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?
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.