Wednesday, January 29, 2014

12 ways to evaluate speaking gigs for gender bias

Mia Doornaert, speaking at the
European Speechwriter Network conference
In mass media, some tests have cropped up to help evaluate gender bias. There's the Bechdel test for movies: There must be at least two women in the movie, they must talk to each other, and the topic cannot be a man. There's also the Finkbeiner test of whether a journalistic article exhibits gender bias about women in science, by mentioning that she's a woman, what her husband's job is, her childcare arrangements, how she was surprised by how competitive her field turned out to be, and more.

I think it may be time for another test, one that women and men can use to evaluate their public speaking invitations for gender bias. I'm inspired by some recent research and writings on the issue of getting more women on the program, including the excellent advice for conference organizers in Putting an end to conferences dominated by white men and other writings by Lean Start Up conference CEO and co-host Sarah Milstein. She writes:
When I began co-hosting, we put an emphasis on finding high-quality speakers who better represented the business world.  In 2012 and 2013, not only did our speaker rosters comprise more than 50% women and people of color, but the number of conference attendees doubled each year. We use the same methods all conferences use to find speakers: We invite people we know or know of, and we have an open call for proposals. But because those processes reliably over-represent white male candidates, we approach them differently than most conference hosts.
Too often, I see women who assume they'll be treated fairly in the selection process, only to be disappointed--either when they don't make the cut, or later, when the speaking experience leaves them feeling uncomfortable, treated inequitably or even harrassed. We'll be talking about how women can get more speaking gigs and how they can better evaluate and seek offers to speak in my new workshop, Be The Eloquent Woman. The 12 questions below aim to give both men and women a way to evaluate speaker invitations with a gender lens (and yes, we need men to pay attention to these criteria as well as women):
  1. How open and transparent is the call for speakers and the selection process? A sentence about the conference commitment to gender or any other kind of diversity does not a balanced program make. Milstein calls for organizers to be "deeply transparent," and has advocated for a blind and meritocratic selection process that emphasizes quality without regard to gender or ethnicity. Ask for specifics about the selection process and how gender balance is handled. Look for a conference with a wide-open process.
  2. Is there a harrassment policy for the conference? Harrassment is a fact of life for women at many conferences. One important way to make women comfortable with the idea of attending or speaking at your conference is to publish a code of conduct that takes sexual harrassment into account. It's good practice--and says you want the conference to be welcoming to women. I'm hearing from more women that this is step one when they're considering attending or speaking at conferences. The code should cover the behavior of the organizers and committee members during their advance preparation, as well as participants at the conference.
  3. Is there at least one woman on the program selection team or program committee? Ideally, you'd want to see gender balance in the selection committee, but recent research focused on two scientific conferences showed that "having at least one woman member of the convening team correlated with a significantly higher proportion of invited female speakers and reduced the likelihood of an all-male symposium roster." Start with one, and give extra points for a more balanced group of selectors. While you're at it, find out who makes the final call and what approach they're using.
  4. What's the ratio of male to female attendees, based on previous years? Just 15 percent of the attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, were women this year, and Mariah Summers shares what that felt like for the women. A low proportion of women doesn't have to be a deal-breaker if all the other factors work for you, but you may enjoy the experience more if there's a better gender balance overall.
  5. Is the early roster of speakers mostly or all men? As Milstein points out in her article, the tried-and-true methods of recruiting speakers tend to get a lot of early "yes" responses from the usual suspects. Publicizing them early might discourage women speakers from applying or attending. Depending on the situation, you can look at this factor as an early warning sign, proceeding with caution; as a prompt to ask "are you planning to recruit more women speakers?"; or as an opportunity for women to approach the organizers thinking, "They need more women on that program, so my chances are better." 
  6. Do women occupy major speaking roles, or are they mostly moderators and introducers? A telltale sign of how women are viewed in the context of a conference is the relegation of women to the briefer speaking roles of moderator or introducer. This gives a conference the veneer of gender balance, but ensures that the women are speaking about the work of others, rather than their own work and ideas. It's a tactic that goes back a century or more, and it's high time we got rid of it.
  7. Does each panel include women, or is there just one "women's panel?" There is a real intellectual problem when a panel--designed by its definition to showcase a variety of views and opinions--is only populated by men. It's insulting to women to suggest that you wouldn't seek to include women especially, since you're aiming for high quality. In fact, you can have both quality and gender diversity. As one of my favorite organizers, Brian Jenner of the UK Speechwriters Guild, says, "Women bring different ideas to a program."  Putting all the women on the program on a single panel about women's issues, another time-honored tactic, is not a good sign.
  8. Were you called at the last minute? One of the best talks I ever gave was a truly last-minute emergency replacement job. A group that has invited you to speak previously and knows you well may feel comfortable asking you to sub for a speaker who just can't make it. But if you don't hear that kind of reason, you might be a last-minute attempt to balance a panel or roster. Ask why you were called so late in the game. The late-breaking invitation takes away your advance preparation and promotional time, so you may be walking into a less-than-ideal situation before you get anywhere near the conference.
  9. If you are asked to speak without compensation, is that consistent with what other speakers are offered? When it comes to salary negotiation, many women don't bother asking for more money--not because they don't think they're worth it, but because they have correctly figured out that both men and women are less likely to give a pay raise to a woman than a man. The same may be true in public speaking, particularly when women are asked less often to speak. So if no fee or travel reimbursement is offered, ask whether any speakers are being paid. If other speakers at your level are being paid, ask for the same.
  10. Do conference materials and promotions mention and show women, overtly and routinely? Any conference organizer who has seen the rise of women's conferences should know that promoting women speakers is big business--those conferences have no trouble attracting attendees. Milstein saw similarly strong results after assembling and promoting a diverse program. You might learn something about the attitude of conference organizers just by reading their websites and programs with care.
  11. Do the inviters and promoters show enthusiasm for or reluctance to inclusion of women speakers? In Women in Science: Welcome But Not Welcome, Kate Clancy describes an underwhelming speaking invitation she received after a prominent woman speaker put her on a list, insisting the organizers ask more women. But the reluctance was clear in the invitation, and eventually, her gig didn't materialize. Likewise, when the conference promotes women speakers, it should be more than a defensive "we do too have women speakers" tone. 
  12. Does the inviter show enthusiasm for you and your ideas? If you say "no" or "I'm not sure," or you suggest someone else, does the inviter say, "No, we really want you?" (If so, say yes.) But if the organizers start rewriting your talk completely or push you to say things that you don't want to say, you're more likely to feel like a sock puppet than a speaker. 
Want to learn more about choosing and getting the right speaking gigs, and how to become a more confident speaker? Sign up for my new workshop, Be The Eloquent Woman. Details are below, and I'm especially excited to be able to offer the workshop in the United States and the United Kingdom this year. Please register and share with a woman speaker whom you wish to encourage!

I'm offering a new workshop on women and public speaking. Be The Eloquent Woman will take place in Washington, DC, on Feb. 28, and in Oxford, UK, on April 2. The day-long workshop will help you build confidence and competence as a speaker, and help you subvert the expectations that many women face when they speak. Please join me for these unique professional development sessions!

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