7 Reasons Why Women Speakers Say No to Speaking & What Conference Organizers Can Do About It — PART 1

We’ve seen the scandals again and again. A conference has an all-male lineup, the conference is called out, organizers claim there are no women speakers, and suddenly another list is created. Women Talk Design came about in just that way. But as the team at WTD began to research the issue, we’ve discovered there is a more insidious problem: when asked to speak, most men say yes but many women say no. We had to know what was making this happen.

Women Talk Design was founded in 2013 by Christina Wodtke. This spring she raised twenty thousand dollars to hire two interns to revamp the site and we — Melissa Kim and Jennifer Kim — were lucky enough to get the chance to work on this important project. We started with primary research with those most affected by the problem: speakers and organizers. Guided by seasoned researcher Indi Young, one of Women Talk Design’s mentors, we had lengthy conversations with 9 speakers (all women) and 12 conference organizers (6 women, 6 men). We didn’t speak to any conference organizers who were indifferent to diversity; all of them were passionate about curating representational speaker lineups and work incredibly hard to do so. The male conference organizers especially feel confusion and dismay. They desperately want to understand what they can do to find speakers that are not part of — to put it their way — “the flood of dudes.”

Before we share our findings, we must first acknowledge that every conference is different. They come in all different sizes, budgets, goals, and themes with different methods and approaches to organization and curation. Secondly, we must acknowledge that every woman is her own unique person with her own background and priorities. We do not suppose that every woman speaker deals with all seven of these challenges at every speaking engagement, and neither should you. However, these are the trends that we’ve identified during synthesis of our findings. Thirdly, when we speak of “men” in this article, we’re referring to cisgender, heterosexual white men because they are the dominant representative group of speakers as well as conference organizers. In this post we’ve chosen to focus on gender discrimination — as that is the mission of Women Talk Design — and did not explore discrimination toward racial, ethnic, or other underrepresented groups.

1. Imposter Syndrome

“a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’” — Wikipedia

Many women do not feel qualified enough to speak about a topic, or they believe other people are out there who are far more experienced and interesting. Whether women identify their feelings as “imposter syndrome” or not, the majority of the women speakers we interviewed mentioned this concern.

While imposter syndrome is not a gender-specific phenomenon, women are more likely to shy away from opportunities that they may feel are self-promotional. Many conference organizers we spoke to were frustrated by the “flood of dudes” submitting proposals for talks and wished that more women would submit content as well. If a woman is aware that women speakers are underrepresented on stages and she’s being asked to — in a sense — be the representative, she is more likely to experience imposter syndrome and be held back by her self-doubt.

We learned an approach to addressing imposter syndrome at a recent panel discussion at Entelo where four experienced career women shared their stories. Each of the women stressed the importance of surrounding themselves with a strong network of (typically) other women and mentors who believe in them and encourage them to push themselves in their career, whether it concern speaking opportunities or positions of leadership. A woman’s confidence and success is directly connected to the support she receives from people around her.

As a conference organizer, you can mitigate imposter syndrome by emphasizing the reasons that you reached out to the speaker in the first place. No need to turn it into a therapy session — that’s not your job. Simply remind the speaker of the credentials that led you to invite her to speak and, if you’re a fan of a speaker’s work, don’t be shy to mention it! In this case, a personal email will be more helpful than a canned one. Your interest will be reassuring. If you’re a conference organizer passionate about getting more women on stage, an understanding ear and a little encouragement can go a long way; you’ll curate a better and inclusive event.

2. Lack of Speaking Experience

If a speaker hasn’t presented at many conferences, feelings of imposter syndrome can be very real. You might think most people would feel honored and excited to be considered for your conference. Remember, most people — regardless of gender — are also terrified of public speaking. Fewer women get to present on stage, which means they are particularly vulnerable to this problem. Organizers, you can fix this issue.

Again, remind the potential speaker that you approached her for very specific reasons. If you plan to invite new speakers, consider how you can support them: maybe you can offer speaker coaching, put them in touch with a more experienced mentor, or simply plan for a couple formal meetings to advise them on their presentations. If you have support in place, make sure you let speakers know. It’s encouraging for a speaker to hear why you’re interested, but it is much more reassuring to also hear about the support you can provide.

Every speaker that gives a TED talk is required to collaborate with a speaker coach. This mentoring can be incredibly beneficial for new speakers, but it can be more constricting for more experienced speakers. If you’re not TED, consider making speaker coaching an optional resource. As a conference organizer, you may worry about budget; if you are holding a nonprofit event, consider asking some of the senior speakers if they would be willing to coach some of your new faces. Not only will you offer mentorship opportunities, but speakers can connect with each other on a personal level.

You can also offer your own advice and suggestions. Lou Rosenfeld, one of the producers of Enterprise UX and the DesignOps Summit, emphasizes the importance of making sure all speakers have access to coaching from his team and a formal coach, whether they are new or experienced. He knows some conferences drop in speakers with little to no preparation — what he calls “the sink or swim approach” — and he doesn’t want to do this to his speakers. Especially in the case of newer speakers, it’s in the best interest of all parties involved (organizers, speakers, and audience) to offer some form of guidance. You and your new speakers will feel better about it.

3. Fear of Harassment

A poor talk will understandably attract critical feedback. However, women have received public criticism for what they choose to wear on stage, tone of voice, facial expressions, or even for mentioning their children. Being publicly mocked on Twitter, on the conference hashtag, while delivering a talk is not unusual. In extreme cases, harassment has followed women speakers from outside onto the stage. Conferences must have policies in place to protect all their speakers (and their attendees) from inappropriate content and ensure that all conference-goers are acting professionally and appropriately.

Beyond public humiliation, women speakers have been targets of physical harassment. When a conference lacks a code of conduct, many women speakers and attendees cite this issue as a red flag, particularly if they’ve previously experienced harassment at conferences. Women speakers told us when they saw there was no code of conduct, they weren’t sure if their concerns would be addressed or how incidents would be handled. A code of conduct is not a panacea for harassment, but it does send a message that harassment will not be tolerated and women can feel safe coming forward with issues. There are reasons codes of conduct exist.

When approached with a speaking opportunity, a woman may also consider the location of the conference, how she will get there, and if she thinks she will feel comfortable commuting between the event and hotel alone. Organizers should consider how safe the the venue is after dark. Many hip venues in the daylight are frightening at night. Offer transport services or escorts to anyone who is uncomfortable. Make sure both attendees and speakers know you’re watching out for them.

As an organizer, you may find yourself approaching speakers who have experienced harassment. Be sensitive to the speaker’s traumatic experience no matter how big or small you may think it to be. If they open up to you, actively listen and acknowledge them and their feelings. Remind them of why you think they would be a great speaker (see a pattern here?), and talk about ways you will address their concerns with a code of conduct and the resources and structure to enforce it.

If you don’t have one yet, develop a code of conduct. If you’re still not convinced of its value, take a look at articles by Dylan Wilbanks, Rachel Nabors, Ashe Dryden and consider how it can help your event attract and support women speakers and attendees.

Next: Part Two! Of Why Women Speakers Say No

So far we’ve covered imposter syndrome, lack of experience, and fear of harassment. Tomorrow we’ll tell you about tokenism, negotiation, altruism, and a woman’s oversubscribed life in Part 2. Follow us to be informed when we have a new article! @womentalkdesign

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