Let’s get rid of all-male panels

Manuel Großmann
Oct 4, 2015 · 8 min read

How to create more gender equal conferences

We all have experienced this — we sit at a conference, in front of us there is a panel with four male guests, a male moderator and (if we get lucky) one woman at the side. Sadly, this is not a scene from ‘Mad Men’, but a scene from professional events in 2015. I’ve been to too many events, especially within the startup context, where all-male or male-dominant panels and keynote-speaker lists are the standard rather than the exception.

Have women in your founding team

When we founded Service Design Berlin (the organisation that runs the conference), we were two women and two men. I have to admit that this was not a conscious decision, but it made a huge difference. As a (white European) man I don’t face much discrimination in my daily life. This means, that my awareness for certain topics was rather low. Closely working with women helped me to better understand struggles and discrimination they face every single day. It changed my perspective and made me realise how important it is to be aware of equality in areas that I didn’t even consider before.

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Our founding team consisted of two women and two men.

Push for an equal amount of female speakers

At conferences, the keynote speakers are one of the most visible parts. That is true before, during and even after the conference. They are seen on your website and they get a lot of attention from your participants. One of the typical arguments for all-male panels is, that the best experts simply happen to be men. Although statistically it is probably true that there are more male than female CEOs and board members in this world, it is nonsense that you can’t get equally or even better qualified women on the stage of your conference. In the end, you are not inviting all the world’s CEOs and board members, but 4, 10 or 15. So we are really not talking statistics here, are we?
There are other reasons why women don’t appear on stage as much as they should. Within our personal networks we often find people who are similar to us. So men tend to have more men in their professional network than women for example. This means, if your conference’s organising team consists of men only, your personal network might not include many high potential women. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist! If you don’t know many female CEOs, then approach professional female networks or ask some of your female co-workers to introduce you to someone. If you actually try, this is easier than you think.

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There will be an equal amount of female and male keynote speakers at our conference

Stick to your values

For our conference we explicitly targeted as many female as male speakers. This year, we have the rule that no female speaker can be substituted by a male one. Just stick to that rule and you won’t become all male.

Pay attention to details — especially language

Inequality doesn’t only speak through the amount of male speakers that smile towards visitors of your conference website. Language plays an important role and sends a clear message, too. Make sure that you pay attention to how you phrase any public statement and be as gender-neutral as possible.

In our teaser video we tried to use as much gender-neutral language as possible

If you have to discriminate, then discriminate against men for a change

There are situations, when there is a man and a woman and for whatever reason you have to choose one or the other. So why not just choose the woman by default, for a change?

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We use photos of female speakers whenever possible to promote women

Be aware of gender clichés at volunteer activities

Many conferences work with volunteers who often perform a lot of important but not very prestigious tasks. When assigning these tasks, be aware of gender clichés and make sure not to follow them. Don’t assign all technology tasks to men while greeting and wardrobe is done by women. Match volunteer jobs with your volunteers actual skill set and not with your gender clichés. This probably takes a bit more time and effort, as you need to find out what everybody is good at. But in the end, you will even profit from it, because your volunteers perform the assigned tasks better and are more motivated.

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Conference guests are welcomed by a female and male volunteer

Get started now

Judging from my own experience as a conference organiser I can say, avoiding male-only panels is not as hard as people say. The first step is to be aware that change is needed. Once you are aware, then start to take small steps. And most of these steps neither require a lot of time nor much extra effort. Just just get started now!

How to start if you are a man

If you are a man (or belong to any other socially “privileged” group), then don’t take the status quo of all-male panels for granted. Try to find interesting women as speakers for your conference — there are actually many out there. Reach out for feedback from people who are different than you are. Ask them for help and take their feedback seriously. Involving people who are different than you will enrich your event, foster more meaningful discussions and broaden your audience.

How to start if you are a woman

If you are a woman (or belong to any other underrepresented group at conferences and other events), then reach out to the organisers and let them know how you feel. Be constructive in your criticism. Websites like ‘Congrats, you have an all male panel’ help to create awareness, but rather do finger pointing. If you can, provide actionable suggestions on how to exactly improve the speaker list, wording etc.
Or even better, introduce them to people in your professional network. As I mentioned, often the organisers have a limited network themselves from which they usually draw speakers. By opening up your network you can have positive impact.

Service Design Berlin

‘Service Design Berlin’ connects user experience and…

Manuel Großmann

Written by

I am an independent service design consultant and father of two sons, based in Berlin.

Service Design Berlin

‘Service Design Berlin’ connects user experience and service designers, customer service experts as well as everyone interested in the discipline.

Manuel Großmann

Written by

I am an independent service design consultant and father of two sons, based in Berlin.

Service Design Berlin

‘Service Design Berlin’ connects user experience and service designers, customer service experts as well as everyone interested in the discipline.

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