Thursday, November 12, 2015

Making conferences with @NoWomenSpeakers visible: 7 trends I see

It's tough to be the eloquent woman when they won't even let you on the stage. And it's tough to make this issue visible when women speakers are invisible.

That's what has inspired me to run the Twitter account @NoWomenSpeakers since the middle of 2013, two and a half years. Mostly, the account retweets mentions of gender imbalance among conference speakers, and when I first established the account, I was noticing an average of a tweet a day on that topic. Now, on most days, I have scores of tweets to share. I love the variety of the tweets I'm seeing, from offers of help to find women speakers to bold volunteers proposing themselves. People are picking up programs or looking at stages, seeing no or few women, and sharing photographic evidence and data. Some conferences are moving away from defensive tweets to state goals for a 50/50 ratio of women to men in their next program.

The vast majority of tweets I see, however, are complaints about the lack of women speakers at conferences not solely targeted to women. (Tweets about women's conferences stand in stark contrast, sharing elation at seeing so many women on the program!) One important way to look at these public complaints is that they offer a realistic answer to the question "where are all the women speakers?" instead of saying the women need to be "more confident" or some other fix. They shine a light on legitimate reasons women might well avoid accepting a speaking gig or attending a conference.
I'm happy to say this isn't a lonely job. More organizations and individuals are making a point of sharing what they see when there's a gender imbalance in conference programs and on conference stages...and in turn, that visibility is helping nudge real change. Here are some of the ways these colleagues-in-arms are making the issue of keeping women off the program more visible:
  1. List-makers: Many conference organizers privately say they don't consult published lists of women speakers. But for the many people curating such lists, they are public evidence that there are plenty of qualified women in many professions who might be considered as conference speakers. Sometimes these lists are specific to a particular region as well as a profession, as in this list of Australian women in tech startups; it's offered in an article. Other lists are published as spreadsheets, as in this deep list of Muslim women speakers. Those of you who are curating lists should keep this evidence coming. My tip: Add links to video or text of speeches from the women you're recommending, to give organizers more reasons to consult your lists, and fewer excuses to ignore it.
  2. Tally keepers: Some people count up the women-to-men speaker ratio when they get a conference program; some do it right from the audience. Thankfully, more and more people are sharing those tallies on Twitter and elsewhere. I've told you before about Gender Avenger's tool for sharing a visual tally of the gender balance or imbalance for conferences you attend. Whatever tool you use, keep those tallies coming! Gender Avenger, among others, can point to real change in the proportion of women speakers at conferences; here's one example, and here's a report on conferences that changed their ways after landing in GA's Hall of Shame. If you tweet about a gender disparity among speakers, I'll retweet via @NoWomenSpeakers.
  3. Voting with their feet: Until women attendees stop going to meetings dominated by male speakers, and women speakers do the same--and make their reason known--conferences won't feel the financial pinch. Articles like You literally cannot pay me to speak without a code of conduct, and I won't go to your conference because the plenary speakers are all men are two recent examples of declarations I've been hoping to see from more women. I'm interested that I'm not just seeing this in male-dominated conferences. I specifically did not attend GHC (the Grace Hopper Celebration for women in tech) is a good example of how an all-women's conference can still exclude. When participants say "I don't see myself on the program," that's a bad sign, as well as a place to start improving. 
  4. Making clear why you turned down the gig: I'm also encouraged that more women are making explicit the reasons they turn down speaking gigs, to counter the old "we invited women but they turned us down" excuse. What's behind that? is a good question to ask. Gem Barrett took to Twitter to counter an organizer's shout-out for not showing up (she refused to speak without a code of conduct). And if the conference doesn't take harrassment complaints seriously, you can blog about it, as this FOSDEM participant did. Making it public corrects the record and helps other women. 
  5. Praising the good actors: So many tweets I see about women speakers praise conferences for being exemplary models in their practices as well as their speaker gender balance. Here's a recent example: I'm pleased to see my former employer and current client the American Association for the Advancement of Science joins the ranks of conference organizers with a code of conduct--we need more major organizations to take up this effort.
  6. Data collectors: More people and organizations are collecting and publishing data on the dearth of women speakers, as in Healthcare conferences still a sad place for diversity. And I'm seeing more research published that's trying to get at a better understanding of the underlying problem with conference gender diversity, like this report on the positive impact of including at least one woman on the selection committee, and this mathematician's calculation that the odds of an all-male panel are astronomical--that is, all male panels don't "just happen." Love seeing these evidence-based refutations of the myths around getting women on the program! We need yet more research and evaluation of the numbers on women speakers, so researchers, please keep it coming.
  7. Visual monitors: Congrats, you have an all male panel! is a Tumblr that uses pictures of all male panels to make its point. And every day on Twitter, women and men are sharing pics from conference programs, websites, and stages to show, as well as tell about, the problem of gender imbalance. Conference organizers, for their part, are finding that when the first few speakers are announced and they're all men, they're getting angry tweets. The common comeback is "We're posting women speakers soon," but the photographic evidence speaks volumes.
I love the way journalist Michel Martin, an advocate for listening to diverse voices, puts what we all should be doing. She says, "You want to know what my real charge to people is? My real charge to people is look around and see who’s missing. And try to invite that person." Web Summit just did this in a bold move, announcing it would issue 10,000 complimentary tickets to women to its conferences in Lisbon, Hong Kong, India, and New Orleans--and it invited anyone to nominate a woman entrepreneur to get a free ticket. That's using the anger of the crowd in a useful way. The move does, of course, follow criticism of the conference.

It's not enough to be shocked or sad or angry about the issue. Go wield your influence to make it change, eloquent women and men. Need some case studies and examples to follow? Check out my post on 12 ways to diversify conferences with @NoWomenSpeakers, with some great case studies you can copy.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Executives International)

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