Thursday, September 14, 2017

Want to boost conference attendance? Add women speakers

There's a little-observed phenomenon going on in conferences today: Many "mainstream" conferences in all industries feature few women speakers, and women speakers experience serious hurdles to get on their programs. But at the same time,  "women's conferences" pack their houses, make huge profits, see big attendance, get lots of sponsors, and generally thrive.

I know this because I watch when anyone mentions the paucity of women speakers at conferences on Twitter. The only exceptions are the women's conferences. And while I see the joy of the participants, I also see that these conferences are big business.

I get why women might well choose self-segregation--much as people of color did over a century ago when they were shut out of white conferences--in tweets like this one, suggesting that gender balance should be ignored:
Despite that patriarchal view, and the well-worn trope that we don't want "just anyone" presenting, adding women speakers greatly impacts a good way for the bottom line. Take this tweet as just one example:
Why might that be? As women know, when you scan a conference program and see few or no women speakers, you understand immediately that you'll be an anomaly, standing out in a bad way. You'll be the "other." And, as we've reported on the blog, a paucity of women speakers and attendees often leads the men-in-majority to make misogynistic decisions about conference entertainment, or even the presence of prostitutes. You'll find a recent example in Above the Law's post, Conference lacks women speakers, but makes up for it with showgirls. For more, read The prostitute factor: Why we're not serious about women at conferences, which focuses on some top conferences, like the World Economic Forum and a Microsoft conference. It's one of the most-read posts on thus blog.

Think about the reverse. Conferences where women feel not only safe, but included, and celebrated, are an easy "yes" for both participants and speakers. That might be a women's conference, but it need not be. Any conference can be one where women can see themselves participating at all levels...if it wishes. Build a smart code of conduct, offer fees and travel reimbursement to your speakers, and make it easier for women speakers to say "yes" when you call. After all, women do *not* just want to speak and participate in conferences for women.

I think "mainstream" conferences should get smart and take your cue from conferences like the Massachusetts Conference for Women, which can brag about a sold-out attendance of more than 10,000. If those 10,000 women attend all of the sessions at a total of $285, that's more than $2.8 million from just the registrations. That doesn't include fees for the 250 exhibitors, and dozens of sponsors. So advertisers and sponsors want to reach women, a demographic they can target specifically at these conferences. Hmm.

Just a reminder to conference organizers: The attendees missing from your meeting, and the profits missing from your wallet, may belong to the same group that's missing from your program. Above the Law blog put it this way: "[I]f you are an attendee, stop attending conferences that continue to perpetuate exclusion. Spend your $750 on a conference that’s doing more to embrace diversity and inclusion than simply putting pictures of women or POC on its website or on its PowerPoint presentation. Undoubtedly, your own client base will become more diverse with time, so why would you want to attend a conference that’s an echo chamber?"

Indeed. That's just what I did when a longtime conference I attended ignored my harrassment complaints, then required attendees to tick a box saying they would not sue the organization. My $750 plus spent on that meeting goes to much more satisfying uses these days.

McKinsey calculated that Canada alone could boost its gross domestic product by $150 billion by 2026 if gender equity were promoted across the board. I can't think of a better place to start than with women speakers at conferences that aren't targeted to women alone.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by UN Women)

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