Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Does she or doesn't she have trouble getting asked to speak at conferences?

"Speaking Opportunities Abound for Women Business Leaders, Finds Annual Weber Shandwick Study on Top Executive Conferences," said the press release headline. Color me surprised, since I see a continual drumbeat of reactions disclosing the opposite, namely, that women in all professions--including those dominated by women--continue to have trouble achieving coveted spots on the podium as speakers at professional conferences.

A deeper dig past the headline, however, told me this news story wasn't really out of sync with reality--just describing a very narrow slice of it. From the Weber Shandwick press release, the scope of the December 2011 study and its key findings:
...the firm examined the speaking engagements of the world's top women business leaders, based on Fortune's 2011 Most Powerful Women list (50 women executives who are U.S.-based and 50 women who are not U.S.-based). The majority of women (69 percent) on the list spoke at one or more conferences in 2011. On average, these top-ranking women spoke at 2.7 conferences over the course of 12 months. U.S.- and non-U.S. based women were nearly just as likely to speak, confirming that women all over the globe recognize the value of conference visibility....The leading speaking forums in 2011 for these top women executives included Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit, The World Economic Forum/Davos, India-US CEO Forum, Women Corporate Director's Global Institute, the Paley Center for Media International Council Summit and the APEC Women and the Economy Summit.
Not surprising, and not enlightening

Is is surprising that someone like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gets invited to speak at one or more conferences in a year? I think not. Nor is it suprising that women on the Fortune 2011 Most Powerful Women list speak at, wait for it, Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit. Also not included in this analysis, but the question I think more women executives and audience members would like to know: What was the proportion of women speakers on those programs? Were they lonely tokens, or surrounded by lots of women speakers (other than at conferences focused on women)?

I did find surprising the fact that Weber Shandwick put out the study during a time when I'm seeing so many people complaining about the lack of women speakers and the gender imbalance on so many professional conference agendas. At one of the conferences it includes in its survey, the World Economic Forum in Davos, women speakers were "either a minority or not represented at all" -- and that's after the Forum instituted a quota for women's participation. Some observers are noticing the lack of women speakers when they get the meeting agendas in advance, others when they sit through panel after panel with too few women on them. Some go to a series of conferences and react to things like the lack of women keynote speakers.  Some tackle a lack of women speakers in their industry as this SEO blog did, by suggesting women they'd love to see as speakers, and one of those speakers commented with the feedback she was given: that women don't get rated as well as male speakers do. But nowhere else (except at conferences by and for women) do I see people talking about speaking roles abounding for women.

Does she or doesn't she?

So does she or doesn't she have trouble getting on the program? We don't have good data on the proportion of women speakers at all professional conferences--no one is keeping track that I've found. Weber Shandwick's interest lies in making its clients look good and in attracting new clients, and a positive-trend study, even one that scratches the surface of an issue, can help in doing that. But there's a drumbeat out there reflecting what audience members are seeing, and you can see it in this series of tweets I've been saving in recent weeks. I've put a sampler of them together as a slideshow, below, so take a look. What's the situation in your profession? Do you see speaking opportunities abounding for women or remaining scarce? Do you decide whether to attend based on gender balance on the program?

Looking for famous speeches by women? Check out The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Women's Speeches, with a wide variety of women speakers, types of speeches and topics to inspire your next speech. Each one comes with lessons for speakers, plus video or audio and a transcript, where available.