D., the associate vice president for women faculty programs at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center noted that meeting organizers--especially those who are women--need to advocate for women speakers in the EW interview with her in April. She noted:
When you’re putting symposia together, maybe you put a junior faculty member in--you don’t just pick your best friends which everyone tends to do. You have to be constantly challenging yourself....I organized an international meeting a year ago as a program chair and I said to my committee “Do not bring me a symposium without at least one woman speaker.” There was the usual rolling of the eyes and comments like “Don’t we want the best?” That’s used frequently to challenge women. I said “You have just insulted every woman in this organization.”
So what can women speakers (and their audiences) do to get more women speakers on the program? Many of the online writers have started speakers' bureaus, listings and other resources to demonstrate the availability of women speakers, and others are speaking out on blogs or complaining directly to meeting organizers. As a speaker, you should consider these steps to get yourself on the program for your professional or community meetings:
  • Get to know the program organizers: Every group has a committee or person tasked with assembling and vetting speakers. Make direct contact with the program organizers and ask what they're looking for. Be prepared to tell them how your participation as a speaker will add to the program.
  • Make sure your availability is known: Many program chairs tell me that they spend lots of time looking for willing and available speakers. To make sure they know you're available and willing, promote that on your website, in your bio, and certainly whenever you're networking, both online and in person.
  • Suggest topics on which you're willing to speak: Make sure your promotions and conversations include a few suggested topics on which you're willing and able to speak, so program organizers know what you can offer. Be as specific as possible--rather than "communications," suggest more focused topics like "media relations with bloggers" or "communications as a networking skill."
  • Promote your existing speaking engagements: Share details on your forthcoming or just-past speaking engagements with friends, colleagues and networking contacts. When people can see that you're already a speaker, they get affirmation that you'll work out for their audience.
  • Offer to help organize a panel: If you have a topic on which you'd like to speak, offer to pull together related speakers who can fill out a panel. Or, offer to moderate--a great speaking gig that ties together all the other speakers' points.
And remember, when you're in a position to suggest a speaker, have some women's names on hand. Helping others to get a speaking engagement is a favor many will be happy to return.