It’s Time for Conferences to Stop Underpaying Women Speakers

“Don’t tell us you can’t find any women to speak at your conference or join your panel.”

Photo: Women in Technology International (WITI) Summit 2015

In my two years as a professional public speaker, I have experienced two consistent trends that I’m trying to change: 1. There are still way more men speaking at conferences and companies as keynotes and panelists than women and people of color, and 2. Many women and POC speakers are paid far less than their male counterparts.

In recent years, important steps have been taken to address the first problem, the fact that many conferences and companies lack awareness of talented female speakers. Meeting planners and event organizers are very busy, and they often fill keynote and panelist slots with people they already know. Thankfully, many conferences are welcoming inclusion efforts like the 50/50 Pledge, which helps organizers find accomplished women tech professionals to speak at their events and maintains a directory of women speakers on their website.

More Women’s Voices, created by author and startup advisor Sarah Peck and her husband Alex Peck, makes it easier to find women entrepreneurs, business owners, authors, and speakers, and August has curated a public list of over 140 women leaders and speakers on their website, with a cautionary note, “Don’t tell us you can’t find any women to speak at your conference or join your panel.”

These lists certainly help conferences and companies identify top women speakers, but they don’t solve the problem of women consistently getting paid less to speak that their male counterparts. In one case, I was part of an event where a woman of color speaker was unpaid, while a man (me) who did the exact same amount of work, was paid several thousand dollars. This wasn’t an evil corporation either — it was a purpose-driven leadership conference that prides itself on valuing diversity and social impact.

In that instance, I said something and the organization ended up paying the female speaker what they paid me. Usually, when I ask my women speaker friends what they were paid for a speaking gig, it is significantly less than what I was paid for similar engagements.

This is messed up and it needs to stop. Obviously, a speaker with ten years of experience (or a speaker who is famous or a bestselling author), is going to be paid more than someone who has zero experience, but that doesn’t justify some of the inconsistencies I’ve experienced. I’m not going mansplain the many reasons why a male speaker would have the audacity to quote an organization $10,000 for a 30-minute gig (and receive the money he asked for), while a female speaker with a similar level of experience would be satisfied simply to get the gig (and not ask for any compensation other than having her Lyft reimbursed), but let’s just say that patriarchy is a hell of a drug.

While we might not be able to keep every organization from underpaying women, one thing we can do is equip women and people of color speakers with the tools they need to get paid competitively as compared to their white male colleagues.

One way to do this is through mentorship and coaching to strengthen the pipeline of up-and-coming speakers. With The Women Speaker Initiative, we’re matching aspiring women and POC speakers with other experienced professional speakers that have 2–3 (or more) years of experience getting paid to speak, so that these experienced professional speakers can provide advice and guidance to aspiring speakers about: 1. How to book more gigs and gain more speaking experience, 2. How to gain the confidence to ask for money, and 3. How to price your talks competitively in an industry where women/POC are consistently underpaid.

So far, over 120 aspiring speakers and 15 mentors have signed up for the pilot program, which is running from March through May. This summer, we’ll incorporate feedback and open the program up to more speakers, and we’d love to have you join us.

I certainly don’t believe that a few group conference calls with a mentor is going to give someone all the tools they need to get paid to speak for a living — that takes years of practice and experience, but I do think everyone can benefit from gaining confidence and skills to get our voices heard. Plus, by giving attention to this issue we can get more people excited about empowering more women/POC speakers and compensating them fairly.

If you are a brilliant, talented woman who is speaking at events, and you are not sure what to charge: know your worth. Don’t be afraid to ask for money — even big money! Yes, some conferences don’t have a budget to pay speakers, but most do. Find another badass speaker who can coach you, and figure out a competitive rate based on your experience. While I realize it’s patronizing to tell women to “get on a list of women speakers,” and I look forward to the day society is equal enough that we don’t need to keep track of awesome women in a Google Doc, the truth is many companies and conferences do in fact look at these lists when considering speakers, so get your name on as many of them as possible.

If you are in a position of privilege, power or influence within the business world: stop talking about diversity and inclusion, and start taking concrete actions that create opportunities for others. Write the emails, have the tough phone calls, do your research and due diligence. Who are you hiring to run your event? Who are you putting on stage? Does your stage reflect a true diversity of backgrounds and experiences? Are you compensating people fairly? How can you share your own platform, knowledge, and network to elevate others?

Together we can reverse these trends and empower more women’s voices, not only at tech conferences, but around the world.


Learn more about The Women Speaker Initiative, and sign-up to join our next program, which begins Summer 2017. If you are interested in supporting this effort by being a speaker mentor, becoming a corporate or fiscal sponsor, or have any ideas for collaboration or partnership, please contact me.

Adam Smiley Poswolsky is a millennial workplace expert, keynote speaker, and author.