Why I Speak at Conferences
A few years ago, I was asked to do a keynote at a STEM conference. Early in my career, I attended STEM conferences regularly. However, over time, I had become more of the heads down — getting the job done kind of person, and not so much the person who went out to speak about all the interesting work I was doing.
That morning, after I gave the keynote on Big Data Science and got off stage, there was a group of women waiting to speak to me. They thanked me for being the only female speaker for the day and for being such a role model. I took a closer look at the agenda for the day and sure enough, I was the only female speaker! I was embarrassed. I had agreed to do the keynote as the event organizer was a friend and knowing that I was currently leading a very interesting big data initiative he insisted that I present. Till the day of the keynote, I never had a strong sense that I could be a role model to any other woman. I felt that I was not as great or as accomplished as Sheryl Sandberg or Indra Nooyi or Angela Ahrendts or all of the amazing women on big lists. I wasn’t exceptional enough to inspire another woman. And that’s where I was wrong.
That group of women engineers and scientists in the conference were inspired by me, they were not only happy to see a woman speaking about big data and data science on the main stage but they were inspired to work with big data and data science. That’s when I decided that I needed to be more active in speaking about my work at STEM conferences, I needed to take the time, to really find the time to not only prepare and deliver speeches but also the time to find the events where I could add value.
The number of women speakers at STEM conferences is truly dismal and I have to do whatever I can to help. STEM conferences generally have a paucity of female speakers. Many have no women speakers, some have a “token” woman speaker, most conferences hover around the 10% mark for female speakers and very few have a “strong” representation of 25% women speakers.
Why is this important?
Just as great products and great companies are built by diverse teams; great conferences are composed of diverse speakers. Women bring unique and new perspectives as speakers and panelists. The audience benefits from the fresh and diverse ideas from different speakers with different backgrounds. When young women and men see people, they can identify with, on stage, they get more inspired.
A lot of research has been done on why there are so few women speakers at STEM conferences and here are a number of reasons given as to why we don’t see an equal number of female speakers. In 2012, Jezebel wrote about Jonathan Eisen’s quantitative analysis of gender bias in quantitative biology meetings, and also included “a bingo card full of excuses for not having more female speakers at STEM conferences”.
Five years later, this bingo card is still relevant.
What can we do about it?
The most effective way to get more women speakers is to not make this a gender issue but to raise awareness, identify and reduce the barriers to entry. One of the inherent dangers of making it a gender issue, is implementing positive discrimination.
A STEM conference with all women speakers will be equally ineffective as a STEM conference with all men speakers.
We should be striving for equal representation to gather a diverse set of thoughts and ideas.
Here are some thoughts on what organizers, companies and individuals can do to change this situation.
Great conferences require great speakers. Every conference organizer wants to put together a diverse, interesting and engaging speaker slate or a panel to have the most memorable event. It takes a lot of time and effort to find the right speakers — speakers who have interesting topics to talk about, speakers who are articulate and can convey their thoughts and opinions while keeping the audience engaged, speakers who are experts in their area and willing to put in the time and effort to prepare and deliver the talk. Men and women can easily fill in these criteria. It is up to the organizers to start looking beyond the usual suspects and put in the extra effort to find the diverse speakers.
In his words,
If conference speakers were being chosen by a system that treated gender fairly (which is to say, gender was never a factor at all), then in any conference with over 10 speakers, say, it would be extremely rare to have no female speakers at all — less than 5 percent chance, depending on one’s assumption about the percentage of women in mathematics as a whole.
Turning that statement around, we conclude that any such conference without any female speakers must have come into being in a system that does not treat gender fairly.
Companies and Organizations
In most organizations, the Marketing/PR department gets a number of requests every year for speakers from the conference organizers. If you get a request for sending a speaker, make the effort to find an awesome female employee who would be a great speaker with some mentoring, practice sessions and help with slide reviews. Don’t just go for the usual male employee speaker you have always sent, because it’s convenient. It’s a much larger problem, if you can’t find any awesome female employees in your company.
Also, companies willing to invest in sponsoring a conference should be willing to invest in one (or several) of their female employee’s growth as well. It will take time and effort but for every company talking about diversity and inclusion, here is an action that will actually help move the needle on having more diversity at public conferences.
Besides, it’s good for the company too. Investing more time, focus and resources into encouraging all their employees, women and men, who have the skills and interest to present at conferences increases the number of spokespeople for your company. And it’s so much more than just public speaking, it also develops the employee’s skills to be more confident in meetings, raises more awareness about the company’s brand from diverse perspectives and speaks to the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion louder than any marketing campaign ever could.
So, look beyond that male employee who fits into the ‘speaker’ persona and has always spoken at every STEM conference your company has sponsored and find that female employee who could be a speaker for your company with just a little help from you. And if you have a female employee who is already a great speaker, do everything to support her to continue down that path.
If you are invited to speak at an event, take the time to look at the others speakers and if you don’t see a diverse speaker list, recommend one (or more) of the successful and phenomenal women from your network, who would be a great speaker.
Don’t serve as a panelist at a public conference, if there are no women on the panel.
Be aware of underlying biases that exist and help the conference organizers overcome them.
Getting on stage and speaking in front of a large audience is daunting — encourage the new speakers with your guidance and support.
Having fewer women in tech in the first place, is a large problem by itself, which makes it even more important to showcase several great women speakers at conferences. Removing implicit biases is key to increasing the number of women speakers at public conferences. And the speakers themselves can help by being aware and willing to challenge the status quo.
As for me, I have spoken at number of STEM conferences since then, for the past few years. I still feel I am not a great speaker, I still feel nervous before getting on stage and I still have to spend several weekends preparing for a speech but I know that it’s worth all the effort and the nervousness, if I can encourage even one woman to join a tech career or stay in a tech career. Now, I actively seek out and speak at STEM conferences and also bring in more women speakers to these events.
And I still continue to be amazed at how often I end up being the only female speaker for the day.
Note: Opinions are my own and not related to any of the organizations or institutions that I am or have been associated with.