Friday, January 22, 2010

Who should get women speaking opportunities?

If there are no women speaking on the program for a conference, meeting or presentation, who's supposed to change that? On those rare occasions when the absence of women on a program is noted, the debate runs along two lines: Those who think women aren't working hard enough to get on the program, either by not asking or by failing to accept invitations, and those who think that program organizers don't search enough for--or just fail to consider--women speakers.

On her Smarterware blog, Gina Trapani shares her opinion this week:
Conference organizers, editors, journalists, and CTOs are desperate to get knowledgeable women onto their speaker rosters, mastheads, source lists, and staff. (I know, because they ask me!) There are many opportunities for those of us who don't look like Bill Gates, but it's up to us to make ourselves visible, eligible, and take them.
There's been a lot of discussion on this blog and elsewhere about the issue of getting women on the program, and you can read more about it at the related links posted below. Implied in the "you just need to ask for it" opinions, one sometimes senses a glimmer of "stop complaining," a subtle way to silence debate; at the same time, many women still find themselves reluctant to seek out speaking opportunities, or find them difficult to secure despite asking.  And historically, since ancient times, there have been many more decades in which women were kept silent or discouraged from speaking than otherwise, making this a powerful cultural taboo that exists to this day in some parts of the world.

In a comment this week on the blog, Kate Peters offers more evidence of this underlying problem by pointing us to "an interesting article in the Daily Blog of the Harvard Law Program on Negotiation (of which I'm a proud alumnus). The article notes that women are penalized more than men for self-promotion and for negotiating assertively--but those penalizing them may not realize they've taken a sexist action. From the article: 
Many social psychologists would argue that most of this sexism was not intentional. Scholars have noted a societal shift during the past few decades from explicit sexism to implicit sexism. Explicit sexism is quite visible; the sexist actor (typically) is aware of his biased behavior. By contrast, perpetrators of implicit sexism are unaware of the bias in their actions. Even people with a strong desire to be fair engage in sexist behaviors that they’re not aware of.
So my take on the debate is that everyone's right: Organizers should do more, and women who want to be heard should do more. Maybe we can meet in the middle on this one--but in any case, let's do so with an awareness of the historic, cultural and societal forces guiding our choices.  (Hat tips to Joe Bonner for pointing me to Trapani's post and to Kate Peters for sharing the Harvard blog post.)

Related posts:  Organizers: Get women on the program (video)

Can men help to get women on the program?

Historic examples of women's difficulty getting on the program

Research on what it takes to get women on the program

Can Twitter help women get on the program?

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