Why we aim for 50% of speakers at Digital Freedom Festival to be women, and why it matters for everyone

Dagnija Lejiņa
Apr 27, 2017 · 7 min read

I hate all-male-panels. They are the agents of “fake news”. They shape and construct a non-accurate picture by signaling that there are no women with interesting and strong opinions, worth to listening to and engaging with.

That is why I am usually the first one who is tweeting about all-male panels. At the times when we celebrate the positive impact of diversity, there it is something wrong we need to solve.

Extra steps are needed

However, my worst nightmares came true when I started organizing events myself. Despite my good intentions, I could not secure enough women on stage. The first tech event I did was two years ago — a conference called Silicon Valley come to the Baltics with 650 attendees, where I had only one woman speaker!

It was an eye opener for me, — if I curate the content of the program with a “go with a flow” approach, that’s what I get. Obviously, I had to make a choice: to not only recognize diversity as a value, but also to take additional, extra steps to ensure we hold ourselves to them.

This is what I did with the next tech event called Digital Freedom Festival organised in Riga, Latvia November 2016.

Events, much like media, can be powerful agenda-setters

Conference organizers can have a huge impact on shaping our perceptions. By carefully curated agenda topics and speakers events become the platforms that tell us — what is and what is not important. In a way, we thus serve the same “gatekeeper” role as the media industry’s editors-in-chief and publishers. As event organisers, we do not only reflect the present reality, but also contribute to the construction of the future in many ways. That’s why events can be such powerful impact agents.

Diversity, in particular, and the incentive to strive for a better balance in terms of female speakers and attendees has become a big topic, especially in the startup and technology industry. Tech is booming, but we have only 25% of women working in tech. When it comes to founders — it is even less. In the US, only 18% startups have at least one female founder. The good news is that the number has been increasing in the past few years, but there is still a long way to go.

Diversity should be celebrated. Plenty of research shows that more diversity is beneficial — not only as a value, but also as a great source of creativity, innovations and efficiency.

By getting more women on stage we boost the positive virtuous circle — more visible woman encourage other women to take a lead.

Discussing “the next big thing” with Ilja Laurs (Nextury Ventures, Lithuania), Elizabeth Stark (Lightning, US), Marvin Liao (500 Startups, US), Christoph Auer-Welsbach (IBM Watson, Netherlands)

How we choose our speakers?

As a conference organizer I try to understand what lies behind the low representation of women’s voice in so many public events. There are certain set of criterias we apply to select the best speakers.

1. Top level “rockstar” speaker

We just love everybody who is a founder, executive, a real influencer and a game changer. The problem is that there are few women on that level. The fact is that the selection pool is already very small. And once you approach a tech leader women in many cases, she is already overbooked.

2. Breaking stories

Conferences are platforms for story-telling. We love stories of breaking things. Not only fewer women as founders and in executive roles. In many cases women in tech are “invisible ninjas” working in supporting roles — communications and marketing, community engagement, accountancy, office support etc. Important functions, but these are not the stories we usually perceive as “breaking things”.

3. Excellent infotainment skills

Good presentation skills are as important as the stories themself. However women still are considered to be weaker presenters. We value so much infotainment, keynotes in the style of shows, TED-talk inspirations. Many of these styles demand a set of skills like aggressiveness, extravertness and over-confidence. Much of these are associated with male-style of presenting.

I tend to observe that many women are not so confident, they overthink too much and like many of us — are too afraid to get up on stage.

Interactive photo session with Dan Taylor (Heisenbergmedia)

What are extra steps to get more women on stage?

Somebody once said to me that “diversity is the fact and inclusion is an action”. Apparently getting a balanced world-view representation on the stage demands some extra step. I am not a big fan of positive discrimination, however if it serves for a bigger purpose and encourage positive circle, I am in.

What we all can do to empower the idea of diversity in the public events?

1. Setting the benchmark

It should be acknowledged and agreed about the value of diversity. Be it defined in the mission statement or just mutually agreed with team members, defining this value is the first step. I believe that tech conference organizers can set the benchmark around this idea and get 50% women speakers like, for example, The Conference and Futur en Seine and Pause Fest. Congratulations! These are good examples of how tech events can take the lead.

2. Scouting proud and loud

Yes, some say and I totally agree it takes 30% more time to scout a female speaker than a man. Not very efficient from this perspective. However you are not alone and there are good sources for inspiration — different tech women lists (Techcruch, Tech.eu — naming just few of them). We are also witnessing several crowdsourcing initiatives etc. Reaching out for advice boosts a lot of support.

3. Make the story with an impact

Content is the king. Mastering it together with the speaker is really important. When curating the program, first start with setting the topics and only then go for speakers. This also helps to avoid having all female speakers on all these important, but still “soft” topics like communications and PR, team building, mindfulness… All of this is super important, but in many cases it lacks this “wow” effect. We should intentionally look for angles that transform women stories into “wow” moments.

4. Mastering presentation skills

A good speaker is the one who has found her authentic presentation style. We do not always have to stick to one single speaker’s’ style and format. My observation is that many women are just afraid of that keynote speaker’s style. But there are so many other formats we can mix to get the best stories out — fireside chats, discussions, also leading and moderating panels… Working individually with each speaker helps to discover the best potential to empower public communications.

5. Attending women’s events

Although I have been rather skeptical about females' only tailored events, I start changing my mind as I see their positive impact. Women community is very supportive and it also drives the visibility and role models other women can follow. In my own town Riga Tech Girls movement has played a big role in empowering girls. The example of I am Tomorrow conference in Barcelona in June also can give a lot of inspiration.

6. Be ready to invest 30% more time

Because of this reduced “pool” of women speakers and their limited availability — as they are already busy attending other events — it takes much more time to get them to speak at your event. Just plan this ahead and be ready mentally and time-wise. Also, being in that position of saying a “positive no” to male speakers and ask them to suggest a woman speaker on that topic.

7. The community should also engage

There are many things that other speakers and the audience can do. It is important. Please do not just tweet about “all-male-panel”, but proactively suggest female speakers to the organisers! Another extreme example is just to exchange your male seat. Hopefully not during the event itself as a show, but already before. Community can have a very active role in setting the scene. It can always be a two-way flow and the audience will appreciate that.

50% women speakers on stage of Digital Freedom Festival 2017

We have done some homework for our first Digital Freedom Festival in Riga 2016. Among 1000+ attendees, we got 33% of women attendees and 25% of female speakers on stage being part of almost each panel. They were speaking about blockchain, chatbots, venture capital, sextech, internet of things, cybersecurity…

But there is still way to go — diversity is a matter of fact, but inclusion is a choice and proactive action.

Therefore we have agreed with our co-founders Uldis Leiterts and Juris Šleiers, that we are setting the goal of having 50% of women speakers on stage of Digital Freedom Festival 2017.

Let’s make it as an extra step and let’s see where does it lead us.

The co-founders of Digital Freedom Festival Uldis Leiterts, Dagnija Lejiņa and Juris Šleiers with Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Former President of Estonia, who received the first Digital Freedom Award.

… and thank you!

I started this piece during the flight from Paris to Riga on my way back from the Leaders conference and the first Startup Sesame Summit.

This is why I also want to thank for inspiration.

Benjamin Constantini for encouragement some time ago to write a blog, Joanna Kirk for being a great ambassador of women in tech and also moderating discussion at @Leade.rs, Robin Wauters for checking the clarity of the story, Kiran Maverick for setting up I am Tomorrow conference…

And Dan Taylor, Manuel Koleman, Eliane Fiolet and so many others who already have helped me to outreach so many great women.

See you soon in Digital Freedom Festival, Nov 27–28, 2017 Riga, Latvia!

Dagnija Lejiņa

Written by

Curious and Passionate about Communications, Co-Founder and CEO Digital Freedom Festival and ReputationTime, Founder of Lejina&Sleiers Reputation Management