Mindfulness the Key to Finding Female Speakers

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It’s late in another summer, and another thought “leader” has said that the blame for the lack of female speakers (or success) should be laid squarely on the shoulders of women. While there have been several great direct responses to this latest link frenzy, I felt that instead of participating directly (like I did last summer), the best commentary I could make is to outline how as a conference organizer I successfully garnered approximately 50% female speaker rates for all three BlogPotomacs.

First, I co-organized the first BlogPotomac with Debbie Weil, and together we set the precedence for the event series. We mindfully decided that at least three of the seven speakers will be women. This seemed like the right thing to do, especially considering that there are more women in communications than men. We wanted to represent our stakeholders with a group of speakers that at least came close to matching our audience.

Each of the three BlogPotomacs had predetermined topic areas, and speakers were matched to the topics. In almost every instance there were natural choices that made sense. A couple of times the would-be speaker was not available. So we found someone else! In one case, I held the spot for two months until my networking yielded the speaker.

But I didn’t give up. And when men asked for speaking spots (women rarely solicited a speaking spot, in fact I cannot remember one), I said no. I did not want the loudest chest beater. I wanted quality lady speakers, was committed to achieving that result, and would not be distracted.

We had some fantastic lady speakers including KD Paine, Maggie Fox, Kami Huyse, Shireen Mitchell, Liz Strauss, Amber Naslund, Jen McClure (emcee), Beth Kanter, Natalia Luckyanova, Jane Quigley, and Shonali Burke (emcee). Two of them are so great, they are now my business partners.

So, the morale of this story is as a conference organizer, it’s a conscious decision to either have women or not. As I told my friend Allyson Kapin, “If you spend time in a homogeneous social network like Silicon Valley’s VC community, then you will only get white, male venture backed candidates. It’s your job to go beyond the comfort zone. Victimization may be an easy out, but it won’t stop the criticism of your inability to break out of limited social circles.”

BTW, if you would like to hear some outstanding lady speakers sign up for some of the WomenWhoTech Telesummit on September 15. I’ll happen to be one of the few men participating, a refreshing change.

  • Geoff, thank you so much for asking me to speak at the first BlogPotomac (time flies!) and for including me in such great company. I agree that conference organizers should be more thoughtful/mindful when putting their lineups together, but I was also intrigued by your note that no women speakers directly approached you. That’s significant, and very interesting. Thoughts from anyone in what’s up with that?

  • To me that’s a gender thing. and also a blogpotomac not being a second tier con. Generally (note the word) men beat their chest and self promote much more than women. As the conference organizer I assumed that, and disqualifed them on that basis. In all, maybe five men pitched me directly for open spots.

  • Wow, this is so interesting – I wasn’t aware of the imbalance. I love to speak!

  • Hey Geoff,

    It is always meaningful when conference organizers choose to provide a diverse field of speakers. It means that the information presented will represent a richness of life experiences and perspectives that is missed without diversity. It definitely takes more effort, but who really sets out to create a mediocre experience for attendees…we want the program to be as good as possible. So here is one of the ways to make that happen.

    And to that point, it is that much more meaningful when a man makes a conscious or mindful :) choice to include a fair representation of women in the program. Sometimes it takes those who are not a part of the group to set the example for others to follow. So thanks for doing that Geoff.

    Funny that you chose the word mindful. We have a new publication in Chicago called Mindful Metropolis that I just saw in my suburb of Chicago for the first time. My daughter was most intrigued by the word mindful and we had a long conversation about the connotations of the name.

  • I agree–I find the fact that no women approached you astounding. I just recently let someone know I was interested in speaking at conferences where intelligent, thoughtful women were sought. I assumed I was competing against a horde.

    Thanks so much for bringing this issue to light, and more importantly, for doing something substantial about it!

  • Geoff – I, for one, have always wondered about this debate. It’s like trying to find red cars on the freeway. Once you’re looking, they are everywhere. But you have to look.

    The female/male ratio is one we look at for the speakers at the NTC every single year. We don’t necessarily strive for exactly 50%, but we do strive for a close balance. It’s one of several factors we’re constantly weighing. You can be purposeful without sacrificing the quality of the content, and I don’t understand the folks who say it can’t be done.

    Thanks for raising the issue again!

  • THANK YOU for writing this. It has always appalled me that podiums at conferences offered by organizations like IABC, PRSA, Ragan etc are filled with what I call the BWM set (Balding White Male, sorry Geoff) while the audience is 70% women. I did a very brief study of conferences awhile back (because I’m one of those people that DOES pitch myself as a speaker) that statistically calculated the gender ratio and the highest I found was about 3 men for every woman. It may have improved since then, but I doubt it.
    So THANK you for starting this conversation!

  • Geoff;

    You are right about pitching. I have never pitched myself for a conference except when there was an organized call for entries. I have been fortunate that I get asked fairly regularly, but I think women could use some training in how to approach this without sounding like one of the chest beaters you so disdain.

    • geofflivingston

      Remembering this issue for a couple of reasons. We did some good here in the past.

  • I have been thinking about this post since I saw it yesterday. And the first post that you are responding to. I wonder if part of the problem with gender inequity lies in the fact that many keep perpetuating that divide rather than viewing us as individuals with specific skill sets? You’ve raised the bar by actively seeking female speakers and I commend and applaud and herald these efforts. However, I’d like to see a time when it’s not female versus male but the most qualified or engaging or critical. I’m not sure if this is a utopian vision or not. But the claims about qualifications or lack thereof that seems to permeate the interwebz every time the gender issue surfaces does appear to be, as you aptly state, seem to be entrenched in victimization and comfort rather than reality. Thanks for the discussion.

  • Interesting themes developing. Some observations.

    Liz: I think you hit the nail on the ideal. But notice that not one man has commented, and only one man commented on the Facebook thread and none on Twitter. That tells me this issue is well entrenched in gender, and that men do not support women speaking (generally). So, I argue that until it’s a natural act, we would need to make female speakers an act of mindful intent. That being said, I’d rather see the argument framed as women joining men on stage in their rightful place rather than a battle of the genders.

    Maggie, Jen, KD, Kami: I also do not solicit speaking opps, except when I have a burning need. I solicited opps when I was first launching Now Is Gone. Now I get asked all the time, and choose, which is a fortunate place to be. That being said I prefer the idea that great speakers attract opportunities rather than solicit them. Attraction vs. promotion is always more powerful in marketing and in life.

    Yet the male speaking system seems to be built of promotion and proverbial chevrons on your sleeve. In my opinion, two things need to happen:

    1) Conference organizers need to acknowledge how the unconscious system works, awaken, and mindfully choose another way.
    2) Women who desire to speak need to acknowledge the unconscious system, and start either 1) building new systems with their own events, 2) publicly criticizing events that uphold the old way, and/or 3) start soliciting opps and play the game.

    A combination of these acts by organizers and female speakers would make great progress if approached with a will towards results, and organized as a movement.

  • Interesting comment on the two things that need to happen, especially number two. I’d like to see women doing all three – as they say, three’s a charm. And this, coming from a woman who abhors the game!

  • I agree with Liz on this, and also realize there’s an unconscious system in organizing events, as you point out, Geoff. When conversations like this are started (and – it would be great if a few more men could chime in here!), I always think of that Boston Symphony gender-blind auditions case study. http://www.princeton.edu/pr/pwb/01/0212/7b.shtml If a person’s speaking profile, video sample, tone/style etc…could all be non-gendered and organizers had to pick from a generic list of Speakers A-Z, for example, how might it naturally sort out? The best men and women would rise up, I suspect.

    Perhaps, like everything else, those few conference organizer types who are aware of this will have to make a point of writing articles/posts about just how great their event’s mixes of men and women speakers were! This is one of those things I’m not sure we’ll see get that much better in our lifetimes, but we can start to nudge the needle for future generations of business speakers and audiences.

    Thanks for taking time to start the conversation, Geoff.

  • “fantastic lady speakers?” I’m going to start calling the guys at conferences “wonderful gentleman speakers” from now on LOL.

  • Great perspective, Geoff. I am a white male who appreciates diversity in conference presentations. I recently emailed organizers of a conference I was interested in attending to express my concerns. Of the 15 speakers, 14 are men. Twelve are white men. While the topics sound great I am sure the program would be better with greater diversity.

    I am voting with my feet and not attending the conference. Perhaps if more of us take this approach event organizers will notice. Maybe not. But at least my time and energy will not contribute to such events.

  • @Bonnie So long as you don’t call me a boy.

  • Thanks for posting this Geoff, you’ve always been a great supporter on this topic. We started this group on Linkedin last year for women who speak on social media and tech as a result of last year’s stream of comments on the lack of women speakers. I’m adding it to share with your readers too!
    http://www.linkedin.com/groups?mostPopular=&gid=2192858
    We invite organizers to post opportunities there as well as connect with female speakers.

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