Monday, 23 September 2013

Women Speakers At Events

Today is a sad day for scientists because someone claiming to be one of their number wrote this in the FAQs of a forthcoming science event:

I am a fanatical, misandristic 'feminist'. May I drone on about the lack of women in the line-up and despatch abusive, bigoted, mis-spelt, ungrammatical missives to the organisers and presenters? No. Please save your talents for Twitter and Facebook, that is what they are for. We're actually very disappointed that none of our female invitees accepted, but that is just how it was. As scientists we have no choice but to accept reality. Wanting something to be otherwise does not make it so.

Alrighty. Deep breaths all round and let's tackle this in a constructive, practical way.

Yes, it is often difficult to get female speakers, particularly from male-dominated sectors like science, tech and gaming. However, there are reasons why this is the case and if you take the time to understand those reasons, you will succeed in getting a balanced lineup. As the organisers of Consensus don't seem to be professionals, and I am one, having organised events for fifteen years including both TAM Londons, here is some free advice for them and anyone else who is struggling with getting female speakers.


  1. Offer to pay extra for childcare. One of the most common reasons for women not being available to speak, or cancelling, is because of childcare. Yes, it is 'unfair' that you may have to spend more money on speakers with kids, but it's also 'unfair' that women still, despite everything, are the primary caregivers. Even women with careers. I know, awful isn't it? There isn't any evidence to support the notion of women being innately better at childcare and yet there it is, our society, going along with it anyway. Single parent families usually have the mother as the main custodian. Not your problem? Guess again, look at all the crap you get if you don't get some female speakers. Offer the childcare allowance to men too, if you know they have kids and it could interfere with their ability to accept.
  2. Ask more women. If all the women you asked said no, ask some more. And some more. Keep going til you succeed. It isn't the easiest path, but it is the right one. If you invite a woman and she says no, ask her if she has recommendations for other female speakers in her area of expertise.
  3. If you are consistently getting declines to invites issued to women, maybe it's you. Given the attitude of the Consensus organisers, it's hardly surprising they could only get men. Hire someone else to do your speaker liaison - perhaps even a woman. That would certainly help to send the message that the event is women-friendly, which is very important in male-dominated sectors.
  4. Use registers of speakers to find experienced women, ask for recommendations on Twitter or from other event organisers, or take a chance on an unknown name. Chances are your big ticket names are male. This is a problem I've encountered many times. You need to sell tickets, and to do that you need the famous people who are on telly sometimes. Most of those are guys, more of that frustrating imbalanced society. You will just have to live with the fact that there are fewer big-draw women than men. If your event is good and well-marketed, every speaker doesn't have to be Brian Cox. You can afford to mix things up. Newsflash: audiences enjoy diversity! It makes for better events.
  5. Publicly commit to gender diversity. Just state up front, "this event is committed to gender diversity", before you even announce your lineup. Once you've said it, you have to stick to it. 50/50 in STEM industries is a big ask. Aim for one in four. If you can't manage that, see above.
  6. Avoid gendered language unless an event or panel (or blog post) is about gender. Saying "female gamers" makes "gamer" male by default. Female scientists? Nope, they're scientists, same as the men.
  7. Look very very hard at whether you can afford a creche at the event. You will attract more women speakers AND audience members. Hey, entire families could come! Imagine that.
  8. Offer to pay for female speakers to be accompanied. An event organiser I know once invited a 19-year-old girl to speak then refused an extra conference ticket for her mother. She did not want to travel alone to a huge city to a conference in a male-dominated sector, and so cancelled. I don't blame her. I'm 37 and used to travelling alone, and I still take my partner whenever I can because it can be intimidating or even outright unsafe sometimes. Again, that may seem unfair but again it is simply a rebalancing of something already unfair on women. If you want to fix the whole getting-hassle-while-alone problem society has, that would be great. Meanwhile some women don't want to travel alone, and it's in your interest to accommodate that.
Is all this positive discrimination? Ask yourself why your industry got to the point where these extra steps are necessary and if it's okay for you to simply maintain the status quo. If you still aren't sure, ask some women.

Edit: some more tips from @janl here.