Thursday, January 19, 2012

It's 2012, and women are still having trouble getting on the program as speakers

Forget a seat at the table, for the moment. I'm seeing plenty of evidence, still, that women are having trouble getting a place on the podium, as speakers at public gatherings, professional conferences and other forums.

The most notable example right now is in Israel. At a conference on gynecology, women were barred from speaking--or as feminist writer Katha Pollitt put it, "Men discuss vaginas while women can only watch." Eight speakers reportedly cancelled their appearances. The ban was prompted by ultra-Orthodox Jews, who follow rules that forbid women from speaking public or sitting with men in meetings or worship. The New York Times dubbed it a "seismic rift over the role of women," and noted the recent example is just part of a larger debate there:
Public discourse in Israel is suddenly dominated by a new, high-toned Hebrew phrase, “hadarat nashim,” or the exclusion of women....All of this seems anomalous to most people in a country where five young women just graduated from the air force’s prestigious pilots course and a woman presides over the Supreme Court. But each side in this dispute is waging a vigorous public campaign. The New Israel Fund, which advocates for equality and democracy, organized singalongs and concerts featuring women in Jerusalem and put up posters of women’s faces under the slogan, “Women should be seen and heard.” The Israel Medical Association asserted last week that its members should boycott events that exclude women from speaking on stages. Religious authorities said liberal groups were waging a war of hatred against a pious sector that wanted only to be left in peace.
We can get outraged over this extreme example, but keeping women speakers off the program is happening elsewhere--just quietly. Here are some examples that have come across my line of vision in the past week:
  • At the Reviving the Islamic Spirit conference, "...  it’s been, again, a disappointing year for female involvement as speakers, in a conference where women make up at least half the audience and half the volunteers (but usually more)," reports Muslimah Media Watch. The post has been noting the issue of women speakers for several years.
  • TED 2012's lineup includes just 16 women out of 55 presenters, points out @cvharquail on Twitter, echoing a persistent criticism of the well-watched conference.
  • The Wall Street Green Trading Summit boasted on Twitter that it has "the most women speakers of any energy and environmental conference this year." That would be 11 women speakers out of 51 total.
  • Emerging Technologies for the Enterprise in Philadelphia has only 2 speaker of 40 who are women thus far, points out this observer.
  • The Techriti 2012 conference in India will feature speaker Deborah Berebichez, who tweeted that she was "honored" to speak there, "but I do wish there were more women speakers." That might be due to the fact that she is the lone woman speaker of a dozen speakers at this conference.
  • Edinburgh-based iOS developer Matt Gemmell, after attending several tech conferences with few women speakers, offers a list of suggestions for same.
The silver lining here, if there is one: Women and men are starting to report the gender balance in speaker lineups at conferences. Now we just need to work on giving women the microphone. Have you noticed women in the minority as speakers at your professional conferences? Let me know in the comments.


Looking for famous speeches by women? Check out The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Women's Speeches, with a wide variety of women speakers, types of speeches and topics to inspire your next speech. Each one comes with lessons for speakers, plus video or audio and a transcript, where available.