Let’s get rid of all-male panels

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.

I believe this is fundamentally wrong. More or less half of the world’s population are women. Some of the smartest people on this planet are women. Most of the people who helped me evolve as a professional designer are women. Yet, women are under-represented at most professional events. Besides the fact that this is just wrong, it is simply not necessary.

I am a co-organiser of a service design conference called the Service Experience Camp that will be hosted in Berlin in November this year. While we are trying to rethink the conference experience as a whole, we wanted to make sure that gender equality is one of the key aspects of the event. In this article, I want to share a few examples of how we approached the issue and thereby hope to motivate other event organisers to follow suit.

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.

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.

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.

There actually was a case in which I contacted a speaker that I had met at another conference. She had a great topic to talk about and was working at a high-tier company. After we discussed many details about her talk she told me that due to a conflict in her schedule she couldn’t make it, but that her colleague (with the same level of experience and competence) would do the talk instead. The problem was, that he was a man. I felt very uncomfortable when I replied to her and her colleague, telling them that we had a gender rule and therefore basically wouldn’t want the guy to speak at our conference. To me it felt like I had asked for a favour and would now reject them, because they didn’t do exactly as it pleased me (At this point I should probably mention that we are not able to pay our speakers a speaker fee).
So I sent the email and thought I had probably upset them. Interestingly enough, a few days later I got an email letting me know that my contact’s boss (a woman) could do the talk instead.
Staying true to our values actually improved our situation. In the end we were able to attract a speaker with a higher career level because we stayed true to our gender guideline.

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 case, the conference is very informal. For a teaser video, we wanted to come up with a tagline that mirrors that. In the beginning we had “Leave your tie at home”. One of the women in our team pointed out, that a tie (although technically not gender-specific), is a symbol for male business dress code. Using this message somehow implies that business conferences target men, assuming they are the natural audience of such an event. We had a long discussion about whether or not this was nitpicking. In the end we went with “Bring your flipflops” instead of “Leave your tie at home” and were happy about the result.
When I look at the final result of the video, I am happy that it shows diversity. However, there are still more men shown who have an active role. There were actually the same amount of women and men at the conference when the video was shot. One reason for the not yet gender-equal result might be the fact, that the videographer and the editor were both men. Maybe we need to change that for next year.

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?

At our conference, we offer a lot of bar camp sessions — slots that can be facilitated by any participant. Often, this is done by two people instead of just one. Because of our visual design, we can only show one photo. So we decided to always use the woman’s photo in such cases. Of course this is not fair for the men either, one could argue. And that is true. But it leads to the fact that more women are visible on our website than otherwise. And this, as a side effect, creates an encouraging mood for other women to send in bar camp suggestions.
As a side effect, women who are about to start their career see more examples of high-ranking women when looking at our website. We hope that this creates encouragement for younger female professionals.

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.

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.

We are a small team of organisers who put together a conference besides their day jobs. Of course we are still learning and I am sure there are many things — especially with regards to gender equality — that we still need to improve.
Our aim to include more women in our conference can only be a start. To be truly diverse, we will need to extend our efforts much broader. Ethnical diversity, a broader definition of gender and many other very important aspects of diversity not mentioned here are equally important. We are well aware of that and are planning to tackle these aspects in the future. If you have suggestions how to get there, we are happy for any constructive feedback.

I hope that by following the seven main suggestions in this article you will be able to create a more gender equal conference yourself. So make sure to:

1. Have women in your founding team
2. Push for an equal amount of female speakers
3. Stick to your values
4. Pay attention to details — especially language
5. If you have to discriminate, then discriminate against men for a change
6. Be aware of gender clichés at volunteer activities
7. Get started now