Would I attend my own conference?

Why conferences need more diversity.

When you’re deciding whether to attend a conference, and you’re checking out the website, what do you consider? Most likely, you’ll look at the program, searching for names you know and session titles that describe compelling topics.

If you’re like me—some of you are and some of you aren’t—you’ll also look for diversity among the speakers. If every speaker is a man, or if everyone is white, or both, I know this isn’t an event for me. I don’t need to hear more of the same prominent voices, and I don’t get much value out of an environment that takes a narrow, old-school view on who’s worth listening to.

Because some of you aren’t like me in your choices, there are profitable conferences with speaker rosters that look like roll call for the signers of the Constitution. But conferences that want to be taken seriously by people who take other kinds of people seriously need more diversity among the speakers to thrive. And conference organizers, whose goals often include highlighting new ideas, cannot simply recycle the same short list of well-known speakers from show to show.

Which is a funny thing for me to say. Because I’m co-chair, along with Brady Forrest, for Web 2.0 Expo, a large, semi-annual tech conference that starts on Monday and is among the shows co-produced by O’Reilly and UBMTechWeb that have been pilloried in the past for our speaker line-ups—particularly for not having enough women. While the last outcry came before I had this job, these sorts of discussions are cyclical, and the shows I’ve organized could reasonably be targets of such criticism.

What gives? And what can we do about it?

First, let’s put some data behind the idea that men are overrepresented as conference speakers. For the three Web 2.0 Expos I’ve organized, our speaker rosters have comprised 25 to 30 percent women. That’s a near-triumph, considering that only 10 percent of the people who apply to speak are women, and the vast, vast majority of well-known businesspeople in tech—the ones a lot of you look for when considering a conference pass—are men (more on that in a minute). But it’s far short of, say, a 50/50 split.

Further, I’m dismayed to report that when it comes to the percentage of women speakers, our not-stellar numbers are among the best in tech conferences. TechCrunch Disrupt’s NY 2010 show had fewer than 10% women speakers. Our sister show, Web 2.0 Summit—which is programmed by people other than Brady and me–had just around 10% women speakers in 2010. Twitter’s 2010 Chirp conference had one woman speaker listed on their site; Facebook’s F8 conference managed two or so. Future of Web Apps October 2010 show clocked in with 14% women speakers. The Bloomberg Empowered Entrepreneur Summit, which focuses on tech and takes place next month, has zero women entrepreneurs on the roster [4/18/11 update: Ruder Finn, the PR firm for the Bloomberg Summit, just let me know that the event wound up having about 20% women speakers, about half of whom are entrepreneurs]. Of course, conferences that focus on women, like BlogHer, have close to 100% female slates. But as a rule, general tech conferences don’t get near half.

In a way, this isn’t a big surprise. It’s well-documented that women are underrepresented in the tech sector (if you’re not already up to speed, start with “Out of the Loop in Silicon Valley” by Claire Cain Miller, and do not miss “The Men and No Women of Web 2.0 Boards” by Kara Swisher). And it’s also well-documented that across sectors, women are underrepresented in senior roles—i.e., the sorts of positions that are likely to have stories to share at conferences. So, yeah, the population of female speakers we can draw on is smaller than the population of male speakers. But Expo generally has just 150 – 250 speakers total per show (and most conferences have fewer). Why can’t we find 75 – 125 women speakers?

There are two primary ways that conferences get speakers, and we use both methods. 1) You put out a public call for speakers (sometimes known as a call for proposals, or a call for papers, or whatever); you get a slew of applicants; you accept some of them. 2) You brainstorm a list of people you’d like to have speak; you reach out to many of them; some of them accept.

Here’s where these methods go wrong: 1) About 10 percent of the public applicants will be women, even if you ask women to apply. 2) The brainstorming, which requires that you know of the speakers already, produces even worse results: 5 percent on a good day. (Another conference organizer has described the second process like this: “Who should we have this year?” A long list of well-known people gets suggested. Somebody notices there aren’t any women on the list. “Ok, what women should we ask?” “We had Caterina Fake last year, but Carol Bartz and Sheryl Sandberg might be free.” “Right, who else?” Longish pause. “I wonder if Ev Williams or Biz Stone is available.”)

This is where we have a chance to change things.

In a recent post, “Designers, Women and Hostility in Open Source”, Gina Trapani argues that to boost the participation of women in open source projects, the projects need to organize differently than they often do. Her recommendations, based on her own experiences as an organizer, include things like welcoming and mentoring new participants, recognizing valuable contributions that aren’t just code, and, indeed, valuing things other than the code. Note that she does not recommend that women participants behave differently in order to gain status.

We have a similar opportunity to rethink conference rosters. Let’s take the call for proposals method of finding speakers. When people call out a show for having a paltry percentage of women in the lineup, the traditional response is to explain (or complain) that very few women applied and to then call on more women to enter in the proposal system. Colleagues of mine, people I respect deeply, have gone this route.

But it doesn’t work. While, obviously, some women will apply to speak, the overwhelming evidence is that most will not. In a post last year, Clay Shirky, lamented that his female students were far less likely to sing their own praises and ask for things that would benefit them, like recommendations, than were his male students. His suggestion? That the women act more like the men. While I generally enjoy agreeing deeply with Clay, he—like the conference organizers calling on more women to apply—has missed a key point. If your system of finding worthy students or speakers to promote is to have them come to you and ask, but a solid body of research shows that women won’t do so, you’ve institutionalized a gap.

Better instead, as Gina recommends, to change your system. For conference organizers, that means not just opening up a public call for proposals and asking Women 2.0 and Girls in Tech to tell their friends, but also seeking out and inviting individual women. That may sound inefficient, and it is time-consuming. But if your supposedly efficient public-call system isn’t yielding the desired results, then it’s simply failing efficiently.

We’ve gotten fairly good results at Expo reaching out to individual women. Key to this success is that we aren’t looking to put women on stage because they’re women, we’re seeking out great speakers whom we may have overlooked because they’re women. So it’s not uncommon that I’ll hear about a woman who might have a good presentation to give, but when I talk with her, it’s clear she’s not a fit for our show. I don’t shoehorn in those women, I move on and find others who are right for us.

To improve our efficiency, I enlist help reaching individuals. For instance, at Expo, we generally prefer single speakers or co-presenters to panels. But when somebody proposes an intriguing panel to us, I ask the organizer to include at least one woman with appropriate expertise. I’ve had dozens of these conversations. Almost always, the organizer’s response is, “Oh, right, hadn’t thought of that, good idea. A would be great, or we could ask B if she’s free.” Only once has the response been, “I won’t be able to find anybody.”

In addition to panel organizers, I plant the seed with founders, CEOs and other senior businesspeople. When I meet them (male or female), and we get to chatting about conferences, I ask them to consider actively supporting their female employees as speakers. For the CEOs, that might mean brainstorming with the employees on conferences they could reach out to and topics they could propose, giving them time to write the proposals and travel to shows, and maybe offering really good speaker training. While I can’t yet track results for this mini-initiative, I’ve been surprised to find that when I make these suggestions, businesspeople most often look like the light bulb has gone off, “Right, yes. I can do that stuff—and I want to.”

So you can supplement the call-for-proposals method with a raft of invitations (and bolster that with help from CEOs). But where do you find the women to invite? And what do you do about the brainstorming-notable-people method? In both cases, the hurdle is that accomplished women are, more often than not, less prominent (because, y’know, they don’t speak at conferences as frequently).

If I were to ask you: Who are the ten biggest names among web CEOs? Feel free to include hardware and software companies. And also: Who are the ten biggest names among web entrepreneurs? Feel free to include people from your first list. Your lists, like mine, would include few or no women. So now, even if I change the question to ask you: Who’s doing interesting work we might want to highlight? Well, now your brain is primed to remember the men you came up with a minute ago. And you’re all set to overlook a slew of compelling speakers.

This is where lists are really key. I simply keep lists of C-level women in tech, women entrepreneurs, women VCs, women tech journalists, women consultants and so on. And I find women to add by keeping a close eye on everyone else’s lists, conferences, books, blog comments and tweets—and then, often, seeking out video of these women to get a sense of whether they’re good speakers. (Incidentally, I am, for various reasons, skeptical of those “Top Women in Tech” and “Female Entrepreneurs to Watch” lists. But I have to admit that when they prompt your team to remember specific women in the brainstorming process, or when they help you find those interesting women you wouldn’t otherwise have known about, they’re useful.) No question, when we’re trying to move the needle on our percentage of women speakers, being able to consult these lists give us a fighting chance.

Maintaining these lists takes work. But y’know what? That’s part of our jobs. And it leads to a world in which I might just be interested in attending my own conference.

Among the things I haven’t tackled in this post: Why are women less likely to propose themselves as speakers (and what can we do about that)? Does an increase in great female speakers affect attendee satisfaction or measurably improve the bottom line? Are there ways that matter in which women speakers are different to work with than men? If there’s interest, I’ll consider a follow-up piece.

Also in this post, I’ve focused on female speakers. But tech conferences—including my shows—could benefit from efforts to increase the diversity of speaker rosters along other vectors, including race, age, physical ability and other factors that influence experience, perception and understanding. What else can we do to improve our line-ups? Thoughtful, constructive ideas welcome.

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  • Sarah,
    Thanks so much for attempting to start a dialogue on this subject, and for posing some initial thoughts as answers. I’ll be checking in to the comments to see where this goes. You are not alone in wanting to see changes here. The “women don’t submit” issue is the same problem that The OpEd Project is trying to address on the broader question of why women are underrepresented in all kinds of thought leadership. One ray of hope is that people like you are in positions to move the needle on this issue. And that you see it as part of your job. Great point about not limiting this diversity to gender.

  • Thanks for kicking off the comments and for mentioning the OpEd Project (http://www.theopedproject.org). While I was writing the post, I was thinking we need a speakers’ version or division of that org!

  • “Why are women less likely to propose themselves as speakers (and what can we do about that)? Does an increase in great female speakers affect attendee satisfaction or measurably improve the bottom line? Are there ways that matter in which women speakers are different to work with than men? If there’s interest, I’ll consider a follow-up piece.”

    Yes please!

  • Kat Meyer

    Hi Sarah,
    Love that you are bringing this up as it’s very much on my mind of late. At SxSW, saw a great presentation by Erica Mauter (@swirlspice) on producing diverse/inclusive events and conferences. She has an accompanying blog post here http://swirlspice.com/how-to-ensure-a-diverse-tech-event/ — and I’m hoping to chat with her soon as She has really given the subject some thought.

    Interestingly, she referred to O’Reilly’s diversity guidelines…lauding us as being ahead of the curve when it comes to at least the theory behind producing inclusive events. We really have to make an effort to actively recruit diverse speakers AND attendees. Erica’s suggestion that conferences offer scholarships, make it easy for other attendees to contribute toward scholarships, and – here’s an idea – allow sponsors to provide scholarships (something that truly provides value to all parties involved), can hopefully be discussed amongst conference chairs and management at O’Reilly. In fact, if you’re interested, I’d love to work with you and other conference chairs on active efforts to make O’Reilly’s conferences lead the way in inclusivity.


  • I speak at, and have helped organize, several association-run technology industry conferences over the past two decades. And I agree with Sarah’s long and thoughtful post: it is an ongoing and severe challenge to get a speaker roster that is both diverse and knowledgeable.

    One problem that keeps cropping up is speaker overexposure. It’s a numbers game. If there are fewer women execs (and I’ll choose women here, but you can substitute almost any group that’s under-represented at conferences) in a technology industry, you’re starting at a disadvantage in absolute numbers. Then carve out those who may not fit the program focus, are top-level but not good speakers, and are simply not available for a conference, and you have a smaller absolute group to work with than, dare I say it, the usual male suspects.

    That can lead to the same speakers being asked to speak — and if available, rotated in and out of — a large number of conferences. I know it happens with male speakers, but I expect it is even more likely to happen with good women speakers just because of the size of the current population.

    That makes it even more imperative for conference organizers to seek out good women (or again, other under-represented) groups to have on panels and who may not be experienced in the conference circuit. But it is a lot of work. Perhaps even suitable for crowdsourcing?

    Great post. And a problem worth solving.

  • Also: look outside the web network into academia. Consider engineering schools, materials science programs, computer science programs, public policy programs with interests in technology, science and technology studies programs… or even architecture (which is where I reside). Not only can you reach out to more women in those places, but you can invite more people into the entrepreneurial and web world… and bring into the Web 2.0 discussion some really novel advances that aren’t on people’s radars because they’re inside of labs or academia.

  • Sarah, great piece.

    As a female entrepreneur who has been in the solar industry for several years, I consistently find myself amongst the company of men, especially the more I move up into higher level events and activities in the industry. Thankfully, there are many great women working in the industry. However, they are rarely the ones delivering the keynotes or speaking on the panels at top industry events.

    I just returned recently from Greentech Media’s Solar Summit where I was amongst a small, but not minuscule, group of women in the audience. However, there were only 4 female speakers out of a cast of 38 speakers (not counting moderators, who were all men). I spoke with the event organizers about this and they commented that they were challenged to find the female speakers they were able to recruit. A lot of this is due to the fact that men dominate many of the C-level positions at the companies that were invited to participate.

    Then there’s the issue of other kinds of diversity in the lineup (brought up by commenter Marci). This is definitely a challenging topic. I appreciate that O’Reilly is working to address it in their conference planning. I’ll be interested to see how this continues to play out.


  • Sarah, I haven’t been so moved and inspired by a piece of writing in a very long time. It was very obviously written from the heart. You are so right. We all need to do better, and not only as it relates to women or conferences. I love the phrase in your last paragraph: “…race, age, physical ability and other factors that influence experience, perception and understanding.” I’m sure there are many people we could learn from that potentially would never submit a proposal to speak. Thank you for striving to reach out and find them.

  • Excellent article on a topic that’s very much on my mind. It seems to me that current and previous speakers could also be an excellent resource. Women generally know other women in their fields whose work they think is excellent and important and yet those women remain invisible at such events. If you ask each one (and the men, too) for names they’ll probably have them for you.

    The same goes for any underrepresented group. Members of that group are generally acutely aware of whose work and thinking is worth the presentation.

  • Tina Coleman

    I was astounded last year to see how relatively few women were at OSCON, and then impressed to hear the O’Reilly team specifically encourage the women who were there to put forth topics. Hoping to attend this year and see a few more of those ladies put themselves forward as speakers. Waiting anxiously to see if last year’s encouragement + this year’s proposal = a speaker for OSCON who adds to the technical discussions AND adds to the feminine statistics.

  • Jenny

    Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for this terrific piece. Holding this conversation is the place to start, and hopefully more companies will take your advice to take the next step in encouraging more women into prominent roles.

    To folks who say they have trouble finding technical women: I say baloney. NCWIT has interviewed at least 50 women tech entrepreneurs and there are more to come.

    To folks who say they’ve never heard of half these women: I say, if fame begets fame, and women don’t care as much as men about fame, that might explain why these women aren’t famous to you.


  • Bravo, Sarah, especially for bringing the conference organizer’s perspective to this longstanding debate. Regarding the “numbers game,” I know from my work on The Eloquent Woman blog that women have trouble getting on the program at professional conferences in professions dominated by women, such as nursing, public relations and library science. So it may be an even stronger, more subtle barrier–although a dearth of senior women surely doesn’t help.

    I’d be glad to join in any effort to maintain a list or create encouragement for women to speak, so count me in. Folks can see more of the issues raised about getting women on the program in many professions on The Eloquent Woman at this tag: http://bit.ly/h1VR9q

  • Thanks for all the great comments, folks. I’ve been really heartened by your responses, and they’ve sparked some intriguing ideas. A few specific follow-ups:

    @Frank: You’ve totally nailed it on the diminishing returns cycle–which, as you say, makes it all the more important to break out of and find great new women speakers. There are a number of crowdsourced lists that are worth keeping track of; for example: http://www.quora.com/Who-are-the-best-female-speakers-on-the-topic-of-social-media?

    @Molly: When academics can talk in a way that resonates with businesspeople, I’m a big, big fan of showcasing their work (which often gets lost in academia, even if the research is on a business topic). As it happens, we don’t have many university-based speakers next week at Expo, but of those on the slate, at least two are women: Jennifer Aaker and Heather Schlegel.

    @Katie: Great point about using our networks of speakers to build our networks of speakers. Absolutely worth pursuing.

    @Jenny: Thanks for the NCWIT list. Hadn’t seen that one, and it has–hallelujah–some women I don’t know.

    @Sylvia: Thanks for the info on your site. Not to agree with myself too heartily, but it does seem to prove the point that lists are really a key piece in solving this puzzle.

    @Kat: Lotta good links in that @swirlspice post; thanks for passing that along. I’d say that diversity among the attendees is a related (and overlapping) but somewhat different challenge than diversity among the speakers. But FWIF, we’ve experimented with scholarships (including sponsor-sponsored scholarships) for programs at Expo and gotten decent results. Worth further discussion and action.

  • Sorry to be trivial, but:

    “You put out a pubic call for speakers…” should be “You put out a public call for speakers”.

    Feel free to delete this comment after correction.

  • @Evan: No wonder we aren’t getting more women applicants! [Fixed the typo.]

  • Hey Sarah,

    Great post — and great discussion in the comments thread. Glad to see Pam introduce how this dynamic applies more broadly — to the solar sector. As well, your points apply even more broadly — to the corporate social responsibility and corporate governance worlds that I work in. There, the issue of gender diversity on boards is trending into a very hot topic, with research showing abysmal gender diversity on boards globally, as well as showing financial outperformance by companies with more diverse boards. In fact, there’s research from Wellesley showing a “critical mass” effect where boards with 3 or more women bring significant diversity of perspective and innovative ideas, among many other dynamics.

    As well, investors are seeing gender equality as a financially material issue. Pax World CEO Joe Keefe has a great piece on “Gender Equality as an Investment Concept” that projects long-term shareowner value from companies that support women’s empowerment.

    My colleague Marcy Murninghan wrote a great piece summarizing these developments for AccountAbility:


    Bill Baue

  • Sarah –

    Great post. The issue goes beyond the tech community to the speaking industry itself. There are some great women speakers but definitely out numbered. When I look at an all male or all anglo line up for conferences it’s disappointing.

  • Is there a hub, site or place where women speakers can be found? Perhaps there’s not enough knowledge about where to find the incredible about of women to speak.

  • I am the token female speaker at a lot of the events I speak at (I’m a web developer). I hate being invited to speak purely on the basis of my gender; in my opinion the only thing worse than zero female speakers is one woman that is not at the same level as the other speakers (including in terms of speaking experience) and I have previously turned down opportunities when they are offered on the basis of “we couldn’t find another woman”.

    I understand that I’m representative and if other women start to consider speaking after seeing another woman on stage then that’s awesome. There will always be critics who think I’m there to make up the numbers, to give less technical talks or that I’m not on the same level as the guys … the only way I know how to deal with that is to be twice as good as the men (or at least try to be!).

  • Dr. Mary Jean Koontz

    Great article; since often the speakers are referred by the selection panel, we need to have a MORE diverse selection panel…also there is a difference between people who run a business as a “paid speaker” and those that are truly industry reps or tech. entrepreneurs. As a gaming entrepreneur and business professor myself, I can see there are very few women speakers at conferences. I might suggest not always targeting the C level people in mid-large companies….while I know they are a draw….people often learn from the mid level people or the successful entrepreneurs (smaller tech. firms) on “how they did it”. Perhaps O’Reilly could run a speaker/leadership training program for women in tech.? To be honest, many of the men I listen to on panels are not trained speakers themselves, so I don’t think it’s really a requirement if someone is “suggested/recommended” by the selection committee; it’s only those who submit “cold proposals” whom are heavily reviewed, as they should be. I would be happy to be involved in any Leadership program for tech. people….speaking at big ticket conferences is a huge way for FREE PR for small companies in the tech. space.

  • Ah yes, the prominent skilled oft-speaking hot dikes of the Drupal community was one of its big appeals (to me). Although I don’t use the CMS for work these days, I’d almost rather go to Drupalcon than a WP or EE event, which I do use.

    Ironically I double eschew things like SXSW because even more because despite the diversity, I feel like penetrating “the cool kids club” is more work than it’s worth. I actually want to learn stuff more than party and defend my street cred at conferences. (I have my own social life thanks!)

    Again the Drupal community rocks. They are diverse, down to earth, and the learning curve of the product prevents the female contingency from perpetuating the girls-at-tech-conference-are-not-tech perception.

    C’mon..you know what I mean: everyone assumes you must be in marketing, a fancy admin (PM), copywriter or at most technical, graphic designer…it’s happened to you if you’re a chick in tech!

  • I’m also used to being one of the few woman at tech conferences and meetups, and I’m sad we still have this problem, 40 years after the rise of the Women’s Movement.

    However, there is a much better ratio at my favorite conference (Enterprise Search Summit) and others from the same company (infotoday.com), because many of their early meetings came out of the library world. While librarianship and now information studies is not perfect, women often run things. And women founded the whole field of information brokerage (research for hire). We sometimes have all-female panels and lines for the restroom, it’s great!

  • @Jill: Pattie Simone is building a directory of women experts/speakers at http://www.womencentric.net/

    @SarahM: thanks for the terrific & thoughtful post. We have a sligthly easier time building a diverse speaker lineup for the Realtime Conference (formerly TWTRCON) because we are pulling more broadly from social media practioners, where women are better represented. I 100% agree that paying attention to this issue also makes you more focused on all of the other ways that the discussion needs to be diverse — topic, industry, company size, etc.

    Have a great show next week!

  • Sarah,

    Great post. When I started speaking as a Technology Strategist in 2000 it was a good ole boys club. They snubbed me! Today, things are starting to change. This past week, I sat on a panel on social media with two women and spoke to one of the largest real estate franchises. Times are a changing. Social media in its own right is changing things, some of the comments here echo that sentiment. People who practice in “the space” are more effective in presenting especially if they have platform skills. People are tired of being told what to do by people who don’t do it. What can we do to make some changes, faster, quicker, more effectively?

  • Ladies and Gents,
    Getting women to speak at conferences is not brain surgery. We’ve produced over 60 conferences attracting over 25,000 attendees since 2002, and 98% of our speakers are women. Our audience is women business owners, executives and leaders. And our speakers are experts in an array of business topics, including tech. From day one, I never had a problem finding outstanding women speakers. How? I researched on the web. I used my network – which I admit is huge because I’ve been playing in the field of smart women for years. I didn’t open call. I sought them out. Women are busy running their businesses, their families, and r playing key roles in corporations. They aren’t out looking for speaking gigs, although most of them are outstanding speakers. But there’s a simple tool called google that is simply genius. Plus I ask my female speakers to recommend other female speakers. They know who they are.
    If you want more advice, contact me. I’m happy to help. Because my mission is create more visibility for the brilliant women out there to level the field. Women might not answer open calls, but when contacted they will usually speak, as long as they can get a baby sitter or have a partner who supports their career.
    Contact me at lgrossman@womensleadershipexchange.com if you need help.

  • I think there are several reasons that are worth examining:

    Many speaking gigs are quid pro quo for sponsorship dollars – you have to be in a leadership position at a large enough company to pay this. Yet, women are largely shut out of executive roles. They don’t even get funding for startups at the rate that men do, so many can’t build their way into the C-suite either.

    Women make less than men do and it costs a LOT for airfare, hotel, etc. to speak at an event without compensation. If you have to factor in the expense and struggle of finding someone to watch your kids while you travel (I don’t have kids, but I know this is a factor for others), paying $1k-$3k to work for free may not be all that attractive to a lot of smart women.

    Tech is still dominated by the good old boys club, so why would anyone spend time pitching for a speaking gig without a personal contact to shepherd that along? We all know conferences are very insular – getting a cold pitch approved is a long shot and it’s probably not worth the time to write it. I’ve done it successfully a couple of times, but most of the speaking gigs I get are because I know somebody and they reach out to me.

    Finally, where are other minorities at the tech conferences? Not only do they not speak, they don’t attend. Hispanics comprise over 16% of the population. I’m hard-pressed to think of any Latino speakers at any conferences. We know that African-American and Latino adults in the US are twice as likely as whites to use Twitter [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-11965723]. So, minorities USE technology, but I’ve never seen a black speaker at a tech conference. Probably because they’re not running a lot of tech companies either.

    I would suggest planning to make AT LEAST 35-50% of speaking slots available to people who haven’t spoken at your conference in the past. Those slots don’t have to be set aside for women, but at least women will know you’re not looking for same-old, same-old and that would make the effort of submitting a pitch more appealing.

    You could even make some conference presentations shorter (like TED or Ingite). This would invite more participation because it would seem less daunting for people who’ve never done public speaking before. And honestly, how many presentations have you seen that couldn’t have been squeezed into half the time with better results?

    BTW, I’ve never done a speaker pitch to Web 2.0, but I’d be happy to speak. And now you know where to find me. :-)

    Social Profiles: http://www.carribugbee.com

  • Kathy sierra

    Well-done, Sarah. The only part of this discussion — wherever and whenever it comes up — that bother bothers me is that it often puts the needs of the Presenters above the needs of the paying attendees.

    I agree 100% that for virtually any event, more diversity of speakers is most likely a gain for attendees. Although I count gender as just one of so many attributes that matter… but I believe they matter ONLY to the extent that they provide a strong and useful benefit to the paying attendees.

    What I keep hearing in these discussions, including a bit in the comments here (all well-intentioned), is the notion that a speaking slot is about “showcasing”, highlighting, promoting, awarding, etc. the SPEAKER as though somehow people *deserve* to present given some level of achievement and that they are being held back, ignored, etc.

    Even if this is true, i am not sure it is appropriate to conflate the issue of What People Deserve as far as increasing their own visibility, and what the customers of a commercial conference really need to hear. There are already the obvious “sponsored talks” or barely-concealed sales pitch keynotes we tolerate, but there are also plenty of presentation-as-self-promotion talks, and when we associate presenting with success, we are asking for more.

    To me, a presentation is nothing more — or less — than a product delivered to a group of paying users. If we are not truly useful, we do not deserve to be there. It has almost nothing to do with what the presenterYou know how to get right to it, Sarah! I agree with *most* of
    what you wrote, and my only big concern in these discussions is (and always has been) that everyone keep in mind who conferences are FOR: the paying attendees.

    Whenever the topic of speaker diversity comes up, there is a rush to highlight speakers who “deserve” to be showcased, and everyone can come up with a list of people doing “important” work. What I do not agree with is the assumption that one’s work somehow means that person should be giving keynotes. First, it assumes the person doing the work *wants* to, with the implicit assumption that speaking == success, and second, it places too much importance on what the speaker does rather than on what the attendees do (or WILL do as a result of the conference and what they learn).

    The best presentations are the ones that are most helpful to the attendees, period. This may or may not involve presentation skills, and in a tech conference, the content definitely trumps delivery skills. And it may or may not involve hearing the information from the person who *did* the actual work or came up with the ideas being discussed.

    I believe our role as presenters in a conference where people have paid to be there is to act as a UI. We are there to deliver an experience that is useful in some way to the attendees. The more we focus on the awesomeness of the speaker… Why they “deserve” to be showcased or what a good PR or career boost it will be for them, the further we move from what matters the most to attendees. Not that these two things cannot overlap heavily on a Venn diagram…

    But back to your original topic, I do agree that the more diverse the roster, the more potential we have for delivering benefit to those who paid to be there.

    But truly, nearly every time I see this topic come up, the paying attendees are barely given a nod. It is true that we wa as actually done, only what the presenter can *deliver*.

  • Kathy sierra

    Oops. — never commenting via my iPad again. My previous comment was a mash-up of several comments simultaneously and makes no sense. I would delete and start over, but it is not giving me an edit/delete option. Sorry Sarah! :(

  • Ken

    My selection criteria for conferences:

    1. Content
    2. Relevance to short term project goals
    3. Relevance to long term career goals
    4. Cost
    5. Location
    6. Venue
    7. Efficient transportation network

    Speaker demographics do not factor into my decision in any way. IMHO, The most interesting work in technology is done by earnest computer scientists who labor for years in anonimity. The self-nominating narcissists prefer the podium. The best conferences feature reluctant speakers, forcibly removed from their labs, and placed into the limelight for the collective benefit of all. Jim Gray comes to mind.

  • Sarah,

    Thank you for your thought provoking article. That very question is what drove me to host my Leadership Success Summit with women-only speakers. Many events I attended had one woman who was less-than-dynamic and listed on the agenda as an after thought. I always felt as if the conversation went something like, “Oh, we should have a little diversity. Does anyone know of a woman who might speak on this? Let’s give her a call.” without regard to expertise or the dynamics of the other speakers.

    In the end, it is about how to give the attendees the best experience ever — content is only one piece of that experience. Delivery, connection, and many more elements are critical to creating that experience.

    And, for me, now that I have done the event without male speakers (although there are male attendees) I realize that I need to meet with my board of advisors and restructure the model once again. Forward-thinking speakers who can clearly deliver their message plus a focus on diversity, with the goal of broader, wider, and deeper perspectives, is a win-win for all attendees.

    Thank you, Sarah.

  • Thank you for raising this extremely challenging issue and offering real, tangible potential solutions for making change. I’m glad to see that the @OpEdProject was mentioned in an earlier comment as that team, like you, is truly helping to bring more diverse dialog into the public realm.

    The good news is that we are starting to see a growing number of women tech entrepreneurs in their late 20s and early 30s. Names such as @sorayadarabi and @sloane come to mind. Also, some very innovative women are using tech prowess to advance the causes of worthy NGOs.

    Keep up the amazing work you do, Sarah, and thanks again,

    Susan @susanmcp1

  • The diversity problem is much more than just gender or race. It also includes seeing not enough new faces with contrarian ideas.

  • Thank you for a great and thought-provoking post!

    I agree especially with two of the other commenters:

    1. Dr. Mary Jean Koontz, who wrote, “I might suggest not always targeting the C level people in mid-large companies….while I know they are a draw….people often learn from the mid level people or the successful entrepreneurs (smaller tech. firms) on ‘how they did it’.”

    When I consider attending a conference, I’m more interested in hearing from innovative or successful entrepreneurs than corporations, no offense to the corporations.

    2. Carri Bugbee, who wrote: “…[I]t costs a LOT for airfare, hotel, etc. to speak at an event without compensation … paying $1k-$3k to work for free may not be all that attractive to a lot of smart women.”

    Add the opportunity cost (when you’re traveling to speak at a conference, you’re giving up the revenue you would have made were you back at the office or at a client’s working – I speak as a business owner here), you’d have to be pretty bad at business to want to speak for free. Conferences, compensate your speakers fairly! You’re making good money promoting and delivering their expertise to your paying attendees, after all.

  • Great to see the continued comments here. A few more thoughts:

    @Denise: Really interesting note about women speakers in other professions; raises some new questions. And thanks for the EW link.

    @Bill: Board diversity is certainly a related issue. I linked to @KaraSwisher’s piece for that very reason. Thanks for passing along your link.

    @Mary Jean: Our selection committees for Expo have high percentages of women (we’re less diverse on other vectors), which definitely helps but is not the magic bullet I wish it were. We (the Expo chairs and committees) also do agree on your point about looking for speakers who aren’t necessarily C-level–and we have to search because they’re less well-known, which is true for men and women. We don’t care about their title; we care about what they have to say and whether they can say it well.

    @Carri: Sponsored speaking slots (in which a company pays to give a talk and sends a speaker) are a very different thing from editorial slots (in which we pick and/or invite people, and they don’t pay). Expo has a very limited number of sponsor slots, and they’re clearly labeled to distinguish them. Because the content for the shows I work on and the shows I attend are editorially driven, with few sponsor slots, I see that as a much bigger opportunity for positive change, and I’m talking about that process in this post.

    In terms of insularity, of course people we know sometimes get our attention in ways that strangers don’t. But A) We’re looking for people and ideas we don’t already know. That’s why we have the call for proposals and bother to sort through 600 – 1,000 applications twice a year. And we do have at least 50% new speakers at Expo each time around. As a rule, we don’t bring back speakers we’ve in the recent past, expressly because we want to have room for new voices. (And we definitely don’t bring back speakers we’ve had who were given low ratings by attendees, even when they’re close friends.) B) We’re as rigorous as we can be about fairly evaluating the people we know, and we send a lot of notes every year to friends and acquaintances telling them that we wish we could have included them, but it’s not going to work out this year. So while not knowing us isn’t a guarantee of getting in, don’t take yourself out of the running because you think we’re using our networks exclusively.

    In terms of session length, we changed our format in 2009 to include 20-minute slots (we used to have 50-min slots only). Frankly, it’s harder to speak shorter, just like it’s harder to write shorter, so we mostly tie session length to topic (ie., what’s the best fit for the info being shared) rather than speaker background.

    @Kathy and @Lisa Marie: Thanks for raising the issue of attendee experience! I think perhaps I wasn’t clear enough about that in my original post. Hells, yeah, we’re looking for *great* speakers, male and female–not speakers who happen to be women or fill some other demographic. Toward that end, last year, we started requiring video as part of our call for proposals. (If an applicant doesn’t have a clip of themselves speaking at a conference, we suggest they make a two-minute video on their phone instead. So prior experience is not required.) I’m still trying to pull meaningful attendee-feedback data on our results, but by using the videos to evaluate candidates, we feel a lot more confident that we’re lining up speakers who will provide great experiences for our attendees.

    In terms of the broader discussion here–drawing in great speakers who happen not to be the usual suspects–I do wonder what our role might be in helping coach potential speakers. So far, I’ve limited that role to those conversations with CEOs I meet on planes and to providing as much feedback as possible to the speakers we do line up. But I think there’s more that we can probably do, and it’s worth some consideration (and action). As a few have noted, perhaps there’s an Op-Ed Project path we can go; the founder is a good friend of a good friend, so it shouldn’t be hard to start that convo. Insularity at work. :)

  • After over six years of conversations on this topic, for me it always comes down to the following thoughts.

    1. I wish people would dump the straw man argument that one must choose diversity OR quality. No one is actually suggesting that conferences add bad, but diverse, speakers to their rosters. We are saying that there are numerous talents that are overlooked.

    2. Diversity does not happen because one says one is “open to it”, nor does it happen “organically”…set some goals and achieve them. One excellent goal is not just diversity but *new* voices. So, it’s not even always the *same* women or people of color who are featured. As someone points out about: It’s not that hard. Ask for some help. If an organizer hasn’t reached out for suggestions from the very public (and accessible) figures who get tons of women at their events, such as Kaliya Hamlin from She’s Geeky, Allyson Kapin from WomenWhoTech or, for that matter, BlogHer, it’s hard for me to take outreach efforts seriously.

    3. I also think it’s an oft-repeated straw man argument to say one can’t sell a conference ticket without “big name” speakers. I have asked before for someone to step forward and tell us about the time they featured new, interesting, diverse, accomplished speakers, and no one showed up, and their show was a failure. Where’s the event that tested this accepted theory that you need stars to sell tickets, instead of letting people see the next star in the making? BlogHer is the opposite: We typically announce keynotes last. And as an attendee, I’m actually quite the opposite: I haven’t bought a ticket to most conferences in years because I’m SO BORED with the same names and companies being featured. Is every new speaker you take a chance on a home run? Definitely not. But let’s be real: Plenty of regulars on the speaking circuit aren’t exactly mind-blowingly awesome year after year either :)

    My favorite quote from your post is the part where you acknowledge that it’s your job to worry about this stuff. Yes. And thank you.

  • WOW! Is this really THAT hard? 80% of the speakers at the Blogging While Brown conference are women. 99.99% are Black. The idea that women or people of color involved in technology are rare unicorns or some other type of rarely seen mythical creature is a myth. And no, we don’t do remedial speaker training, look at the video from the conference.

    Networking still works. Perhaps you should consider skipping your conference, and going to the conferences where all of these mythical unicorns are hanging out!

  • Sarah – great post, great comments, and thanks for the nod!

    As you noted, there is a large body of research that shows women don’t ask/raise their hands/put themselves in the ring nearly as much as men. Folks also asked why that is. I want to offer some insights on that.

    Social science research – like Steven Asch’s conformity studies – suggests how, if you are a minority voice, you begin to doubt your own basic competencies. Sometimes the findings are almost humorous. For example: a group of people are gathered in a room for an experiment. Unbeknownst to him/her, only one person in the room is actually being experimented on; the rest of the folks are in on the experiment. They are asked a very basic question, with an obvious answer. But everyone in the room who is in on the experiment gives an obviously wrong answer. In about 30% of the cases, Asch found, the person being experimented on will go along with them. This is not a gender thing – it applies to any minority voice.

    At The OpEd Project, our programs essentially and inadvertently provide a vast series of focus groups that back this up. Close to 5000 women have come through our program. It is a near universal experience that a room of women will have a problem with the notion that they have expertise, any expertise – even when defined in expansive, low pressure terms. The language that I use to talk about it is, the culture of self abnegation – in which minority voices begin to buy into the external culture and collude in their own marginalization. We see what’s going on out in the world, and we internalize the external culture and begin to buy into the belief (essentially) that we are not “expert” or knowledgable enough to have a voice or take a useful, visible position on an issue.

    This makes me think about how we need to not only increase the numbers of women (and other minorities) at conferences, but also perhaps that there need to be incubator spaces (like your conference, or our seminar programs) specifically designed to change/counter the external culture.

    I like the idea of a speaker bureau version of what we do at The OpEd Project. If anyone has some energy to put into that and wants to talk, give a ring.


  • Look at Free & Open Source Conferences: http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Women_speakers

    Note the chart at the bottom.

    The Ohio LinuxFest, which gets around 1300 attendees, cracked 35% of female speakers last year, as well as 5% who self-identified as disabled. One of our organizers blasted our CFP upon a pile of female-oriented technical mailing lists. Despite claims that we “must have” taken every female-submitted proposal, the truth is that we had to reject more than we accepted — just like with the male-submitted proposals. We look at the presentations, not who is submitting them.

    This year I’m trying hard to identify mailing lists for other areas of diversity, including disabilities, ethnic background, and finding people of color. We believe that the “open” in “open source” should mean that it is open to everyone. I hope we can achieve a more diverse set of speakers this coming year by trying to get a more diverse pool of applicants.

    Related: To the person who asked that Conferences should “compensate their speakers fairly” — I will point out that some conferences, especially FOSS conferences, are run on GIGO budgets. The Ohio LinuxFest, like many FOSS conferences, is a 501c3 organization which makes no profit. We do at least offer hotel and travel for our keynotes but I cannot tell you how often airfare comes from an organizer’s personal airline miles.

  • Kathy Sierra

    Re: the presenter’s speaking skills, I would still put that lower on a priority list. For example, I attended a Strata talk by a guy who had nearly the worst collection of formal “public speaking” skills, yet what he had to teach us was so damn useful and compelling that after the first two minutes I completely forgot to notice that he spoke in monotone voice, did not make eye contact, etc. Yet someone in the audience who did not care about the topic complained it was the Worst Talk Ever and left immediately. Relevance trumps everything else, assuming the speaker meets a minimum threshold for communicating the ideas.

    I think worrying about someone’s formal presentation skills is overvalued, but worrying about whether they will offer something useful to the audience is often undervalued. So we end up with barely disguised sales pitches, self-promotion labeled as “lessons learned”, and dynamic speakers that deliver fabulously entertaining talks with no clear useful value. That is the bad side. The good side are all the amazing people you do not know about who quietly put together content that is so helpful you quit caring who they are or whether they are using Comic Sans after the first few moments. :). I will say being an attendee at Strata had that wonderfully fresh and useful feeling, including some of the topics I had imagined did not apply to me at all.

    But there, the diversity was perhaps more diversity of *thought* and perspective than gender or race, etc. Regardless, the diversity you find in some of the newer topic areas is very powerful.

  • What a terrific post, Sarah.

    Under-representation of women on panels isn’t about a group of men conspiring not to include women. It’s a question of the meta-structure.

    Organizers need to be intentional in their process about growing the throughput of women. And yes, that is often via invitation.

    Indeed women respond to invitations far more readily than “calls for speakers”. This is not just for conferences — this works for parties, organizations. We like to know we’re wanted, and we’re socialized to believe that ‘crashing’ is not what nice girls too.

    At the same time, we do need to come half-way: apply, speak to the press when called, submit those Op Eds, and call conference organizers on it when they’re getting it wrong. And as importantly — calling out positive actions when we see them, too.

    And Kudos to Rachel Sklar of Changing The Ratio, here in NY, for being persistently vocal with her mission. It does feel like change is in the air.

  • Terrific article & expansion of it within the comments. Your suggestions for greater inclusion of women at conferences have implications for & applications in many areas: politics, academia & corporate America. (Attention Wal Mart CEOs.) I hope you’ll consider further developing the ideas you present here in the context of those other areas & submitting your article for publication at the WSJ, Forbes, etc.

  • Thanks so much for this post — I really enjoyed reading it!

    As a new entrepreneur of a female-focused start-up (http://www.prettyyoungprofessional.com/), I often find it discouraging how few conference speakers –and attendees– are women. I know a host of fascinating women doing great work with stellar public speaking skills, but most don’t seek out speaking gigs. Traditionally, self-promotion is seen as more acceptable in men than women, from a very early age. I love your suggestions for how conference organizers can be more proactive!

    Looking forward to reading more if you end up writing a follow-up piece

  • I’m the one Moose mentioned that sends out OLF’s CFP email to women lists (and this year, accessibility lists as well).

    Something nobody has mentioned yet is GeekSpeakr (geekspeakr.com), a site for women in tech to post areas of expertise, speaking topics, bios, and a list of past speaking engagements. I highly recommend it.