A veteran conference speaker and CTO reflects on how organizers can get more speaking proposals from women.
By Rebecca Parsons (CTO, ThoughtWorks)
In my last article, I touched upon the challenge of getting more women executives in IT. Another aspect that is often overlooked is securing more women speakers and panelists at technology conferences. Contrary to stereotype, I am not always just asked to discuss the glass ceiling for women in the male-dominated tech industry. I engage in panels and discussions on domain specific languages, evolutionary architecture, and the role of data and data science in the social sector. Despite preconceived notions, I have been able to engage my technology peers on equal ground. So how is it that we still lack a deep roster of women speakers on the technology conference circuit?
It starts with the program planning process. Some technology conferences are by invitation only. Once you break through into the conference network as a woman speaker, it is not at all unusual to get asked frequently to participate by conference planners who are conscience of the gender balance of the speaker portfolio.
Unfortunately, we often find there is a limited pool of women candidates’ eager to submit speaking topics. There has been an experimental trend by conference planners to conduct a completely blind review of potential panelists and speakers, which in theory takes out any negative bias of speakers. Substantive feedback also helps guide all submitters on how to improve their work. However, while these are positive steps, adjusting the review process does not solve the problem of a limited pool of submissions. The problem is more to do with how we expand the pool of women submitting for speaking opportunities. Below are some real-world suggestions to help move the needle.
Go Beyond Your Comfort Zone
One solution is to make sure the call for papers and submissions is more widely disseminated in the global technology community. Conference organizers can seek out different circles of influence (not just in the usual suspects) where they can find and engage a more diverse audience and then work towards encouraging people to submit. Studies show women are less likely to put themselves forward, and this disturbing trend also unfortunately applies to submitting topics for conference discussions.
Lend a Hand and Motivate
It has been harder for conferences to secure women speakers because the pool is more limited. A pro-active approach to increasing the numbers of women speakers is to pair up first-time speakers with more experienced speakers for support and encouragement. This type of collaborative approach will allow women to share the stage, lighten the load and provide moral support. Speaking in public (especially when the audience is mostly men) is not easy, but providing an experienced shoulder to lean on will go a long way in empowering women to step up to the microphone. It falls on all of us to encourage women to take that first step and submit ideas and expertise. The approach that many conferences use (put out a call for proposal and wait to see what comes in) will not create a diverse pool of candidates to choose from. Rather than wait for the submissions, let’s go find them.
Diversify Your Approach
For example, an upcoming technology conference in the Bay Area I am involved in called FlowCon, was able to achieve 40% female representation on their speaker roster. The organizers achieved this impressive roster of diverse candidates by mixing up the invite process with a balance of specific invites and submission opportunities. Ultimately the responsibility falls on conference organizers to expand their scope rather than just look in the usual places.
The solutions are right in front of us, although they do require more effort. If conference organizers pay attention and care about diversity, then it is achievable. If we collectively motivate and support the next generation of female speakers, we will expand our leadership. New solutions, new perspectives, new ideas and new thinkers are out there, waiting to be heard. Let’s reach out and lend a hand.
Looking to attend an event with no shortage of female speakers? Our Las Vegas conference is less than two weeks away!
About the guest blogger: Dr. Rebecca Parsons is ThoughtWorks’ Chief Technology Officer. She has more than 20 years’ application development experience, has published in both language and artificial intelligence publications, served on numerous program committees, and reviews for several journals.
Photo credit: frontiersofinteraction via Flickr.