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Newsflash: There are more men than women speaking about tech

Guest post by Cathy Brooks, read her blog | follow her on Twitter

There are more men than women in the tech and new media sectors…

I know. Shocking.

Joking aside, I thought it was time to take a slightly different whack at the conversational kerfuffle that’s percolated yet again in recent weeks. Yes, that seemingly unsinkable subject – the lack of women on the tech industry speaking circuit.

So when Brian Solis graciously offered me the opportunity to guest post here and use this topic as my inaugural soapbox, I couldn’t say no. Well, I could have, but it would have been silly.

To set some context, let’s be clear. This debate is not a new one, though the flames have been fanned recently as you can read in this postor this oneor this one.

If you’re already up to speed on this story let’s wait here a second for the folks who went to peruse those links above.

Okay, everyone back?

Are we on the same page?

Good.

Now turn the page.

I began flipping forward to the next chapter last week when I reached out to Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media. He produces some of the top conferences in tech (which extends to vertical focus like government, healthcare and green/eco friendly) he also was directly involved in the most recent set of public discourse on this matter.

More than getting his take on the situation overall, I wanted to hear Tim’s thoughts on where the challenges can be overcome. During a phone chat Friday afternoon Tim agreed that the current dearth of female speakers overall needs to be addressed and he called on other conference organizers to do the same. “I think the talent bench is way deeper than any (directories or conference organizers) show. It’s time (for those of us producing conferences) to dig deeper.”

He also explained that it’s critical to remember that producing a conference is telling a story.

“It’s not just about finding fungible talent. When I’m trying to put a conference together. I’m trying to put together a story and I’m trying to find (qualified) people who are aligned with that story and are really able to drive the point home,” he said.

In other words, this isn’t about having a woman speak just for the sake of having a woman speak. That doesn’t do anyone any good. She must be qualified on the content and she must be able to articulate it. After all, if it’s a public speaking opportunity that whole speaking thing becomes pretty important.

I couldn’t agree more, and I will take it one step further. Beyond the need to ensure that the most qualified, well-versed women are chosen, it’s also critical to ensure that the right women are chosen for the right formats. As I detail in this post, some folks just aren’t cut out for some kinds of presentations.

Kara Swisher offered a more salty perspective – literal and figurative. As we finished up a Fort Funston beach romp with dogs and kids on Sunday afternoon, I mentioned this blog post and topic to her, and her perpetual intensity sparked. She emphasized that she and her irascible partner in crime Walt Mossberg spend considerable time ensuring the composition of their on-stage roster is as balanced as humanly possible. In the case of All Things Digital, where the same C-suite mandate O’Reilly faces with the Web 2.0 Summit comes into play, this becomes challenging as the ranks of available speaker candidates thins rapidly on the rise into the Fortune 500.

With the assumption that we’re talking about truly qualified, articulate, solid presenters, what’s next?

The fact that the issue is on the table again is good. The fact that there are new conversations happening to address the issue also is good, but talk is cheap. It’s time to take more bold action.

Like making a point to step up and be counted.

Like working together to appropriately support relevant, credible individuals.

Like turning to our male colleagues and ensure that they have our backs.

These are all great, socialized actions that will go towards chipping away at the institutionalized behavior to which we are all accustomed on this front.

What about something a bit more tactical? As Brian Solis and I discussed in Los Angeles during Twiistup6, what about creating a centralized, searchable resource through which organizers can find qualified, well-vetted female speakers and conference attendees can comment on performance, experience, and expertise?

After many conversations I keep coming around to the idea of a resource center that conferences organizers could use to source great speakers who happen to be female.

And of course any good idea worth having is likely to have other instances, as does this one. Several years ago Mary Hodder and some others launched a wiki on which they began a speakers list. Personally I think the list is a great start, but has some several limitations. For starters it’s too unwieldy, and that’s largely due to the fact that this list is not curated in any way. There’s no determining which speakers have more expertise, who has the best stage presence for a given format or, frankly, if they are as great presenting as they are on paper.

This is the problem Tim mentioned when we talked about the speaker database resources that currently exist. He noted that generally those lists are filled with people “who tend to heavily promote themselves.”

I get what Tim means. I’ve certainly been around my fair share of those sorts who spend so much time promoting themselves as experts of this, or gurus of that, I can’t help but wonder – when do they actually do any of the things about which they purport to have such expertise? Oh so many “pick me pick me” voices sound shrilly in my ears, or perhaps more accurate to say they ring hollow.

So do we need some resource lists for qualified female speakers? Yes. Should they be wholly open and just anyone can be on the list. I think not. Lest you think this is based in elitist or exclusionary principles … well, you’re right, they are.

I think there should be a barrier to entry. There should be qualifiers, because when it comes to public speaking, no matter how qualified someone may be on paper, their ability to translate that into a compelling discussion – whether as a panelist or on a keynote – may not be in sync.

Please also read: Building Bridges Between Knowledge and Aspiration.


Image Credit: Jeremy Ginsberg

98 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Newsflash: There are more men than women speaking about tech”

  1. Dave McClure says:

    sorry, i completely disagree with you on this issue… and with most of the people trying to “raise awareness” here.

    the fact of the matter is there AREN’T that many women in tech overall, or who are founders/CEOs of companies, or who want to speak on tech topics.  as a percentage of audience, i’m pretty confident the number is far below 30%, possibly even as low as 10%.

    is this heresy? is this a bad thing? is it damaging for women?

    No, No, and No.

    while we can and do need to support the growth & expansion of ALL types of diversity in tech (women, minorities, seniors, sexual orientation, etc etc), the notion that we are somehow guilty of not looking hard enough for talented women to step up and speak is not the core issue.  in fact, you could also argue that by encouraging possibly less-talented folks to step up to the mike that we are actually demeaning the pulpit, and creating less powerful role models for women who DO speak.

    while i think it’s important to do our best to find talented women speakers, the core issue is that WE SIMPLY NEED MORE WOMEN IN TECH.  how do we get this done?  we pull out our checkbooks. we choose women-run startups to get involved with. we ask other women founders to step up and be visible.

    it’s a basic numbers game.  and sure, more women speakers at conferences will help with creating role models, but we need to start with more education and funding for women in technology FIRST.  once there are more women in the field, there will be more women on the speaking circuit.

    focus on the problem, not the symptoms.

    the PROBLEM is we need more women in tech, more capital for women founders, more mentors & role models getting women into startups.  it’s not that we don’t have enough women on the speaking circuit.  that’s a symptom, not the core problem.

    ok, now go ahead and burn me at the stake.  i’m not afraid to be the heretic.  my mother was a single mom & entrepreneur, and i’m an investor in 3 women-run startups.  they’re awesome, however except for this particular description i would never describe them as women-run startups — they’re simply great startups who happen to be run by women.

  2. John Wilker says:

    As a tech conference organizer, I can’t say strongly enough that it’s not a lack of interest in women speakers, or even some sinister plot to hold women techies back. It’s a lack of women (intersted in speaking, or in general). At our events we try to (within reason) seek out women and even give presentations by women a bit higher priority when selecting topics. It’s a lack of women attending and submitting to speak that’s the problem.

    What organizer wouldn’t want a more balanced population at their event?

    I don’t blieve it’s the job of a conference organizer however, to seek out women to speak. Women are as welcome as men to submit topics.

  3. Tim O'Reilly says:

    One idea I suggested to Cathy that didn’t make it into her post is a YouTube channel. Those of us organizing conferences need to see people in action (or talk to them), not just see a name on a list.  I’d love to see a crowdsourced channel of great conference presentations.

    Of course, this doesn’t obviate the issue that we need to know “speaker about what?” There are amazing speakers on every topic, male or female, who aren’t right for a particular conference.  An event like TED, which has a broad mandate, is easy. A pure technical conference, or a vertical industry conference, is a challenge, because you have several filters that may be competing.

    One of the great resources we’ve been using to build a deeper roster of speakers is Ignite (http://ignite.oreilly.com).  This is an open-ended evening series of short presentations on any topic.  We organize some of them directly at O’Reilly, but many others are organized around the world by anyone who wants a great evening event where geeks can socialize. We encourage organizers to videotape the events; we post the best videos as part of the Ignite Show: http://ignite.oreilly.com/show/ This has been a great vehicle to find new talented and informative speakers, and I urge other conference organizers to use it as a resource.

    Re. my comment above about lists being filled with speakers who heavily promote themselves, my main point is that many of the people a conference organizer really wants to put on stage is not “the usual suspects” but someone great who’s not been heard from before.  And that may be someone who has their head down making an impact, and not spending time on the conference circuit.

    So when I said that we conference organizers need to dig deeper, I was thinking about taking the time to research people who aren’t already visible who have great things to say.

  4. Tim O'Reilly says:

    Dave, I hear you about the fact that there are more men in tech. But if we want more women in tech, as you say, one of the most important things we can do is to put more role models on stage.  It is easy just to accept the fact that there are more men in tech and take the first qualified male speaker who comes to mind.  After recent conversations with some of the women thinking hard about this issue, I realized how lazy that approach is. Yes, there are times when you have a particular speaker in mind – no one else will do as well to cover the topic you want to see covered.  But there are other times, when digging deeper until you find a woman or minority who can do justice to a topic will bring in great new voices, expand your network, and hopefully inspire a new generation of women in tech at the same time.

    Taking the extra time to research a topic deeply enough to find the hidden voices actually helps you put together a better lineup.

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