In the following graph, conferences are ordered by total count of speakers:
So, now you have the data. Let’s find out what our evangelists think.
Cindy Krum: Historically, tech has been a male dominated industry, with few female leaders or role models represented in the mass media. I do believe that the female portion of the digital marketing space is growing, but just that it is not represented by the conference lineups – Conferences do seem to try to encourage participation and leadership from female speakers, but they do still appear to struggle to achieve a 50/50 ratio. I may get reamed for saying this, but I think the answer is not as nefarious as some might assume. There are a lot of fantastic women in the industry who limit their travel because they don’t want to be away from their kids and other family responsibilities too long – Stereotype or not, I think the skew we are seeing is more a result of personal choices, rather than a bias in the industry.
Mari Smith: It really is all about who you know, and who knows you. I often have conference organizers ask me who I know with certain subject matter expertise. The more that women speakers get out there and speak, the more they’ll build their presence and increase their speaking invitations. See #3 for ideas!
Erica McGillivray: As our industry is part of society, it shares the bias toward not seeing women as part of the tech industry (or our niche of online marketing), much less leaders in it. There’s no conscious effort blocking women or keeping women from the speakers’ podium; but unconscious biases and social norms keeping women from feeling like they aren’t good enough to pitch; can’t speak on their topic of their passion/expertise; or like they can’t “brag” about what they’re doing can keep them from popping up in people’s minds as the person they want to see at their conference. Not to mention, we all need role models, and if we can’t see ourselves (or someone like us) up on that stage, we may not be able to imagine or dream it. We may not be able to say, “Hey, I can do that too.”
Lisa Barone: There are a couple of factors at play. First, men pitch more than women. I’ve inquired about the lack of female representation at conferences multiple times (both publicly and in private) and have been told the same thing from people I trust – women don’t pitch as often as their male colleagues. We can guess what the reasons for that may be but, regardless, that seems to be the case. To be selected, you need to put yourself out there. Men do that in greater numbers than women.
Second, it’s easy for conferences to select the same speakers year over year. Take a look at the speaking agenda at a conference this year over last. My guess is the speaker list is very similar. Conferences may take offense to that, but I’ve liveblogged hundreds, if not thousands, of conference sessions over the years and I can tell you that the faces are the same. It actually became difficult to continue liveblogging because it was the same people year over year.
Third, and I’m not sure of the reason for this, but women speakers actually score lower than male speakers by the audience. Even women who I have heard speak many times and know how incredible they are on stage. As a woman, when you hear that, it can be disheartening and make you feel like that “boys club” mentality is still in effect, despite how progressive our industry truly is. I don’t know why women score lower. It certainly doesn’t feel deserving. But I know that it happens and have seen data that proves it.
Fourth – and I’ll go there – sometimes attending conferences as a woman is difficult. Hearing Jane Copland’s story was not surprising to me. I personally suffered a very threatening situation a few years back – which has limited my conference attendance, as well as my visibility at the conferences when I do attend. I love the people in our industry so this is difficult to say but – I don’t always feel comfortable in the environment, especially if I know I would have to attend alone.
Brett Tabke: Cool topic. Marty and me went back in [sic] forth two dozen times in email over this post. I don’t think women are “under represented.” We could only know that if we looked at Male/Female attendee ratios as well.
I am really sensitive to this issue because we have worked so hard to be inclusive of women at our conferences. I remember ten years ago, when we had the “women of search” panels that consisted of the 4 same women at every conference. We finally quit having them because we couldn’t find any new women to be on the panels.
Today, things are light years ahead of the way they used to be. The knowledge, depth, and presence of some of the women today is awe inspiring – if not a little intimidating. I heard AOL Director of Search Melanie Mitchell talk about running her team at AOL and what SEO tools they used in about 2008. It was a fascinating and inspiring talk. I realized that she’d already surpassed about 99% of the men in the industry with her mastery of the subject.
The women that are speakers today are some of the best speakers we have. Women such as Krista Neher, Lisa Buyer, Joanna Lord, Rhea Drysdale, Alex Bennert, and Reem Abeidoh are often at the top or near the top of the speaker ratings. I think it is also cool to note that some of the best conference content programmers have been women. The formational years of AdTech were built by the incredible content programmer Susan Bratton. Affiliate Summit’s is in part by Missy Ward – And we have yet to mention the mega-powerhouse BlogHer.
I think if we could look at male speaker to male attendee, and the same female speaker to female attendee ratios, you would be surprised at the numbers. Speaking for Pubcon, we clearly have a much higher ratio of women speakers to women attendees than male speakers to male attendees.
Melissa Mackey: I don’t know why women are under represented as speakers. Maybe it’s because fewer women hold leadership positions and perceive that you need to be a C-level to speak? Although that’s not a requirement, maybe it’s a perception. Maybe some are intimidated by the number of men speaking (although I’m certainly not!).
Laurie Sullivan: While women continue to become a more powerful presence in business, society remains at odds when it comes to thinking of females as entrepreneurs, technicians and industry leaders that have a profound and positive impact on change.
Carri Bugbee: The reasons there are far fewer women speakers at conferences than men are cultural, financial and systemic. The culture of business (particularly in technology) continues to promote men over women of equal qualifications. That’s not my opinion. That’s a fact. For more information on the myriad reasons for this, check out this great research by the National Center for Women in Information Technology.
Because there are fewer women in leadership roles at companies, fewer are invited or accepted to speak at conferences. Some speaking gigs are quid pro quo for sponsorship dollars, so the sponsoring companies send their male executives—they may not even have (m)any female executives.
Women also generally make less money than men do and most conferences only offer compensation or cover travel costs for keynote speakers. Costs for travel, plus the opportunity costs of being away from the office, can be substantial. Since women are usually the primary caregivers in their families, moms may have additional costs and hassles to contend with. Spending hundreds or thousands of dollars to work for free—albeit with the benefit of better visibility—may not pencil out for a lot of women.
Joanna Lord: I think there are a variety of reasons at work. First and foremost, women are traditionally more critical of themselves and often there is a confidence issue at work. A number of my female friends in the industry (far smarter than I) have said things like “what if I sound silly?” or “I’m not good enough to be up there.” This isn’t the entire issue, but in my experience it’s a big part of it.
Also, over the years, many of the male industry leaders have built up a portfolio of successful speaking engagements to point to when pitching. A lot of speaking gigs in this industry are booked on word of mouth referrals, or previous year’s performances. Many men get asked to speak simply because they’ve done it before and it went well. This is a momentum that has kept the gender ratio skewed for a number of years.
Another reason, albeit one that is changing, is many conferences prefer to have C-level executives taking the stage. While we’ve made huge leaps here, there simply aren’t as many women in leadership positions as men, and therefore you see a bias in the agenda from that.
I guess what I am saying is, there are a lot of reasons why women are underrepresented as speakers at conferences. None of which, in my opinion, are impossible to overcome in the upcoming years.
Danny Sullivan: I can’t speak for all conferences, but from my experience, the primary reason is that there is a much lower rate of women pitching to be on sessions for the conferences I’ve managed. I know that search marketing has plenty of women in the industry. I think that helps search marketing shows tend to have a higher percentage of women speakers than general tech shows.But still, I think women are represented lower among those who put themselves forward for speaking slots.
Read on for the second discussion question and full responses from our panelists.