Ten tips for getting more women speakers

Allyson Kapin has a post over on Fast Company, entitled Where are the women in tech and social media? in which she talks about the dearth of women speakers at tech conferences. She offers a list of things conference organisers can do to get more women speakers:

  • Reach out to groups such as the Anita Borg Institute, She’s Geeky, Women Who Tech, National Women of Color Technology Conference, Women In Technology International, Women 2.0, and Girls In Tech and ask for suggestions of women speakers based on conference objectives and target audiences. Build a relationship with these organizations so that the communications pipeline is always open.
  • Look at your programming committee. Is it diverse enough? Two women out of 10 are not diverse. Also, consider having 1-2 panelists solely focus on recruiting diverse speakers.
  • Take on a 50/50 keynote challenge.
  • Edit panel acceptance notices to include a section on the importance of having panels filled with diverse panelists.
  • Follow more women in tech and social media on Twitter. For example, Women Who Tech recently compiled a list of 75+ women in tech’s twitter feeds. Be sure and also look at the Speakers Wiki and GeekSpeakPR.

Here are ten more tips:

  1. Have a diversity statement and code of conduct for your event that shows that you’re serious about welcoming women and other minorities. Make sure it is included (at least by reference) in your Call For Papers and other speaker communications.
  2. Track the diversity of your speakers. You can’t improve what you can’t measure. Count the number of women speakers from year to year, and if you’re proud of your improvement, tell people! If other aspects of diversity are important to you — first time speakers, speakers from other countries, cross-disciplinary speakers, speakers of colour — then count that too.
  3. Add a “Suggest a speaker” form to your website at the time of your CFP, and link it to your diversity statement. Ask people to suggest speakers you might not have thought of before. Follow up these suggestions with a personal email saying that the speaker had been personally recommended. You’re combatting Imposter syndrome here: knowing that at least one person out there believes in their knowledge and speaking ability will help potential speakers get over the hump.
  4. Avoid form letters. At least write a line or two of personalised, human communication at the top of emails you send to potential speakers, making them feel wanted. I’ve seen too many impersonal CFPs blasted to women’s mailing lists and ignored.
  5. If you’re a conference organiser or on a papers committee, go out of your way to attend sessions by minority speakers. If you’re in a rush, you can even just pop in for a few minutes. I saw one of the OSCON folks doing this to great effect the other week: he asked me, “Is $woman a good speaker?” She’d spoken at many previous conferences, but he had no idea, so I suggested he go see her in action. He went off and was back in 5 minutes. “She’s great,” he said. Her confidence and speaking ability had impressed him in no time flat. And yet he’d never known about it before.
  6. Let people know about any travel funding or scholarships which may be available for speakers at your conference. Women are less likely to be sent to conferences by their employers, more likely to be freelancing or working part time, or to have additional costs (eg. childcare) related to travel. Anything you can do to offset this will help improve diversity.
  7. When I’ve spoken to conference organisers and proposal committee members, what I hear time and time again is that technical interest is good, but having a great story to tell is better. Make sure your speakers know this! Emma Jane Hogbin, organiser of the HICKTech conference, had 50% women speakers and attendees, largely by doing this. This is a great tip for getting first-time speakers.
  8. In some fields and at some conferences, you’ll notice that women tend to speak about community management, documentation, and social tech rather than programming, hardware, sysadmin, and other more technical subjects. If those women submitted two proposals, one “hard” and one “soft”, the soft one may have been chosen to provide balance and texture to the conference procedings. However, the effect is to type-cast women speakers, and a vicious cycle may begin to occur. See if you can break the cycle by accepting more hard talks from women, or soft talks from men.
  9. Make sure that your conference’s extra-curricular activities are welcoming and safe for women. Here’s a tip: conference dinners with 90% or more men and free alcohol are not welcoming or safe. You don’t want to end up on a list of conference horror stories because of sexual harrassment, assault, or just plain sleaziness. If you can, offer taxi vouchers to help people get home from late night events.
  10. Pretend for a moment that your conference already has 50% women speakers and attendees. What would be different? Now do those things. Example: at one point OSCON had no women’s toilets on the conference floor, because of the vast gender gap in attendees. What message do you think that would send to potential women speakers? If you catch yourself doing anything like that, stop and reverse it immediately.

More information about women speakers at tech conferences is on the Geek Feminism Wiki.

21 thoughts on “Ten tips for getting more women speakers

  1. Mackenzie

    /me points http://geekspeakr.com

    And um as far as metrics…for Ohio Linuxfest there were 3 female speakers last year. This year there are 4 presentations by women, one of which involves 2 women, so I don’t know if that counts as 4 or 5.

    1. Mary

      I don’t think there’s a good answer to “should we count by number of people or number of presentations?” It’s good to check whether the conference is increasing the number of women by accepting more only as co-speakers, but if the conference accepts co-speakers in general then sometimes women will be accepted there too and it’s odd to count them as half a person. Then there’s a separate problem of women who co-present with a man.

      I tend to conclude that “X/Y presenters were women, W/Z presentations were solely or jointly presented by a woman” is probably the most informative.

      1. Mackenzie

        There is one presentation by two men and one by two women. The rest are single-person. Also, those 4 presentations are 4 of the 5 submitted by women.* The remaining one is Rikki Kite’s “Her PR Problem: Tooting the Horns of Women in Open Source” which is currently waitlisted. The hold up is that we don’t know if it’d fit better in one of the spots on the last stage or in the Diversity in Open Source workshop.

        * Of 42 submissions, 5 were from women.

  2. Liz Henry

    At BlogHer conferences, we have sometimes taken over the men’s bathrooms on the main floors, and direct men to some other, out-of-the-way bathroom. Or we make one unisex. There has also often been a lactation lounge, just a quiet place to go nurse — plus child care.

    I like your tips and would like to add that it’s not always necessary to go to an organization that’s majority or all women and ask its leaders for speaker recommendations. I mean, that’s an option, but a person could also look up specific conferences and conference reports — like, do a little digging to see who presented at She’s Geeky, instead of depending on Kaliya Hamlin to tell you who was there — it is not that hard, and it’s better for your own knowledge, to “do your homework”.

  3. Strata Chalup

    Can you please enable email subscriptions on your Feedburner feed? I was so delighted to see the ‘get updates by email’ and then clicked to find that they weren’t enabled for the feed.

    I know there are a million great RSS readers out there, but at the end of the day, if it doesn’t come to my inbox, I may not see it for weeks at a time. And I *love* what you are doing here, so I want to see it and get hooked in and participate!

    best regards,

    1. Skud Post author

      Sorry, didn’t realise it wasn’t enabled by default! Going to do it right now. ETA: done!

    2. Terri

      Regarding RSS readers: Some mail clients are actually including RSS readers so that you can treat your RSS feeds just like mailing lists, now. I was surprised by how nice Thunderbird’s setup was, and how the blog feeds were integrated with my mail. Obviously the problem is solved for this blog, so you don’t need to care. But it might be something to keep in mind if there’s an RSS feed you’d like to follow that doesn’t have an email option!

  4. Sarah Mei

    @Leigh @Mackenzie

    While I like geekspeakr.com and have registered there, event organizers have told me that it’s not terribly useful. When you go there, it’s not obvious how one finds a speaker (vs. registers to be a speaker). There’s no good way to search by topic and location, to find speakers for user groups in a particular area. And when you click through to a profile, unless the person has listed previous presentations or linked to video, it’s hard to tell whether she’d be any good.

    What would be awesome is a combination of geekspeakr.com and speakerrate.com.

    1. Mackenzie

      One feature I requested of Br3nda was to be able to choose a topic then send a mass-email to everyone with that topic. She said she needs to get around to upgrading Drupal, but then she wants to do that.

  5. Mary

    How do you suggest tracking the diversity of speakers? Gender can be approximated but not perfectly measured by looking at people’s first names (especially if you don’t have an ethnically diverse conference) but in general the problem we have with linux.conf.au is that we can’t see how to do this well without a demographic questionnaire, which women especially have repeatedly said they don’t want to see because they feel like they will then attend the conference as A Representative of Womankind.

    1. Skud Post author

      Yeah, that’s hard. Can you make the question optional, and link it to an explanation of why you’re asking it? Something like, “$conf supports diversity and is working on improving the mix of speakers at our event. To this end, we are trying to measure our progress. If you don’t mind, could you give us a few demographic details?”

      If that’s still not culturally comfortable, you can get an approximation by just working off what you know. Eg. “Of the people we know, N are people of colour/from other countries/mid 20s or younger/whatever.” After the conference, you will know more of the people (esp. first-timers), and be able to adjust the figures accordingly.

      1. Mary

        I suppose another thing is to consider privacy. For attendees, perhaps it doesn’t need to be stored in the database affiliated with their registration row, so that the conference knows that it has 5% women, but there’s no join possible on which particular attendees are women.

      2. Terri

        Well, my government does this sort of thing all the time (asking ethnicity for job-diversity purposes), as do other organizations, so I’m sure there’s a standard way to say it that’s been tested to be minimally offensive. Or at least so that it’s just another question that people have seen before. Just remember to make participation voluntary.

        You can also approximate for many conferences by looking at photos… it’s hardly precise, but can give a general idea.

        The idea of privacy is interesting… I’d never thought about it for a conference, but I do remember back in my BBS days having to lie and say I was male if I wanted to *use* the BBS as opposed to spend my evening chatting with a lonely sysop. (I swear, some of the software must have had a bell that rung when a girl logged in…) I can see that this could potentially be something people would want to have disassociated. Or maybe the lesson here is just to remember that people will lie as it suits them? I have a female friend who set her facebook gender to male, presumably in part to avoid the really stupid ads you get as a young woman.

        Also, organizations also get gender info by asking for title. That might be a quieter, sneaky way to do it. Again, though, you should make it optional. It drives me crazy when I can’t refuse to enter a title, and the moment I can use the nice gender-neutral “Dr.” I’m probably never using Ms. again. (Although I’m trading gender issues for pretentious issues, so it might not be a total win.)

        1. Skud Post author

          Terri, as an Australian living in the US, I must say that the questions asked on job paperwork here about race would never fly over there. Those sort of questions are *not* things that people in Australia have “seen before”.

          And apart from that, Australians have different concepts of race and ethnicity; the breakdown into white/black/hispanic/asian that the US uses wouldn’t really work there, and second-generation-and-onwards Australians tend not to feel as strongly identified with their cultural heritage as Americans do or use hyphenated identifiers (“Italian-American”) in the same way.

          The only time an Australian usually has to disclose cultural heritage is on the census, which asks for your “ancestry” as a free-form field, and what language(s) you speak at home.

        2. Mary

          Actually, job paperwork for sufficiently large organisations in Australia (say, universities) does ask. For race/cultural heritage it’s a binary or ternary: “Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, or neither?” The other two questions are language spoken at home, and about certain classes of disabilities (vision and mobility mostly). I think for the last a accessibility/accommodation staff member can be asked to help set up your work environment for you.

          But that doesn’t measure diversity in the ways we’re discussing (language comes closest, but there are many first generation immigrants who choose to or simply already did speak English exclusively) and the idea of a random event asking would be totally culturally alien (and also play into Australian cultural dislike of being too American). The most that an event would conceivably normally ask would be for dietary restrictions and possibly for age in the sense of under/over 18 status.

          Could be harder. Could be trying to do this in France.

        3. Mackenzie

          I just renewed my ACM student membership. It asked if I’m male or female, and it also asked of US residents (only) what their race was with a note that it’s for statistical information having something to do with getting grant money.

  6. Bronwyn

    Loved these tips. This and the FastCo article prompted me to blog as well. My take is that there’s a deeper problem than just diversity when it comes to conferences… but I think women could lead the way in creating more meaningful gatherings, vs. death by panel. Check it out:


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