Why Australia Needs A Directory Of Amazing Women Conference Speakers

On Friday I read in my LinkedIn feed about a new initiative that had just been launched in Australia as one solution if you like to address the issue of gender diversity or disparity in conferences.

Thanks, but no thanks

SpeakerDiversity is about people pledging not to participate on a board that does not have 50% gender representation, as well women are 50% of the population.


And below is a pledge from one person — Kon Karapanagiotidis, CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

What’s just as interesting I think is the comments below Karapanagiotidis’s update.


The comments above are a random selection of the 97 comments (to 13.05.16). Most are encouraging and supportive of Karapanagiotidis nailing his colours to the mast but those that are not are overwhelmingly from men.

These men’s comments mostly revolve around unawareness of the extent of the issue (“most panels in the development industry have women and many times women facilitators”) to disagreement on the pledge approach (“I’m sorry, discrimination of any kind — despite perhaps the well meaning motive behind it — is WRONG!”) to downright dismissive (“Boo Hoo” and “Men’s privilege!? Where do you live? The 1800s?). I find these comments interesting because they show the extent of the issue.

There’s so much being written about this topic both here in Australia and overseas that at times it can seem overwhelming where to start.

Yes, gender diversity at conferences is one piece of the pie. But it’s not the whole pie by any means. There is education and encouraging girls into STE(A)M; a need for recruitment procedures that promote not hinder women in hiring and full participation including through the child bearing years; fostering more women in management and leadership level positions, pay parity, recognition of the extent of unpaid women done by women and then gender diversity at conferences.

Over the last year there has been a plethora of articles in Australia on the topic of diversity in conferences such as this and this and this.

There’s even a powerful Tumblr website calling out all male panels. I say “powerful” as when you look at picture after picture after picture with all male panels you realise how pervasive the issue is.

Earlier this month Alan Jones, of Sydney accelerator BlueChilli put a call out on Twitter for a woman to take his seat at a white, middle aged, able bodied male FinTech panel. Unfortunately Jones didn’t find a taker and acknowledging his need to take these opportunities to promote his business took the seat.

This paper published in Science Mag last year about women as speakers in science conferences is interesting because it raised the issue of women as being more likely to decline speaking arrangements. Its a recurring theme. This article tables some of the reasons why.

So what’s to be done about this issue?

Mid last year online publication The Women’s Agenda put through an article called Female speaker ideas for the tech start-up conference that’s struggling to find women. There’s only 30 women listed which is a drop in the water.

There is also a fundamental problem with this list.

With the best intentions it’s predominantly listed women who are currently visible or high profile or perhaps ‘social influencers in their fields of endeavors.

It’s also a list of women who have predominantly being conference speakers in the past.Given that the pool of women speakers to access is low to begin with given the lower representation of women in technology (and no more so than entrepreneurs of tech startups) relying just on women who are high profile or have in the past spoken at conferences means that the pool of talent to access will be even smaller.

What we need is to increase the pool of overall women speakers.

We need a facility — a directory — to capture details of women who have perhaps NEVER been (tech) conference speakers but who would like to give it a go.

My Hands Up

This directory could be a place where women in tech (but it could be extended to all industries and areas of diversity — ethnic and age etc) could submit their interest in speaking at conferences and on panels (and maybe as facilitators) — in essence put their hand up to speak. And yes it would be great to back this up with a forum for support and information sharing to the ‘newbies”in conference speaking.

In time the resource could become a place where conference organisers could check for fresh and new talent on conference speaking instead of relying on familiar “top of mind” women speakers who maybe over committed in conference speaking and likely to say no. And by doing so perpetuating the reported experience (however right or wrong) by conference organisers that women are more likely to say no to conference speaking or that a big name speaker was needed and no woman came to mind that fitted the bill.

I’ve wrote a little about this issue last year. A directory like this would enable NON VISIBLE women doing amazing things in the tech space to put their names forward as conference speakers and in turn grow the pool of potential women conference speakers.

This directory, initiatives like SpeakerDiversity and a concerted prioritizing by conference organisers of achieving speaker diversity on panels may — in time — lead to change.

Speaking of a directory, here’s some inspiration from UK based ArticulateNetwork. Be great to see something like this for Australia. Now there’s a thought…