7 Reasons Why Women Speakers Say No to Speaking & What Conference Organizers Can Do About It — PART 2

This is the second part of a two part article reporting the research we did for Women Talk Design, a community effort to get gender parity at design conferences.

In Part 1 of this article we explored several issues:

  1. Imposter syndrome
  2. Lack of speaking experience
  3. Fear of harassment

4. Concern About Being the Token Woman

“Tokenism: the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to be inclusive to members of minority groups, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of racial or sexual equality” — Wikipedia

Tokenism is not difficult to identify. Some women describe being approached for speaking opportunities on topics in which they have no expertise. Speaker after speaker told us they had arrived at conferences only to realize that they were the only woman among a sea of men. Several women shared that sometimes organizers will even admit that they initially reached out because of gender rather than expertise, in the name of #Diversity.

“A woman speaker must always answer the question of whether she is in her current position because she earned it, or if it’s because she is a woman and the conference needed a woman.”— Nadyne Richmond, organizer and speaker

If you’re a conference organizer and you developed your speaker lineup by only focusing on diversity, you’ve missed the mark. Diversity is only one component in a compelling, accessible lineup. Consider the event theme, speakers’ breadth of topics, speaking experience, background, expertise, passion, charisma, location, and crowd-drawing power to address the needs of your conference and your audience. Keep looking for speakers who are qualified until you have a strong and varied pool (check out womentalkdesign.com and innovationwomen.com for ideas!) Then, when you have your list of potential speakers, make smart decisions about balancing gender, race, sexual orientation, belief, etc. Smart conference organizers make sure they have options in case a speaker says no. If two people are equally capable of speaking about a topic, why not give the women in the audience a role model on stage — and give everyone in the audience the opportunity to hear from someone that may be a fresh voice, or share unfamiliar examples?

Even when organizers are doing everything right and have the best intentions, they may communicate the offer poorly. Organizers can get so excited that they’ve found a suitable speaker who happens to be a woman or from any other underrepresented group. They talk more about the diversity the speaker brings and not her expertise, so the speaker ends up feeling like a token. Our research revealed that the more a woman feels like she’s being set up as a “token women,” the more likely she’ll say no.

5. Worry About Over-Scheduling

“In my experience I’d say about 75–85% of the time when you ask a man to speak he will say yes first and asks for details later. When you ask a woman to speak, she almost always asks for details and some time to think about it.”
 — Christopher Simmons, AIGA Design Conference Chair 2016

Our research revealed an interesting trend. Organizers said that while men jump at the opportunity to speak, women — even if they are looking to gain more visibility — tend to deliberate longer over a decision. When we spoke to the women speakers, we heard they were struggling to balance obligations to work and family as well as evaluating the conference for fit. They are considering many points to ensure they are making the right decisions, personally and professionally.

During initial correspondence, conference organizers have different approaches to how much or how little information they want to convey to the potential speakers. Sometimes they’re looking to gauge interest before divulging all the details, while other times they are trying to minimize the back-and-forth email chain. Organizers, you may save time and effort for yourself and your potential speakers by giving them most of the information up front:

  • Address the conference location, dates, & expected speaker commitment
  • Cover your reasons to engage that particular speaker
  • Outline compensation and travel support
  • Describe the audience volume, job roles, & levels of expertise

Ethan Marcotte has an excellent essay on questions he asks organizers. You can use his blog post as a cheat sheet for prepping your answers.

While it may not be true in some households, the bulk of a woman’s additional priorities — such as caring for children or aging parents — are often entrenched in societal roles and can hinder a woman’s ability to travel. Some women may have supportive partners who take on the extra load offset by a partner on the road, but too many do not. This reality affects both women on stage and in the audience.

How can your conference better support speakers — and attendees — who may juggle responsibilities as primary caregivers? Consider offering childcare at your conference. If you have a smaller conference and can’t afford this option, try adding a list of local childcare services to your conference resource page.

Another option is to offer speakers enough of a fee to bring their families. Sometimes a woman speaker would rather not bring her family because she wants a chance to network professionally without worrying about her children. Other times, especially over weekends, a professional trip can turn into a mini-vacation for a family, and the other parent can provide the needed childcare. If you offer business class travel (common for keynotes) offer to convert it to several economy tickets. Parents commented favorably on conferences flexible enough to offer this benefit.

6. Concern about Pay Gap & Discomfort with Negotiation

Especially when it comes to money or compensation, women want to know all the details. The gender pay gap is a phenomenon that surprises no woman, but women also tend to avoid negotiation and are less likely to ask about it — especially if they’re not sure negotiation is an option. At some conferences, when women don’t ask, organizers won’t ask either. If you’re an organizer who appreciates this obfuscation, don’t think you’re getting off easy. Many speakers report that it’s very off-putting when women find out they’ve been offered or paid less than some of their male counterparts backstage at a conference. If you want to build your reputation and attract more women as speakers and attendees, try being up front (and equal!) with all speakers about compensation.

When conference organizers first reach out to potential speakers, women want to make sure they are being offered a fair amount according to her level of expertise. Women will treat a small, nonprofit, local event differently than a national, for-profit one, and expect to be compensated differently if they are giving a keynote, a workshop, or just sitting on a panel. They will also wonder how their peers are being compensated. Women speakers told us that if organizers don’t explain how compensation works, they will conduct their own research to find out what they can about a conference. A simple and honest reassurance that your payment methods are consistent and fair can be more reassuring than you may realize.

7. Desire to Give Others the Opportunity

Women may say no because of scheduling conflicts and then recommend other speakers based off of the criteria organizers share with them. But sometimes they say no because they simply want to give the opportunity to someone else — perhaps another woman but someone from another underrepresented category: sexuality, ethnicity, age, etc.

“I arrived at a conference only to realize I was one of only a few women, among dozens of male speakers. The next year, when they invited me back to speak, they’d already released part of their speaker roster: at that point, there were 60 speakers, only one woman — and no people of color. While I said I’d be honored to return as a speaker, I explained that I’d love to offer my time slot to someone who’s a woman and a person of color. I sent them a list of my recommendations with contact info and links to speaking examples.”— Margot Bloomstein, speaker

When conference organizers first approach a woman with a speaking opportunity, many speakers will conduct research about the conference online and also ask her network for more information. She wants to know what the past and current speaker lineups are like in terms of diversity. Is she being asked to be a token woman? Who is associated with the conference? Should she expect a reasonable amount of compensation for her time based off of the conference’s standing and ticket sales? Any poor experiences in the past that she should know about? Regardless of gender, many speakers want to know how the conference will commit to a diverse lineup.

Organizers, if you contact a speaker and they decline, but recommend another woman who matches your criteria, contact them or mark them for a future event! From what we’ve heard from women speakers, most organizers don’t seem receptive or don’t respond to this kind of valuable assistance — so that’s your opportunity to spotlight new talent before other events gobble them up.

Conclusion

Our research turned up seven key reasons women speakers say no when asked to speak:

  1. Imposter syndrome
  2. Lack of speaking experience
  3. Fear of harassment
  4. Concern about being the token woman
  5. Worry about over-scheduling
  6. Concern about pay gap & discomfort with negotiation
  7. Desire to give others the opportunity

Even if an organizer can address all of these challenges, there will be some women who won’t be able to present at a given conference for other reasons. Just like men, they may have a simple scheduling conflict or they may be sick of travel. We heard conference organizers say “women are like this,” and that sort of stereotyping doesn’t help change the status quo. We ask organizers to respect each speaker’s choice. A “no” is a chance to ask yourself if your conference is a friendly place for everyone to network and learn. If you feel confident you’ve addressed the issues we’ve listed, you can always ask the speaker to present at your next event — or ask for a recommendation from her network. Develop your reputation for supporting diversity and new speakers: “We’re interested in given underrepresented voices with great insights a place on our stage. Do you know anyone who fits this description?”

Make room on your program for new speakers as well as the usual suspects. Take a chance on speakers who are from underrepresented groups. Give speakers enough information to make a decision. Then encourage them and get them mentorship. If you want the best lineup on stage, you must recognize the flaws in the current societal system that withhold opportunities from underrepresented groups. Don’t miss out on these fresh perspectives and insights!

It will take time to alleviate the perception that there are “not enough women in the pipeline,” but conference organizers have the power to change that. If you produce conferences, you have the responsibility to create great events for your attendees. That means cultivating new voices, novel perspectives, and relevant, accessible examples — all of which demand you look to a diverse and broad set of possible speakers, and extend speaking opportunities to the next generation of speakers without bias. This isn’t about diversity for the sake of diversity, but diversity for the sake of wisdom, breadth, and relevance.

If you’re an organizer who wants a diverse lineup of fresh voices and you are struggling to find women speakers, or if you just care about this issue, follow us at @womentalkdesign! Our next article will address the pipeline problem.


Melissa and Jennifer are UX Design interns at Women Talk Design, a community effort aiming to increase representation in the speaker lineup at conferences and to negate all excuses that keep women from the speaking opportunities that they deserve.

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