Cindy: I am not sure what it would take to change the ratio, but I also think the ratio is fine. If it was a bias, or based on ill-will towards women, I would be very concerned, but I think it is based more on personal choice; it doesn’t keep me up at night. The other truth is: Many people loathe public speaking, business networking and travel – I certainly have moments where I do. We should continue to support and enable women in the industry, but should also remember that you absolutely don’t have to be a conference speaker to be brilliant at what you do. The desire to speak at a conference is usually a result of MANY personal inclinations and skills. Conference speakers tend to be good tasks that have nothing to do with digital marketing, like travel, networking and communication.
That said, I think if we added more ‘webinar’ style conferences, there would be more female speakers. In many instances, I think conferences are designed to suit a male style of communication, so I also think our industry would benefit from an all-female style conference, similar to blog-her. This would help build up the female network of speakers and possibly also help make conference directors aware of a more female oriented style of communication and networking.
Erica: Conference organizers have to make the effort to reach out to women speakers and encourage them. Sometimes it may take those extra steps of working with speakers to craft topics, review presentations, etc., but that effort will pay off. I do believe that more women we put on stage, the more other women will believe that they can do it. (You’re also more likely to get more women attendees if your speaker selection includes more women.) I’d also love to see my inbox for MozCon fill up with pitches (even though we don’t do pitches, but that hasn’t stopped some men) from women.
Lisa: Conference organizers need to be more pro-active about seeking out and highlighting new voices. If you’re putting together a conference and you notice that 80 percent of your speakers are men, that’s a problem. I’m not saying we should institute a “quota” where a certain number of women need to be represented, but that kind of skew just doesn’t look right. It’s not representative of the industry, and that’s a problem that you, as a conference organizer, need to address. Do your homework, get referrals and find women who are deserving of being on that stage and educating others. Not “women for women’s sake”, but women in this industry who are rockstars and deserving of a voice. Despite what many conference agendas would have you believe, we are NOT short on them. As a woman, it’s incredibly frustrating at times to see conferences boast agendas where there’s only 1-2 women speaking. It’s like, are you even TRYING?Women also need to do a better job promoting themselves and one another. It’s not about ego or wanting the spotlight, it’s about giving back to your industry and making yourself seen. It helps those that will come after you. As a woman, you almost have a duty to step up. As uncomfortable as speaking at conferences is for me at times, I force myself to do a couple a year.
Brett: I think at this point, the only way it is going to change is to change organically. I think that change is happening, in part because of the rise of social media. We have many more women pitch for social media slots than tech slots like SEM or SEO. I think that trend is going to continue.
Melissa: Publicizing how to speak, like SES did recently in a couple of blog posts, and making it clear that pitches are accepted from all levels, not just management, might help encourage more women to speak. Also, a mentorship program within the SEM industry that pairs experienced women with women new to the industry would be valuable not just for speaker ratios, but for building relationships and strengthening the roles of women in search.
Laurie: Perception. More women need to develop a successful track record by stepping up to the challenge of putting themselves in authoritative positions, such as Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, or IBM CEO Ginni Rometty. Many women do well in business, but often don’t receive the recognition.
Joanna: First and foremost I would say — PITCH! It sounds simple, but many women don’t get asked to speak because they simply don’t have their name in the hat. I think women should be pitching for every single panel they think they might be a good fit for. Practice your speaking in front of local groups or your university’s classes. Get in front of a camera and teach something. Show your personality, and show your dedication to public speaking. The more you do it, the more confident you’ll get and the most things you’ll be able to point to when pitching the bigger shows.
Many people expect me to blame the people behind the conferences, but I just haven’t seen that in my experiences. I know Danny behind SMX gave me a chance way before I deserved one back in the day, I know Matt Van Wagner picked me not because I was a female but because I had something to share for my first speaking gig, and I know Rand tries every year to have more women speak at MozCon but they are hard to find. We need to make it easier for all of them. One of my favorite quotes is “be so good they can’t ignore you” and I think a little bit of that could go a long way in changing that ratio.
Danny: More women pitching themselves to speak would obviously help. It would also help if companies ensure they were putting forward good women to speak, when they are managing the process for their companies. Obviously, I think it also helps if conferences can make an extra effort to ensure they are being inclusive of women.
Read on for the final discussion question and full responses from our panelists.