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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?


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. VM Brasseur says:

    Cathy, Tim, Dave, et alios have good points.  In fact I haven’t seen a single boneheaded comment yet on this post which is a testament to its readership.

    However what I also haven’t seen are any actionable suggested solutions.   Perhaps its because we haven’t really narrowed now the core problem…

    Everyone agrees that (a) there are few women in tech and therefore (logic!) (b) there are even fewer women writing/presenting about tech.  I posit that if we can fix (b) we’ll help fix (a).  So how can we better engage the women who ARE in tech to participate in the community, thereby presenting more role models?  Restated, how can a woman get a start on writing/presenting?

    Answer: the same way that men do.    As a woman in tech I’m here to tell you that it ain’t that easy to just get up on that pony and ride, but that doesn’t mean I should get a free pass to the merry-go-round.

    Contrary to some of the suggestions I’ve read here, I don’t believe that women need anything more than support and encouragement in order to start participating in the tech community.  We should not be afforded any advantages not also proferred to men.  We should not be placed on special speaker lists, nor given preferential treatment when determining writing requests or speaking engagements.  As with the other half of humanity, if women can’t walk the walk they should not talk the talk (at least not at a tech conference).

    So how to provide that support and encouragement to existing techie women?  Certainly not by gently berating their male counterparts, as <a href=””>Kirrily Robert</a> did in her <a href=”″>OSCON keynote</a> this year[1].  The men of Open Source, I’ve found, would gladly accept women into their ranks were they only to join.  Most of the women simply have other things they’d rather do (and that’s OK).

    Perhaps we should more strongly exhort the existing women techies to just stand up and have their say.  “C’mon, gals!  There’s a lot of you!  Speak your mind!  Be heard!  Represent!”  Well, that may work for some but many may react negatively to that sort of pressure.

    OK, so we can’t scold men[2] and we can’t exhort women.  What’s left?

    Continuing on the path we’re on.

    I’ve been in/around the tech industry for over 15 years now and I can’t begin to express the fantastic cultural strides I’ve seen it make in that time.  By and large the members of our subculture now welcome anyone who steps in and can hold his/her own.  This is a far cry from the white male-centric view it had when I first stumbled into this group.  Over all I’m pretty darn pleased with the progress which has been made.  It ain’t quick but it’s here to stay and it’s still moving in the right direction.

    For any society to make this much change in that short of a time is a very admirable thing.  Yes, it still has FAR to go but in this case do you really think you’ll be able to make a better difference via revolution than evolution?  I doubt it.  Revolution may form a schism and that doesn’t help anyone.

    So instead we should stay on our current path.  We should keep having discussions of this sort to help raise awareness in the community, thereby fostering acceptance and inclusion on a cultural level.  We should continue to embrace people of all genders should they choose to put themselves out there.  We should continue to support young people in their tech dabbling, being sure to advertise that an invite is open to all.

    [1] I don’t fault Kirrily on this.  Her audience was almost entirely male and the tone of her talk was pitched to help raise awareness within that specific audience.  That it rubbed me the wrong way merely shows that I wasn’t her target.  It took me a while to recognize that.

    [2] I do NOT believe there is any endemic intentional bias or discrimination against women in the tech community.  The geeks of today cannot be held accountable for the culture they (and the rest of society) inherited from their tech ancestors.  There aren’t many women in tech to help change that culture, so they also can’t be blamed for perpetuating it (momentum is a powerful thing).  It is what it is but that’s not what it has to be, if you catch my meaning.

  2. fee plumley says:

    I agree there are less women in tech, but I often know better female speakers than the males who do present. I think our problem is often this nonsensical celebrity focus – “x spoke here and here, so we simply must get them in!”. Hence loving the Ignite platform.
    Thanks for a great article & comments, fee (a female in tech).

  3. Guest says:

    Tim, I think you have some good suggestions.

  4. Naren UBi says:

    Well, this is a bit shocking to me since this comes the western world. I used to think otherwise; from the conferences that I attended, I always used to see more women speakers, entrepreneurs talking a lot about new technology and stuff like that. So, what is actually the difference like? If it is huge, it’s of concern. Else, I think it’s only a matter of time when the marginal difference be bridged.

  5. Tessa Sterkenburg says:

    I run a speaker agency in the Netherlands that focuses on people who are experts in the field of new media, new technology and innovation, mostly representing dutch speakers. (Most probably!) because I am a woman..a question often asked is why I don’t have more women om my list of speakers, and I find it extremely difficult to answer that question.

    I represent people because of their interesting content – many people who run startups/small companies or work for themselves in tech are more aware of and have experience with the latest developments in tech and that knowledge can be transferred to the larger companies. That’s the space that I am in, so the last thing I want to do is represent people because of their appearance.

    I refuse to believe that women don’t have that content, but why are 99% of the people who want to be on my list men? Why is it so much more difficult to find those women? And from the women that contact me, why do most of them want to talk about “vague subjects” such as “how it is to be a woman in tech” (none of the men that contact me talk about how it is to be a man in tech), a subject that is never requested by my customers.

    Selecting speakers is difficult. Setting qualifiers is indeed necessary to go beyond the people who shout loudest. I look at area of expertise, experience, online presence, how often they are asked to perform at conferences, and check whether online video’s are available.

    The last couple of qualifiers don’t exactly help women at the moment.

  6. CoachDeb says:

    The only time it “Stands Out” when there are “more men than women” speakers on a particular conference/panel etc is when there are NO women – despite being able to rattle off known female experts on the subject matter being discussed. 

    If there are 100 men in tech to 10 women in tech – then it goes without mentioning that we will see more men in tech speaking. 

    But here are a few other problem with why we don’t see more women speaking on stage.

    1 – Women aren’t shouting from the rooftops that they’re qualified to do so. (They’re just bitching about it w/ their estrogen groups) 

    2 – Women aren’t talking to the right influencers in order to GET on stage at the right conferences. (As long as we hold “women only” or “women focused” conferences – we’ll be separating ourselves as “different” than men, and therefore not interacting with the men with the power and influence to get us on co-ed stages / conferences.) 

    3 – Women are turning DOWN opportunities to speak. Yes. They’re being Asked — but by their own choices, and reasons, and business goals, they’re saying NO to the leaders asking them to speak on stage in the area they’ve got expertise. 

    As much as I’d like to see more women rising up, owning their power, sharing their voices, I cannot MAKE them want something they don’t see as a priority. This is not a one time thing either – I’ve talked to more than a dozen women of influence who know their stuff – yet choose to stay off the speaking circuit because… well – to be quite frank – it ain’t easy to run all over the country speaking. Some see a greater ROI to doing teleclasses that bring in revenue from their own home office rather than speaking at some conference where they can’t pitch — just to “speak from stage and be seen”. 

    I for one am NOT one of those women. 
    I for one AM on the other hand one of the women who loves speaking from stage, sharing my expertise, and traveling all over sharing my latest book on social media (well at least I am now that I’m no longer living in Hawaii 🙂   😉

    But I’m not EVERY woman – and the fact of the matter is, there are more women saying NO than there are saying YES to the opportunities to make their voices heard & share their message.  
    So until then – men will continue to get the heat, for no fault of their own 🙁  Until we have more women who love traveling the speaking circuit gig and WANT the fame and influence that comes from getting their name in lights, this conversation will continue to take place. 

    I’m Just Sayin’

  7. Guest says:

    Great blog.  I think that this goes for many industries.  It is not that there is a lack of talented females doing work and writing…it is the ability to articulate and communicate in a huge capacity.  The Specific Chiropractic Center has several great female practitioners and they are looking to break loose on the speaking circuit in the health care industry.

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