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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. Guest says:

    A useful tool that was created in the uk was although things like this exist, organizers of events are lazy and will only view or consider speaker submissions from those who they know and those who hear about the call for speakers.  A lot of the time this is based on past spekers and past recommendations.

    When you look further it’s all a case of what is simply easiest, quickest and least hassle…

  2. alfon says:

    but its fact men more interested about tech than woman.. men more think about logical then emotion

  3. PhilWolff says:

    Perhaps we could score conferences. The Gender Balance Index. Female speaker minutes / Total Speaker Minutes *10. She’s Geeky would get a 9 or 10. Some telecom events would score 0-1. Visible incentive to improve balance.
    However speaker affirmative action is besides the point.
    What can you do to improve the talent pool? To make it more diverse, more insightful, more articulate, more entertaining, more engaging, more prepared? What can you do to make the process of discovering and engaging the best talent cheaper, faster, more reliable, and better at aligning participants to an event’s agenda and to its publics?
    Gender in tech conferences is only a third-order symptom of gender issues related to hiring, self-selection in geek careers and in public speaking. Addressing gender balance in events doesn’t help with the root causes.

  4. Sean Percival says:

    Thanks for this Cathy, great post.

  5. Lisa Whelan says:

    Great post, Cathy. 

    I’d love to see someone sponsor a high-quality media and speakers training day targetting women in tech.  Half the battle in getting great speakers is finding people who are both comfortable in front of a crowd and know how to develop an interesting and lively presentation.  Learning how to develop compelling content and speak in front of a crowd usually only happens with practice and the right coaching.

    Thanks for sharing the Speakers Wiki… It’s a great resource.  I just added myself to the list. The wiki would be even better if it were easier to add, edit and search speakers. I can imagine Socialtext isn’t the easiest thing to use for those who don’t blog.  It would also be useful to have: a geography tag, a more robust calendar of speaking opportunities, and the ability to easily add, rate, and search speaker videos.

  6. patricia says:

    I see women speaking everywhere in a lot of places in tech. 

  7. nan says:

    As a female VP of a technology company, I am compelled to back any sane efforts to bring hard working women in technology to the forefront of the discussion. There is little debate that seeing successful, happy women in careers inspires girls. With the percentages of girls entering math. science and technology fields dropping, we need as much inspiration as possible.

    However, from Tim’s comments, it sounds like what is really needed is a centralized listing of  credible, interesting vetted speakers metatagged with their areas of expertise, who are interested in working the circuit  – regardless of gender. While you could certainly include gender as searchable metadata, why limit it to only women?  We have all witnessed the debacle of a bad speaker ( male or female) as well as the lack of women, let’s fix both problems at once- it is the more elegant solution 😉

    While you are certainly justified in limiting who will be in the respository, I would strongly recommend that you make comments and voting open to registered users, to get the wide audience viewpoint that a conference organzier is looking for. To avoid the limitations of the inbred network effect, you might also consider allowing submissions for onsideration which are then vetted by a panel of experts.

    I am very interested in following how this developslooking forward to more discussion in the future.

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