Women and Minority Speakers Are Under-Represented at Conferences; Some Ideas on Fixing This Problem

Some of the buzz at CES this week in Las Vegas isn’t about electronics. Instead, it’s about the low number of women speakers on the podium. None of the six main stage keynotes, for instance, are women.

An activist group, Gender Avenger, has railed against the Male/Female ratio at CES, and seeks to up the ante at future business events. The group has even adopted this pledge for industry executives: “I will not serve as a panelist at a public conference when there are no women on the panel.”

I don’t support this particular strategy – you always want to put on the best possible panel, and don’t want to get into a tokenism situation. But there’s nothing wrong with putting a little fire under a conference organizer’s feet.

I’m a longtime technology conference organizer myself, and have worked on 30+ tech-oriented events. Our events have featured many great women speakers from top companies, but the ratio of Men to Women speakers is 4:1, at best. Minorities are also under-represented, especially African Americans.

The lousy ratios are a source of frustration for many people who organize conferences – there is no conspiracy, here. Yet, when the list of conference speakers is announced, there are always people who assume that the organizers did not make an effort to include more women or minorities.

Assuming that we are all in this together and want to have our ratios better reflect society as a whole….how can we do better? I have some ideas:

1. Highlight women (and minority) executives more often in company news, press releases and blogs. Help conference producers find them.

2. Reach out to conference organizers with possible discussion topics, highlighting women and minority candidates for speaking roles.

3. Internally, encourage company leaders who are women and/or minorities to accept invitations. Regarding women, you’d be surprised at how many won’t speak because they don’t want to appear to be “showboating.” It seems like a much higher percentage than for men.

4. If “first choice” women and minority candidates are not available to speak, don’t always default to a white man — suggest an equally qualified woman and/or minority candidate from your company or network.

5. Understand that conference organizers are usually eager to have women and minorities on stage. Pass along referrals if you have strong candidates for other speaking slots. The majority of our best speaker placements for women and minorities have come from such referrals.

6. Support “inclusion” networking events for women and minorities, and help prepare the next generation of industry leaders. There is nothing as inspiring as having a high level executive participating side by side at a networking event.

We have come a long way from a conference environment in which women typically only participated behind the booth and were not chosen to attend an event based on their professional capabilities. But as Gender Avenger and others have shown, we still have a long way to go. Let’s make this an industry-wide effort for 2018.

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