Take the token.
I think turning down a speaker offer because you’d be the only woman is cutting off your feminist nose to spite your face.
There are some exceptions to this. The incident that prompted my bold statement above happened yesterday at E3, the huge games conference in LA. In a great discussion in the women’s gaming group on Facebook, the eloquent and very cool Tara Brannigan posted about a serious screwup there. Take a look at a speaker slate of 28 (overwhelmingly white) men and 0 women at the PC Gaming Show, a major E3 industry event.
After GamerGate, there is zero excuse for a major gaming event to blunder as horribly as that. Sheer random chance dictates that a woman would accidentally have wandered into the lineup; with 28 men on that slate, this goes beyond an unconscious bias and starts to smell deliberate.
I’m a gamer and very serious about my geekery, and the games industry has GOT to change. I’m a tech CEO, but I’m in business logistics and services, not gaming. Best of luck to those more deeply involved in the industry than me; I’ll help where I can, but DAMN, LADIES — y’all have a tough row to hoe.
Now, I’m not often faced with that situation. Most of the time, it’s topical panels like Northwest entrepreneurs, or bootstrapping startups, or B2B SaaS panels, etc. I can think of a panel I recently sat on that had 5 men on it. I was invited to speak two weeks before the event. The other speakers had been listed for weeks and months in this annual event. I knew exactly why I was invited to speak there, and I was fine with it. I landed a client for my company Fizzmint, made great industry connections from a position of authority and expertise, and helped inspire two women there to learn more about starting their own company.
As with a lot of the other tradeoffs I make, sometimes I sacrifice a little of my right to blast the patriarchy in exchange for making connections and showing business and tech professionals a woman in authority. That presence, I think, speaks to the gut and not the head, and does more good than splashing pixels on the topic. I also make more friends and do my best to acknowledge and call on people who are often unintentionally silenced in Q&A situations.
So, how do I make the decision whether to accept the invite to be the lone woman — the token, if you will, on a panel or at a speaker event?
My rules (and they don’t work for everyone):
1. In general, I take the token. Having a woman there is generally better than being invisible, and I can often suggest another woman who can also participate. I always introduce them to a woman of color if there’s one in my network who can speak knowledgeably to the topic. I’m bootstrapping a startup and I can’t turn down legitimate chances to support and promote my company as a businessperson.
2. If the event or organizer “tacks me on” in any way, such as not giving me equal billing or pay with the other speakers, I decline.
3. If the organizer is honest and says “we saw we had an event with no women’s voices and wanted to try to fix it now,” +1.
4. If the org is a jackass who is clearly trying to avoid social media fallout and I’m a box to be checked, -1.
5. If I think I’ll do some good there, +1.
If the calculus is not negative, and I’m not dealing with idjits, I take it. Life isn’t perfect, and neither am I. I think that the only thing that is accomplished by turning down speaker offers and positions on panels is that you’ve missed out on a chance to share your passion and your mission with the people you could have connected with. Ultimately, your voice should be heard rather than silent. If a person of good will asks you to speak with the genuine intention of promoting diversity and wants to hear your voice, I say take the token. At that moment, you stop being a token and start becoming a part of the conversation.