How to Crash an All-Male Panel
There was a cool story recently about how a man gave up his seat on a panel to a woman and encouraged more men to do the same. But, what if no one offers you a seat?
A few days ago at Shift Conference in Split, Croatia, I was invited to judge one session during the Startup Challenge competition, an international startup competition spanning four sessions over two days with four judges per session.
Amy judged during the second session.
I noticed there weren’t any female judges the next day (I was surprised they didn’t ask Theresa @Codestarterorg, a speaker on the 2nd day) but I decided not to say anything. Amy and I had judged already, I conceded.
On the second day, however, a male founder on stage made a joke about how data centers were like women.
“They are powerful… and, like women, very expensive…” he joked,
earning a large laugh from the audience and an audible groan from me, and a few others. I wondered if he would have made the same joke if Amy, Theresa, or I had been sitting there, glaring.
Then, in the hall, a woman asked me if I was going to judge the fourth session. I replied that I was not. It was a pleasant surprise to see quite a few women pitch during this competition, and I regretted not saying something the day before. I looked on the schedule, and I noticed that only three people were judging the last session:
Fueled by hyper-energy jetlag, I decided instantly to grab my bag and walk backstage. I mingled a bit with Qasar @YC, Aaron @Venrock, and Marcus @Zynga. Smiling through my nerves, I asked if I could take the fourth judging slot. Allan Grant, founder of Hired, had already been asked, I learned.
I considered taking my seat again, but instead, walked over to Allan, leaned over, and whispered, “Mind if I take your spot?” Without hesitation, he agreed.
That was it. Shortly after, I walked on stage.
I felt a little uncomfortable walking backstage and inserting myself without an invite, but I’m glad I did. I’m a good judge. I enjoy panels. It would have felt silly to watch this panel from the audience knowing I could have done it.
A few women came up to me during the afterparty and thanked me. They had also seen the empty slot on the schedule and figured I had been asked to join. When I laughed and told them about how I walked backstage and volunteered myself, they were surprised, paused, then said, “Why not?” That’s why I decided to share this story, so that more people will ask themselves, “Why not?” I have struggled with being seen and being heard, and have finally learned to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
At this year’s retreat, I suggested we formally institute a policy not only to aim for 50/50 on our panels, but require at least one woman on all 500-sponsored panels. I got unanimous support from Dave, Christine, and the team, since this is something 500 has been doing for years.
If you see an all-male or all-white or all-anything panel and have the qualifications to contribute, don’t wait for someone to offer you a seat.