How to get an awesome gender diverse speaking lineup for your conference…

Sometimes I’m asked to help in situations where sponsorship agreements for conferences, summits, and other events have conditions of diversity and inclusion tied to them. For example, a tech conference that has a requirement for 50:50 gender diversity of those who are speaking (though, I should note that this is not the only way to have diversity and inclusion at your event).

Responses to this challenge have varied; many conferences have risen to the challenge and some have not…

Despite the concerns conference organisers raise about this clause, it’s absolutely possible. On a few occasions I’ve been directly responsible for helping organisers increase the diversity of a conference lineup. On each of these I’ve been able to pull off a gender diverse and very high quality speaking line up. I would even go so far as to say that I’ve been able to significantly improve the quality of such lineups, and on one occasion, with four days notice. As a person with a reasonable amount of experience doing this, I want to lay out a few useful tips and hints to achieve diverse, entertaining and informative speaking line ups. Many of these things are good to have in mind regardless of what conditions your sponsorship agreement has.

Change your approach: avoid having to ‘backfill’ and cold email…

In general, be smarter and more strategic about how you approach securing speakers for your panels. Typically what happens is after the conference team has secured all the first round of speakers, they realise they don’t have any female speakers so they cold email a few women. These invitations get rejected or ignored and the conference organiser points to this as evidence that they tried. Try not to fall into this trap. Instead, prioritise the diversity (not just gender diversity) of your speaking line up and think about it upfront. If for no other reason than a sponsor has asked you to, but preferably because you want an interesting conference that keeps people engaged. In my experience, making sure that your conference has an ethnically, gender and an otherwise diverse speaking list will improve the general interest level. It’s also an admirable idea to give the occasional slot to a complete novice, cutting their teeth on the speaking scene. So now that your team has prioritised it, how might you approach more speakers?

1. Leverage the connections you have and ask for help

Many conference organisers run into the trap of asking their friends to help them with the speaking list and if you’re a male conference organiser, you might subconsciously ask all your male mates in the tech industry. They subsequently then ask their male friends and associates and so on and so forth. Think about the fact that this happens and tackle it head on. Approach the well-connected women you know in the industry and enlist them to help you make sure that your conference is the best it can be. There are a few women in any tech ecosystem/city who are the community builders and the connectors. We all know who they are. Let them know that you have a goal to make your conference as diverse and interesting as possible and ask them for suggestions.

2. A diverse speaking lineup starts with a diverse line up of panel moderators

Often event organisers will secure a panel moderator from within their friends and associates and then that panel moderator will be tasked with finding panel members, which will invariably come from within their own networks of friends and associates. If you start with a diverse line up of panel moderators (or even slightly weight the moderators towards more women), and let them know that their panel needs to be diverse, this will be much more likely to eventuate. A caveat here is that when your panel moderators don’t understand your motives or the importance of thinking outside the box with regards to panel diversity, you can run into issues of ‘tokenistic’ panel inclusions. This is a conversation for you to have with your panel moderators. It needs to be clear to them that you expect them to put in a bit of effort with their panel recruiting and that you’re there to help if they need it.

3. Don’t just offer diversity tickets — offer those tickets to various orgs in exchange for assistance to secure diverse, high quality speakers

On occasion, well-intentioned event organisers who want to prevent their event from becoming a ‘sausage fest’ will offer ‘diversity tickets’. These are tickets that are free or heavily discounted for certain demographics. The practice is divisive and I could write a whole article about the pros and cons of it. However, my personal opinion is that I wouldn’t do it, for a number of reasons, namely; it doesn’t address the root cause of the issue, devalues the ticket (potentially higher number of no-shows if you’ve given the ticket away for free without there being a draw card speaking line up), and alienates a portion of your fee paying ticket holders.

Make it the kind of event women will pay to attend

The root of the issue that diversity tickets attempt to address is not enough women wanting to attend your event because it’s perceived as not a female friendly conference. This could be in tone or line up, or because they don’t feel like they’ll get anything out of it. The way you address this is standard conference marketing strategy. Give promo and discount codes to community influencers with a large network of diverse people, in exchange for presence on their social media. Pay attention to little things like the stock photos and headline speakers on your marketing materials. Reserve the free tickets only for a) people with a valuable level of social media influence b) demographics that legitimately can’t pay for your ticket that you’d like to be able to attend, like school kids.

I promise you that if you get a bunch of diverse, interesting and engaging people speaking at your event, their friends will want to come and watch and will buy tickets. Conversely, if your marketing materials paint a picture of an overly homogenous, potentially dull conference, I’m likely to give it a miss. To achieve the first, avoid the usual pitfalls for content and expertise spread:

  • 100% avoid at all cost wasting a time slot with a generic ‘women in tech’ topic — it’s been done to death and many of the women I know loathe with a passion getting invited to do these. There’s nothing of value we can say on these panels. The more important thing to worry about is; do you include these amazingly talented women on the panels that would give them a chance to talk about technologies they’re really interested in and the stuff they’re experts in? Also, consider if you’re putting all the female speakers on these panels you miss out on their valuable contribution to other topics of interest.
  • I’m not just talking about gender diversity here, why do you need JUST technical experts on these panels? I often see panels full of highly technical engineers, and it can be really boring. Consider, for example, a panel about “User centred design in self-driving skateboards”, and the panel will be four skateboard engineers because the moderator is a skateboard engineer and he has roped in all his engineer friends to do it. Consider how much better it would be if he had one engineer, a cross discipline expert in product design and something else, a marketing expert, and a human factors expert. Plot twist: the skateboard engineer also happens to be a woman. How much better is that as a panel…?

Conferences are huge complex beasts with lots of moving parts, but as a general rule, if you’re struggling to even give away tickets, something has gone wrong, and it’s often the quality and diversity of your speaking line up.

Create a Code of Conduct for your panel moderators and events staff

There are many ways in which your panel moderators and events staff could be unintentionally undermining your efforts on all of the above; i.e. silly things that people do by accident without realising, that make your conference an unwelcome place for female speakers or attendees. Some time ago, we all started using codes of conduct for hackathons, to make people aware of behaviours that we’re not cool with, in an up front and non-confrontational way. This will improve the quality of the experience for all the speakers, not just the women.

Some of the things you should include in a document of that kind include the following:

  • If you have a highly qualified technical woman on your panel, don’t deliberately ask the technical questions of the non-technical men beside her. It would seem that this would go without saying, but I’ve seen this happen. I’m guessing this is more often than not due to a higher degree of familiarity between the moderator and the people he’s enlisted to be on the panel, rather than the women the organisers have asked him to include. At any rate, a good solution for this is to point out to moderators that this is a thing that sometimes occurs, and ask them to be mindful of it.
  • Further to the above, often when the men on the panel were invited by the panel moderator and they’d had the women on the panel ‘foisted’ on them because they didn’t think about diversity, and this comes across overtly. Sometimes, as above, they misdirect questions, other times they send them too much pre-reading assuming that they don’t know what they’re talking about. In general they can sometimes act ‘hard done by’. You can avoid this issue by thinking about all of the above hints and tips when securing panelists and moderators. However, as above, it’s also worth heading this behaviour off at the pass, by making your expectations of your moderators clear.
  • Avoid like the plague questions that ask for her opinion ‘as a woman’.
    Expect that all of the women on your panel are awesome, and don’t be surprised when they say something really interesting or insightful — that’s what they’re there for. Regardless of if they’ve never done a speaking engagement before or if they’ve got 20 years experience in the industry, they’re there because they’ve got something to say. Being surprised that they’re high value is rude.
  • Event organisers often, in their eagerness to make sure that everything goes off without a hitch, will make it unnecessarily time-consuming to be on a panel and will run into the trap of ‘over-briefing’ panel participants. This is an issue for all event participants, regardless of gender. If you have the right people on their panel, high-quality speakers will be generally able to talk at length about topics that they love. If you want super qualified important people on your panel, especially if they’re not people you’re personally acquainted with and are participating in your event because someone else has asked for you, don’t make them regret consenting to it by giving them reams of pre-reading and homework, as it comes across as condescending.
  • Further to the above, avoid eager beaver events management staffers requiring multiple confirmations and logistics clarifications from extremely busy people. Tell them where it is and they’ll figure it out. The more effort and input you require from these people prior to an event the less it becomes worth it for them to participate the likelihood of drop-outs increases exponentially.

Final Notes

I think it’s clear by now that in my general opinion as a conference goer, I want to see something interesting and engaging on the speaking lineup before I shell out for a ticket, and I’m not alone in this. I think all conferences benefit from a speaking lineup that has had some thought put into it, whether that be through gender diversity, cultural diversity, diversity of experience or expertise. As a general rule you want to make your events easy and enjoyable to participate in, and informative and engaging for your attendees. I hope that some of the points above help you avoid the many pitfalls that befall conference organisers.