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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