Thursday, January 3, 2013

If you ask differently, will your conference get more women speakers?

Women in all professions continue to find it difficult to gain a place on conference programs as speakers--and when they do, they're often singled out for attack, as women speakers were at Ohio LinuxFest recently. Observers blame the lack of women speakers on a wide range of possible "problems:" Women aren't confident enough to accept speaking invitations. We don't have binders full of women speakers, so someone needs to make a helpful list of women to speak. Women don't accept invitations to speak--we know, we asked them. We don't know any "qualified" women speakers on this topic. Even more confusing, some claim there's no problem at all getting women speakers, despite lots of evidence to the contrary, including live reports from audience members on Twitter. Believe me, your audience notices the absence of women on the program.

I've spent a lot of time following this issue, and until now, the debate's been missing this question: What if conference organizers changed the ways they ask women to be speakers on conference programs? Two recent posts, from a pair of conference organizers and a frequent speaker, suggest that how you do the asking matters in the gender makeup of your speaking roster.

How to round up unusual suspects
In Solving the Pipeline Problem, the co-hosts of the Lean Startup Conference, Sarah Milstein and Eric Ries, share their lessons learned from successfully recruiting a roster of speakers with 40 percent women and 25 percent people of color--"a significant improvement over last year’s conference, which had almost none of either." Both of these organizers know the chicken-and-egg issues of recruiting more women speakers, and wanted a selection process that got beyond them:
There’s a solution that addresses these issues: meritocratic selection. It’s not a game of quotas; it’s quite the opposite. Indeed, we picked the speakers we thought had the best stories and would be the most engaging presenters. We didn’t rule out any candidates for being white or men, and we didn’t favor women or people of color. Instead, we used a handful of principles to guide us: transparent process, blind selection, proactive outreach and enlisting help.
In this case, the conference's transparent process and its proactive outreach represent the different--and more effective--ways of asking diverse people to speak. Speaker reactions were highly positive, with one speaker saying, “I LAUGH when you say, ‘under-represented at a tech conference,’ because had you not presented such a compelling invitation, I would have never even dreamed of applying for a position of a speaker.”

Ries and Milstein, who has contributed posts and questions to this blog, also take a look at what they'd do differently in future, and end this useful post with a question for you: "[I]f you’re not using these tools, is your selection process susceptible to unconscious biases that could be making it work less well? Is it really as merit-based as it could be?"

When you ask, share more answers
In Conference organisers: A point for your consideration, Relly Annett-Baker, based in England and with speaking experience around the world, tells organizers what else she wants to know as a woman speaker, beyond the usual stuff like type of event/what you want from me/date/fee." Her list of questions includes:
  • Location of event AND location where you are putting me up
  • What are your policies if I have to pull out?
  • What have you organized for speakers?
  • Who else is going?
They're all thoughtful questions that any speaker, male or female, might have. But in this post, the questions have to do with women's personal safety, the logistics of a working mother, and having a built-in network of support once at the conference. Annett-Baker discusses her thinking behind each question at length. "It’s a sad but true fact, as a woman I am more vulnerable and have to weigh up the risks and rewards of exploring new areas when traveling alone. I don’t believe there is a rapist hanging around every street corner of every town but I do believe there is one around some corners, and sadly you don’t know which ones. Knowing that organisers have considered the location of their accommodation, planned some things for me to do and spent the time finding the number for a reliable cab firm for me to use, means I am much more likely to say yes if you ask me to speak," she writes.

If you're tired of going to professional meetings with too few women speakers, please pass these good examples along to the program committee of the conferences you attend and ask the organizers to give these approaches a try. And if you have other good case studies for successfully inviting women speakers, or you're replicating the approaches described here, email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.

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