I once said I’d blog about this subject but somehow never got round to it. Yep, it’s the whole ‘women at events’ topic. Finally.
The niggle in the back of my mind was intensified last week when I saw the speaker list for the Government 2010 event and a couple of other local govt girl geeks (I hope they don’t mind the label!) @sharonodea and @sarahlay responded to my tweet of irritation in broad agreement. In fairness to the organisers, they apparently tried to contact me to find female speakers but I never received the message. Tech #fail, presumably.
The key point, I think, is that it’s not about women being better qualified to speak on the basis of their gender – no one wants the idiot quota to go up at events. Rather, we want good quality speakers that reflect a diversity of opinion and it’s impossible to get that with only one demographic slice. Women often have a different take on things (not better, not worse, just different) and I like to hear different perspectives. The more demographically mixed an audience is, the better for challenge, difference of opinion, different cultural assumptions, and energy. You can apply this issue to race, gender, sexuality, age, disability and social class (often missed out because it’s too thorny to contemplate).
Yuck, I hate sounding like some New Labour ‘social exclusion’ policy wonk and that’s why no one ever talks about this stuff apart from in passive-agressive tweets. For now, I want to focus on women because, well, I am one and it’s better to focus on stuff you know about.
Part of me can’t be bothered to talk about the whys and wherefores of this business – surely it suffices to say that speaker panels, not to mention attendance, remain very white, middle class and male? But trying to understand the problem (yes, problem) might help to figure out some solutions. I see a few things:
- There aren’t that many women who are well known in the government-tech-social-media-whateverwe’recallingit-industry
- Women aren’t as good at self-promotion as men – i.e. we don’t put ourselves forward
- The usual (mostly male) suspects are well-known and easy to contact for lazy event organisers
- Women in this field are often do-ers, not pontificators
- The people organising events are from the white, middle class, male demographic so it doesn’t occur to them that there is a problem
- Women can be underconfident speakers
It would be a bit weird if there was just one solution to this situation, so I’m going to chuck out a few – I don’t even agree with all of them, but maybe a combination approach might make some headway:
- If you’re a bloke organising an event, look at the speaker panel and attendee list. Try and think of someone new to fill the spot who you haven’t heard speak recently. Ideally a woman who you think has something useful to add.
- Women-only speakers lists. A bit controversial/radical, but might get some awareness/interest going (just out of curiosity I’d be interested to hear whether any women reading this have strong feelings for/against speaking at an event like this)
- Meetups for women who are looking for tips on public speaking – maybe some practiced women speakers can give some coaching or advice
- A place for events organisers looking for speakers to easily put a shout out for the kind of speaker they’re looking for, and to receive recommendations. Plus, a place for women happy to speak if invited to put their profile and videos etc (is this a bit too centralised?)
- If you’re a man (or a woman for that matter) already on a panel and you think it’s going to sound like an echo chamber, suggest a good speaker to the organisers
- Some kind of organised approach to getting more women into the ‘industry’ – speaking to graduates at universities, working with the NGDP, NHS leadership development programme and civil service Fast Stream
- A ‘plus one’ event, where you can only get in if you bring someone with you who’s new to these kind of events (ideally, but not necessarily, a woman)
- Think about the timing of events – if you always have them early in the morning make them a bit later so people who take their kids to school (usually women) can make it too.
- If you’re a woman, help other women out – big them up if they deserve it and cite them if they’ve made a good point. We’re not in competition and we generally do better if we work together, just like the web taught us.
I’m sure there’s more that can be done and I’d love to hear more ideas. If anyone wants to work together on any of the things that take a bit of organising (coaching/meetups for women, a speaker search/matching website) then give me a shout.
In the mean time, I thought I’d leave you with a list of women (linked to Twitter profiles) that I’ve heard speak convincingly at various events, either as keynotes or in smaller groups. I have no idea if they’re looking for speaking opportunities or what their rates are, but I think it shows that there are plenty of women out there who have something to contribute:
Martha Lane Fox
The women on the list cover a range of subjects and they’re not all government types, but that’s a feature, not a bug
If I’ve left you off the list it’s not even remotely personal – why don’t you stick your name in the comments if you’d be up for speaking at an event? If I’ve put you on the list and you’re mortified then drop me a note and you’ll be removed. If you know someone I’ve missed out then why not big them up in the comments?
I have a feeling someone else has done a list like this on their blog but I can’t for the life of me remember who it was – if it was you then please link to it in the comments as two lists are better than one!