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Monday, May 07, 2007

Where are all the women, praytel?

Multicultural20businessmenFor a piece I've been meaning to write for quite some time, I need to ask your feedback. Please understand that my objective is to better understand as I'm all sorts of perplexed.

You see, at most every event (save Blogher since that's a female-centric event) there are many more male speakers than female ones. Like, many, many more.

I would understand if women weren't represented in the workplace or in management positions...but they are (even my MBA class was near equal male-to-female ratio). And I would understand if females didn't publish books, articles and blogs...but they do. I would also understand if there were a minority of female speakers...but yet I've no problem booking equal ratios of male-to-female authors for the Book Club (so far we've featured two male and two female authors...the next segment will feature male authors, the one thereafter will be female authors).

Heck, one man I polled in real-time even commented that females are much nicer to look at on panels than males (I do hope they're equally good to listen to and learn from, but a funny comment nonetheless).

Two questions, really:

1. Why do you think there's such a significant amount more males booked on panels than females? It seems to average about 75-80% male (so 20%- 25% female).

2. Can we..should we..be doing better?

If you prefer to answer this question anonymously, or e-mail me on this one, no worries! I sincerely appreciate your feedback (and will keep all feedback anonymous in the piece).

Folks, I'm really trying to understand. Otherwise, I'm left only with assumptions...and assumptions aren't advancing. Oh, full disclosure, CK is female.

Update (a few hours after I originally posted): Whether or not you comment (no pressure)--and while I'll be writing a broader piece citing this great feedback--do check-out the comments. A broad range of opinions and perspectives...sure got me thinking.


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1/ If you look at traditional medias, a majority of specialists are women

The web is still perceived as a technological geek world while I'm convinced it's not about technology but about culture and emotions.

Technology is, for some reasons, linked to testosterone :)

2/ hell, yeah! I'm sure it will change with the maturation of our medium.

The women don't have time given all the housework to do and the reality TV to watch? And frankly why should they bother their pretty little heads with complicated things like technology?

John, you're so right. Why, there are days I have trouble just finding the ALT key on my little ol' laptop. And silly me, I thought ESC would take me directly to my favorite soap opera. :-)

Seriously, my question is to conference promoters and how they select speakers and panelists. I despise quotas, and I've been the "token female" in too many situations to ever want to be selected again solely for that reason.

Is it that women are culturally programmed not to put ourselves forward or bring ourselves to the attention of top management or, say, conference promoters?

I don't have the answer, CK, but I look forward to the discussion here.

I think it's to do with conditioning. Women are conditioned to be seen and not heard, not to be too opinionated about things.

In Belgium, there is no credible panel about online without a woman called Clo Willaerts (www.bnox.be). It might be an exception but what an exception!

i do not believe there is a reason for this, at least a valid one.
i'm afraid you will stay with your question unanswered.

I have a theory about this, but I have no evidence that I'm right. Maybe further commenters will tell me.

I think that there are far more men who are willing to self-promote and say "Oh, yeah, I can talk about that" -- whether they can or they CAN'T -- than women.

I spent 6 years at a university in media relations, and met far more women faculty who were unwilling to comment on news issues than men. In fact, some male profs were sound-bite vending machines, and only one or two women.

I think that it's much more common for men to have the chutzpah to FORCE themselves onto panels and the like, and hence ... more men on panels.

Am I right, or wrong? I eagerly await the verdict.


I think Bob has hit on something. Here's another possible reason: The Glass Ceiling. It still exists, and conferences often seek high ranking executives from well-known companies.

Just a note to Maryrose: "Women are conditioned to be seen and not heard, not to be too opinionated about things." Not in my life. Who are these women of whom you speak? Never mind. I like my women opinionated.

Hi all: Just wanted to chime-in and say thanks for your feedback. I don't want to comment on these insights as I don't want to influence upcoming responses.

Very helpful to get your views...I hope more will weigh-in (either here or via e-mail).

John, perhaps we just can't find the right outfit. So much easier for a guy to put on a suit or a polo shirt and a pair of khakis.

Seriously, great responses and terrific topic. Another reason is people planning conferences get complacent. Especially within social media/tech events speakers are often repeated over and over and over again. Both men and women. However, since the guys got to this space first, for the most part, they were as Al Reis would say "first to market" and thus the repeat know and safe "buy."

However, more women are holding positions of responsibility within marketing and brand management. (I think more women than men) Now that brands/organizations (versus consultants and small businesses) are embracing social media strategies I think we'll see more women brought in as speakers. Not because they are "women" but because they are doing good work within the space. May not answer your initial question/concern but then again perhaps it does ...

[Disclaimer: This was originally an email, so I apologize for the length.]

There are just as many smart, engaging, opinionated women as there are men (if not more).

Unfortunately, culture/tradition/history/whatever has taught us that men make the important business decisions. Naturally, they are further inclined to also do more talking about these "important" decisions (like innovative business practices, the impact of new media, increasing brand awareness, etc.) I'm not saying that it's right, I'm just saying it happens.

With that in mind, strong women are often seen as risky anomalies that threaten to mess with the status quo. Sometimes they're even perceived as intimidating. Seriously, women that are smarter than us men can make some people uncomfortable. For some, it's hard to embrace a brilliant woman who's smarter and stronger than you. Once again, this is not how it should be, but it's the truth.

So here's the point: I think that either consciously or subconsciously, women realize that this perception exists. That feel that if they act in a strong, confident manner, other people will feel as though they're too aggressive, and they won't be as receptive to the message. In a sense, being too smart is almost seen as a flaw. It's inherently off-putting because it distances the speaker from the listener.

Since women are much more sensitive creatures than us men, they don't want to make others uncomfortable, and they therefore refrain from acting in a way that (they believe) would do so. The problem is that this belief is all wrong! This is why there are just as many women writers, bloggers, publishers, etc.---but NOT as many speakers. Women are fine with putting their brilliance down in writing, because it has less chance of "offending" people. It's when they step up to the podium and present those ideas, that they think people will shy away.

So what can we do? Basically, we have to change this perception. I'm not sure exactly how to do it, but I think it starts with smart, strong, opinionated women showing their true colors, and not being afraid to demonstrate how exceptional they really are. Then, we can only hope that others will follow suit.

Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, I think, makes great points when discusses parallel issues of racial and gender bias in media booking, referencing studies that challenge us to ponder whether it's possible to basically think racist and/or sexist without consciously being so (this goes for all genders and races, so no one is off the hook).


Page first cites the Media Matters for America survey, conducted during the second week of April ("Imus Week"), which compared guests bookings with the week before and two weeks after (they omitted the VA Tech massacre).. It found more black guests were put on prime-time cable news *but* not an appreciable number of women. Recall, however, who Imus targeted: black women. Not blacks in general, or women in general.

Page then references the NBA referee bias study recently reported in the NY Times. University of Pennsylvania professor Justin Wolfers, and Cornell University economics graduate student Joseph Price argue, based upon 13 years worth of statistics, that referees of one race tend to call more fouls against players of the opposite race. Unsurprisingly, NBA Commissioner David Stern responded with his own "color blind" research that showed no bias at all.

So generalizing the basic questions Page poses:

(1) If there tends to be one type of thing more often than not, does that make the thing itself a particular kind of [blank]-ist, or is it merely force of habit that leads people to draw from the same well so often? Why, for example, given the range of excellent women speakers, do folks continue to select the same limited range time and time again? Name recognition and marketability, for starters?

(2) The "wrong" question people ask is: "Are the people who enable, allow, or facilitate the particular thing that seems [blank]-ist, in turn, [blank]-ist themselves?" The "right" question to ask is, "To what degree do misperceptions and stereotypes cloud or override our good judgement, instinct, and awareness of what we're doing such that we *might* allow unfair and biased behavior to enter into our thinking."

(3) Quotas trump qualifications? Ask why there aren't more women, and I'd ask why there aren't more women from where doing what representing whom why. I never want to think of a great, talented, or amazing women speaker only when I need "a woman speaker" or "a woman who can speak". I need to have that woman or person of color in mind for everything they're expert in. I hope everyone in booking and business gets this way with their contacts. I know they're still not this way with their social contacts... When was the last time you said I know this amazing "person" versus I know this amazing "girl/woman" or "guy" who knows [blank]?...

(4) There shouldn't be women "just cause" or in the name of *balance*. There should be a larger pool of diversity period, and if it's a channel that needs to be better supported because people don't know it's there, pay heed to (1)-(3) again.

I'm a professional communicator/marketer willing to speak at conferences and events -- and I have a few times. I have training/knowledge, experience, bucketfuls of stories and informed opinions to share. I am smart, articulate, and fun in two languages. I have:

* moderated panels on core business issues like growing your sales and writing a business plan;
* organized events on business consulting for risk managers, and topical business issues for entrepreneurs and corporations;
* introduced and wrapped up approximately 95 different business events that ranged in topic from creating better retail experiences to the issues of copyrights and product piracy;
* facilitated round table discussions on business results with senior level executives.

Will travel, assist other business professionals with research and insights, and time is not really an objection.

I make no secret of the fact that I love speaking in front of an audience and have testimonials to the effectiveness of the events I participate in as well as the energy they liberate.


Folks: I had someone ask me why I was holding back from commenting in this thread. I will be commenting once I compile the broader piece...but in order to pen a 'balanced' post, I need feedback first (especially being it's a piece focused on more 'balance').

See, I want to offer a variety of viewpoints, in addition to my own. Never fear, I'm not one to keep quiet or not voice my opinions ;-). Thanks so much for your good thoughts in this thread.

I like Bob's hypothesis and reasoning the best. It just seems right from a sociological perspective.

Bob's statement opens up some interesting avenues that lead back to CK's original question. It may not be a gender or behavioral tendency for "shameless self promotion", but an environment that promoted/rewarded such behavior.

To Mario, I would simply suggest this: You could also look for similar behavior within an all- or predominately-female academic/professional environment and find the "alphas" who got the attention, no?

Look at it this way: was the lack of women Bob found in such a setting an issue of willingness or availability; "marketing" the media opportunities most effectively to the right experts who happened to be female, or were there other issues within the environment that prevented more women from coming forward?

For example, wIthin the departments with which you had the most contact, it would be most interesting to think back on the number of tenured faculty, ratio of women to men within those positions, and split along, say, age and ethnicity (not race). Cross-cultural barriers and organizational politics (e.g. are certain "types" groomed and supported for media and conference appearances more than others) can pose a number of issues for individuals in public settings, regardless of gender.

Any group that appears scarce, I'd argue, has to employ that much more chutzpah to challenge the perception that there's not so many of them in the first place on two fronts: against the schlemiels hogging all the attention and the people who just don't know where/how to find them.

You and I have talked about this issue, CK, but I've noticed a similar trend with women commenting on blog posts... far more men tend to comment than do women. I wrote about it here:


I'm not sure what the answer is, exactly. But in my experience, I think women professionals are more burdened generally than many male professionals, in their personal lives (whether by default or design). If you scroll through the blog comments on the Daily Fix post, for example, you find a common theme... "I don't have TIME to comment on blogs....! All I can do is my job and take care of everything else in my life... ."

I'm guessing there's a grain of truth that applies to this situation, too. Speaking at conferences is a huge time-sink... and women don't have the chunk of time to commit as readily. Or maybe they don't want to make the commitment (which I know is often the case with me.) If they make the commitment, it better be *worth it*!

From my own personal experience, it's *really* hard for me to be out of town for many consecutive days very frequently. My kids hate it -- I feel guilty -- stuff backs up at home -- and frankly, it's gotta be pretty special to entice me to put us all through that. I love my kids; I love my job. I just want to keep the balance. It's about choices as much as anything else.

I wonder if it's predicated upon the industry you participate in. I work in the multi-family apartment rental space and I would say a larger percentage of the speakers I see are women.

Beyond that I wonder if it is the sex of the event coordinator. Are they more often male or female?

One last point; your day will come!!! I, like Tom Peters am a huge fan of women leaders in the professional world. That is not to say that every woman is cut out to lead but then again neither are a lot of men.

The last word: I love your voice (blog). M

The only appropriate thing for me to add is what I've learned through years of recognizing my white male bias - there are too few voices heard. Too many male voices and not enough female voices. But then you should see how I vote - there's a reason my home has a woman governor, two women senators, and a congressional district filled by a woman representative. Dance around it all ya want but first question - Why are there so few women on panels? Because men set the agendas and the panels. The second question is easier...you damn right we should do better!

Like Ann - I think it may be a work/life thing. I talk to groups about my business or gardening or cut flowers or whatever. I like talking to them, it is fun, it promotes my business, I get a buzz.

But EVERY time, every single time, I get to the day of the talk and I am resentful of the amount of preparation, of the time spent away from my children & husband and the extra juggling of childcare that has to go on for a speaking engagement. The time I take to do these things means that I am cutting a lot of them from my diary.

I have worked hard to get a work-life balance that suits me and these kind of speaking events threaten that. I suspect that you may find this applies to other women as well.

I think the nature/purpose of panels also has an impact on this. In line with Bob's thinking, there is clearly a promotion rather than an educational slant to most of them and in many industries, especially technology I suspect, there is a perception that this is dependent upon functionality rather than a more roubnded approach and thus you get a replication of the male majority within geekdom. If they read my geek marketing 101, they might realise that the functionality is really not the key issue here.

Additionally, I would suggest that the maleness is self-replicating because very often panel members are asked to suggest other panel members.

And finally, women are generally smart enough to realise that the majority of panels are not worth the effort.

As someone who typically fills the "token woman" role, I've had enough. This fall I'm launching a conference for women in sales featuring only women sales experts. And that's just the start.

I want everyone in business-to-business sales to know about these incredibly talented women. And, I want all the female sales reps out there to have strong role models to look up too.

When the power of these women is unleashed, watch out world!

Hehe go Jill :)

Oh, CK, what a rich topic! And what great responses. I operate in a male dominated industry and find that the hard topics get covered by the men, whereas the soft topics [i.e., design] get covered by women. It's a total shame given that the ultimate consumer is a woman and that most of the [male run] retailers don't get why the world has changed so radically around them. The enlightened include both women and men and are passionate about creating a better solution. It makes life very interesting and this is a topic we should discuss in more detail face-to-face!

Ah, such a complicated question really...I guess we are defining the conference universe here as social media as it exists in advertising, marketing, PR, tech? Might be important to specify. Is it a different dynamic in real estate or academia or any of the other blogospheres?

Male privlege is the answer in many respects to even attending conferences...I'm with Ann and Jane on that one. For me the first thoughts when presented with the need for an out of town trip are about the myriad of arrangements that need to be made for kids and pets... and the guilt if it means something will be missed.

On this one, I throw like a girl...and conferences in general are a long run, short slide. A privlege.

I think sometimes that my kids will probably be telling their therapist years from now about the one basketball game that their mother missed... and about the one basketball game that their father made it to. But I digress..

Where are the women speakers at conferences? Where are the women CEOs? Why do women still earn less money than men for the same job?

My MBA class, several decades ago, had approximately 6 women and 94 men. So, at least they are lettin' us go to school now, right. Equal representation at conferences will certainly follow....


I worked almost my entire career in retail, where there isn't generally a glass ceiling, where 70% of leadership positions are female. I've worked with and for some of the strongest female leaders that exist.

And at conferences, it's men. I found that I get to speak at conferences through word of mouth, and through having the tenacity to submit a proposal. Maybe a small number of men have a ton of tenacity, and thus, skew conference gender representation. Don't know.

I think Bob Ledux hit the nail on the head, really. Just look around the blogosphere, it's a male dominated place. We've got wonderfully talented and intelligent women like yourself, Ann, BL, Valeria, Toby, among others, but the women are definitely outnumbered.

Obviously, that evidence would be purely circumstantial, but I think there may be a parallel.

Either way, it's a really tough question. I don't have much interest in coming out and implying that there's some huge bias. But something's wrong, that's for sure.

A few thoughts here - and belatedly, as I was at a conference this week that I programmed (MediaPost's Search Insider Summit). Thus, the reason for my delay is precisely the reason I might be able to add a little something here.

At the Search Insider Summit, speakers were mostly male (perhaps a 70-30 split). We did have a female keynote (Esther Dyson) as well as some panels that were predominantly women, but the gender discrepancy was there. Interestly, attendees seemed to be about 50% women.

Here are a few possible explanations:

* Most of the male speakers were VPs or above at interactive agencies or technology companies, so the technology gender bias played a role, even for an event more for marketers and agencies. Marketers are much harder to land as speakers for a number of reasons, and it's the marketers there that seemed to skew female, or at least have much higher female representation (note that all attendees had some sort of management role, making the glass ceiling less of a factor).

* Do I have some sort of bias? It's hard to tell, and it's definitely not intentional. There were many speakers with whom I had some sort of professional connection or who I sought out specifically to take part, and there's no clear gender pattern there. At least half of the female speakers fell into this category; perhaps I should have been more aggressive.

* There could be broader gender issues at play too. Quite a few of the people helping behind the scenes were women, notably PR professionals pitching their clients, and we have the "behind every man" factor come up. I'm not saying that's a good thing, nor is it necessarily something to lash out against, but it is very common, and the event's success was much more dependent on women than the agenda showed.

* Some people commented on men being more aggressive, which might have played a role (though for the subset of the event, the most tenacious, determined speakers were women, almost across the board - and if any read this, they'll know who they are). I'd even modify it to say men are more likely to be in entrepreneurial roles.

* I was talking to some people at the opening night cocktail reception and one attendee came up to a man there and said, "You look like a speaker." There were no speaker badges at this event, but the attendee was right. Interestingly, it was one of the speakers who really did look like one - tall, polished, winning smile (fittingly, he's also a CEO). I can't remember if a man or woman made the comment about the CEO looking like a speaker, but it was a keen observation, and there are several people who were on the agenda because they played the part of someone groomed to be a speaker so well. When you think of a speaker, does Mitt Romney or Hillary Clinton come to mind? The analogy brings up another interesting point - so many of the speakers we're used to hearing, notably for two years out of every four, work in politics - a male-dominated field. Perhaps that plays a role in perception as well. (An aside: there are a couple speakers who, because of past performance, are on my 'do not contact' list, and that very small sample is comprised entirely of men, so I'm not sure if that means anything here.)

One aside: someone referenced the alleged referee bias in the NBA. Dan Daly had a great response in The Washington Times, which I first saw referenced in The Week: "Could it be -- and I'm just playing devil's advocate here -- that blacks are called for more fouls because they're simply more aggressive? I just checked the final stats for the 2006-07 regular season. There are only two whites among the top 50 in steals, Manu Ginobili (23rd) and Kirk Hinrich (35th). There are just nine whites, moreover, among the top 50 shot blockers. Might not this at least partially explain the Foul Imbalance? Or, in these tabloid times, must we blame it on something insidious like subconscious racism?"

One other thought: I'll probably adapt this response for a future column in MediaPost's Search Insider, so thanks to all of the great insights here, and thanks to CK for starting the conversation.

One last thought: if you're a man or woman working in the search marketing world or a related field and want to be considered for a future event, reach out through the blog link above.

I think men are more empowering when they deliver their speech and they are competent leader considering their experiences on manhood and trainings. Men are the head of the family.

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