Last month, the debate got a little more data in the form of a study about invitations to women speakers at an evolutionary biology conference, which noted that "in 2011, 50% of women declined an invitation to speak compared to 26% of men." Instead of throwing up her hands at this news, Professor Athene Donald starts to tease out the more complicated reasons women don't accept speaking invitations on the Royal Society blog. The comments thread on Donald's own blog shares some real-life perspectives on why women in science aren't accepting speaking gigs.
My own suspicion is that many women speakers don't accept or seek speaking gigs for the same reason many women don't ask for pay raises: They've assessed the likelihood that they will succeed, and have correctly predicted that both men and women are more likely to turn down their application than accept it.
I'd like to take the discussion further and give conference organizers the successful tactics and examples from others who have struggled with this issue, which we've been covering for several years here on The Eloquent Woman. Here are a dozen concrete ways to diversify your conference and help women speakers accept invitations for public speaking gigs:
- Establish an anti-harrassment code of conduct for your conference and publicize it: Before you assume the problem is limited to child care or that women aren't interested in speaking, take this step. No woman wants to speak in a harrassing environment at a meeting, and that harrassment may be invisible to organizers, or very public. You'll find an excellent model at the link, so you need not start from scratch. It's simple: Harrassing behavior won't be tolerated and those who conduct themselves in that manner will be asked to leave the meeting. It's not enough to have such a policy. You must make it widely known for it to work as a recruitment tool for both women speakers and attendees. Don't think you have a harrassment problem? Great. No reason not to put the policy in place, then.
- Survey your attendees and speakers: Much of the discussion around this issue centers on individual and anecdotal experience, or research based on data that doesn't include the voices of women speakers. Before you start making assumptions about why and whether women are turning down speaking invitations, try collecting data from your speakers and from your attendees (and membership, if that's relevant). What would they need to help them say "yes?" What's prompting the "no?" Have they noticed a lack of women speakers? You may be surprised at the answers. Keep an open mind.
- Try a blind selection process: Sarah Milstein and Eric Ries co-host the Lean Startup Conference, and took it from a meeting with almost no women or people of color on the program to one with 40 percent women speakers and 25 percent speakers of color. At the link, you'll find out precisely how they did that using "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." Another great model to try.
- Emphasize women's attendance and speaker participation levels: More conferences, hearing the Twitter drumbeat of disatisfied attendees, are starting to publicize the percentage or number of women speaking at their sessions. It's a simple way to let women speakers know of your interest in presenting them, and to share your track record. I'd love to see more conferences report their diversity results in this way. Send them to
@NoWomenSpeakers on Twitter.
- Don't program "women's panels" or other speaking ghettos: I've been asked many times to sit on a panel on "women's issues in..." whatever the conference topic was, and told outright that this panel was there to "make up for" an imbalance in the speaking roster. I'll explore this idea more in a future post, but organizers, please: Integrate women across all panels, don't put them into a corner. In Why I won't speak at women-only events, Belinda Parmar tackles these women's issues panels and notes something organizers should keep in mind: The audience doesn't always like them, either.
- Offer training and coaching: Throughout history, women have collectively had fewer chances than men to speak in public, and we tend to make women who do speak publicly invisible in a variety of subtle but effective ways. Why not offer training and coaching for women speakers, or would-be women speakers? It's a great way to boost their skill and confidence levels and to identify good speakers for the next conference. I coach many organizations' speakers, sometimes at their annual conferences or board meetings, and there's no better way to send the signal that you're serious about getting women to speak.
- Offer child care, but don't stop there: It alarms me that this debate often begins and ends with child care as the answer to all ills. That in itself tells you a lot about how women speakers are seen. Not all women speakers need child care, including some parents; for other women, it's the major barrier. To find out what works and doesn't work for your attendees and speakers, you'll need that survey data, won't you? The German Marshall Fund has experimented with providing child care at a conference with mixed results, but you also may want to consider rethinking your cancellation policy or other processes that don't support women speakers of all kinds, including those with children.
- Share more information on travel and social options: Women who are traveling alone for a speaking gig in a new city need other kinds of information in advance, about the area in which the conference is being held, what else is nearby and what you have organized for speakers in terms of social events. Think safety, as well as social options. How can you make women speakers more comfortable with saying "yes" to your invitation?
- Rethink your conference schedule: Many commenters on Athene Donald's post mention child care in the context of the school year--they are reluctant to upend their children's schedules during that time. It made me think that business conferences are likely still locked into a set of scheduling assumptions from the 1950s, when one could assume that women would be staying home to care for the family during the school year, rather than giving speeches. If you haven't reconsidered whether your meeting schedule works for both men and women, use that survey to find out their preferences about what times of year you should convene them. Often, the timing has little to do with the attendees and speakers, and if that's the case, can we fault speakers for saying no?
- Set a quota or goal: “Personally, I don’t like quotas,” says Viviane Reding, the top justice official for the European Union. “But I like what the quotas do. Quotas open the way to equality and they break through the glass ceiling.” She was speaking of corporate board diversity, but many major meetings have set public quotas for women's participation as attendees and speakers, including the World Economic Forum at Davos. You can't set the quota and forget it, however--this only works in concert with other efforts, and many conference have found it difficult to meet their own quotas.
- Don't participate in conferences that bar or omit women speakers: We'd all do well to keep in mind that there are still conferences being held which ban women from speaking, even in 2013. It's disheartening that, in response to a call for male speakers to pledge that they wouldn't participate in panels with no women, the pledge signup was spammed by misogynistic comments and fake signatories, and had to be shut down. More meaningful than any pledge form would be asking, every time, about the gender and ethnic diversity on the panels and conferences to which you are invited to speak. The more potential speakers inquire about it, the more you'll drive home the point.
- Ask them and keep asking: Don't ask and give up. Don't accept the potential woman speaker's recommendations for someone else to speak. Say "I want you to speak and what can we do to make that happen?" Not, as one organizer recently asked me, "I can't imagine what it would take to get you to speak, and we have no budget, anyway," which let me know he was asking me to do something I would normally be paid to do, and didn't intend to offer anything. That was an easy "no." One clever organizer kept after me for three years and when I did say yes, it was one of the best speaking experiences of my career. Persist.
I can and do ask organizers to make sure I am not the lone female on the program--and offer my help to get them there. While I'm aware that I can be a role model, I don't want to be a token, and I've backed out of speaking gigs where it became apparent that I was the latter and not the former. At the same time, I know I can use my influence to get more women on the podium. I hope this list of options helps to get the issue past the blame and hand-wringing and on to some proven tactics.
You can help, too: Please share this post widely on social media, and get it directly to the people organizing the conferences that you attend, and to other women who are potential speakers.
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