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Gauntlet Toss or Clarion Call: Women, it’s time to step up

Guest post by Cathy Brooks: Follow her on Twitter | Read her blog


Imagine this scenario. It’s election time and you find yourself engaged in a heated debate with someone about a particular candidate. Fairly foaming at the mouth, this individual rails on about lousy legislators.

Then you find out this person is eligible to be but is not registered to vote.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’m of a mind that if you don’t register to vote, you cede your right to complain about politicians.

So when several conference producers with whom I spoke said that not only do women rarely submit speaking abstracts but they also tend to decline when asked to speak, I began to question where we’re putting the blame for the missing link where female speakers should be.

Don’t get me wrong I’m not letting conference organizers wholly off the hook. Nor am I giving men who don’t step up to recommend a more diverse pool of their peers when asked, a free pass. First, however, we need to put all the cards on the table.

We have some systemic issues to address, and we have some immediate action we can take. The bigger institutional monsters – like the fact that we need to get more young women engaged in the business realm – will take time. I intend to keep hammering at this topic and will be exploring things on this front in future posts here at PR2.0.

This post isn’t about the systemic issues. Those issues are legion, and combine glass ceiling with an array of other social, cultural and economic factors. This post is about what we can do now.

With that, I extend my arm, point my index finger, wag it in the collective face of my sisters, and toss down this gauntlet: If we want to change this situation there are some pretty basic things well within our purview we need to straighten out.

And in the interest of short attention spans, here are highlights:

1) Don’t wait to be asked: One organizer told me he had a woman tell him that she “won’t speak unless invited”. Well, unless you’re Kara Swisher, Marissa Mayer, Gina Bianchini, Sarah Lacy, or some other visible, established presence, chances are likely you’ll have to work to get on those stages. So do it. Any conference site has a link that explains how speakers can submit pitches. If they don’t, call or email them directly. Make a point of finding out the kinds of subjects/sessions that work for their event, what theme they may have for the conference and if you know people who have spoken there in the past, ask them about the experience and get insight on what works best for that audience.

2) If they ask, say yes: I’m not suggesting you say yes to every speaking opportunity. Actually, scratch that. I am, but not perhaps as you might think. If you’re asked to speak and you really just can’t do it, don’t just say no. Proffer a replacement – and make sure you’re not just giving them a friend who you want to support really think about whether the person is the right fit for the format/content. Remember, this isn’t about women for women’s sake this is about making sure we have the right women speaking in the right places.

3) When they solicit, speak up: Rick Calvert of BlogWorldExpo told me they reach out to people they know asking for recommendations for speakers and in almost all cases the men reply to him. The women rarely do. (And in an ironic twist, he added that if women do respond, the speakers they suggest are often male.) The point? If given a chance to let your voice be heard, take it.

Plenty of women may take umbrage at my remarks. They will say they have pitched themselves to speak and tried to participate all to no avail. What I would say to them is, have you really? Many years ago I took an acting class. The teacher told us there are two kinds of people who work in Hollywood – the kind who are brilliantly talented and the kind who never ever give up. Rejection after rejection they keep coming back to audition. Role after role, they persevere and continue until they establish a toehold.

So too must we persist. I know. I know. It feels like we’ve been doing this forever but how about a little perspective folks? You need only watch an episode of Mad Men for a clear reminder of the truly deep misogyny that saturated the business world merely 40 years ago. That sounds like a long time. In the big picture, it’s not.

We have made progress. Now it’s time to kick it up another notch.

To that end …

Conference organizers have incentive to diversify their speaker rosters. As both Rick and SXSW Interactive’s Hugh Forrest explained, if they don’t have a strong mix of speakers along all lines, everyone loses. These two events are among the most successful at achieving this balance, with both boasting at least a 30% female roster for the last several years. They also said that having a more effective resource would be helpful.

Tim O’Reilly made mention of wishing for a place where you can view videos of female speakers in action. He suggested a YouTube site. Brian Solis also suggested the creation of a searchable database of experts organized by content and expertise not unlike a Facebook for speakers, with images, content, videos, and also reviews from conference and event attendees.

After looking at some features and functionality I opted to launch a site on Ning where women can join and upload their videos directly. That won’t be all. The idea of this resource will be to encourage and support women in preparing more effectively (and aggressively) to speak at conferences – whether that’s making sure to know when abstracts are due, giving people a place to collaborate and support each other on pitches, or getting tips on presenting by watching each other’s work.

Having such a site may also help conference organizers avoid putting the wrong speaker into the wrong situation – as happened this past week at Gnomedex. Chris Pirillo with whom I attempted to speak several times to no avail, had four women on the program. Best as I can tell that’s about 17% of his roster. That wasn’t my biggest issue. Rather it was that one of the women, a clearly very smart, capable and articulate individual, crashed in her presentation because, quite honestly, it was the wrong crowd for her talk. Whether that was a function of poor booking, disconnect in preparation or just an unexpected oversight I’m not sure. I’m hoping Chris will engage in a discussion in the comments because I’m not one for speaking of others without their having a chance to have their say.

The reason, though, almost doesn’t matter. What matters, is that the audience had a bad experience, I imagine the speaker didn’t feel too great about it either.

And in that scenario, no one wins.

As Brian Solis so eloquently stated in this post, we are in a time where reaching across the boundaries between groups – any groups – is fraught with great challenge, but also great opportunity.

It’s time for women to seize this opportunity. Where we go from here, is entirely up to us.

76 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Gauntlet Toss or Clarion Call: Women, it’s time to step up”

  1. Melissa Pierce says:

    I’ve also wondered about why women don’t step up, and why, when asked for reccomendations for women to interview I often am met with blank faces and empty hands, even from some of the most innovative women I know. Citing this study about women’s perception about their performance as compared to mans. It’s clear that we still do have a long way to go before women stop paying lip service to equality and start actaully believing it themselves.

  2. Cathy Brooks: public says:

    Thanks for the comment, Melissa, and for the link. I know the scenario you mention well.

  3. Rachel Happe says:

    Cathy – I love the call to action. Personally, this has not been a huge issue for me – I’m fairly happy with how often and where I speak [maybe that’s part of the problem but I digress].  And speaking at big events requires some history of speaking so for everyone out there I recommend volunteering to speak at small local events – it’s great practice and gets you comfortable in front of a crowd. It doesn’t happen over night but it will start to give you a bigger audience. But if you want something – or want to see something different – be the change.

  4. Marla Schulman says:

    Thank you Cathy for another spot on commentary with valuable suggestions on how to uplevel and increase the number of women talking about and working in tech!  FYI, I know about a site called (i think it’s still in Alpha) that will be addressed the issue of booking speakers.  Will keep you posted!

  5. Cathy Brooks: public says:

    The suggestion to speak at small, local events is a GREAT one, Rachel … it’s also a chance to do something in an environment where you can get immediate feedback. There are *very* few naturally talented speakers. Most folks need to practice. Some folks need extra training. But the best training of all … is just doing it!

  6. Babette-BakeSpaceCEO says:

    Nice job Cathy! I’ll head over to your ning site and check it out – Kudos for taking a farsighted approach that examines all sides of the issue. If we as women don’t ask, we’ll never get the opportunity. I agree with just about everything in your post – the only “ouch” moment involved Tim’s reference to a site where women could post videos in order to “try out” for speaking engagements. While I can see the value, I don’t like the idea that women should have to “audition” separately from male counterparts in order to get the gig.

  7. Cathy Brooks: public says:

    Thanks, Babette! To perhaps allay concerns over what Tim said. He was *not* suggesting an audition site at all … Rather he was suggesting that there be a video repository through which folks who are seeking speakers could actually see them speak!

    As I’ve mentioned, I’ve produced quite a few conferences … and back in the day I headed booking & talent at TechTV … in both roles there was a common problem – oftentimes the qualifications that someone puts forward on paper do not mesh with the way they actually present on stage. In other words … to the point of not just booking women for women’s sake but making sure they are the RIGHT person … That means they have presenting skills and that also means being clear on the KIND of speaking one does … keynotes, workshops, fireside chats, panels – they all require very different skill sets and technique. Not everyone can do all .. In fact most people CAN’T (male or female) … usually there’s a particular format at which one might excel.

  8. Cathy Brooks: public says:

    Hi Marla … I’m somewhat familiar with Maestro and have to say that based on the business model I”ve been told they’re using I’d be hard pressed to consider it or recommend it …

  9. Cathy Brooks: public says:

    Thanks, Melissa. Though I do hope I don’t sound too “preachy” …

  10. Babette-BakeSpaceCEO says:

    Well said! 🙂 Thanks for clearing that up. I agree, looking good on paper and getting the job done are sometimes not the same thing. (Makes me think of dating site profiles…hee hee) Anyhow, perhaps more women will ask and more organizers will be open to fresh faces. Win Win

  11. Liza says:

    Cathy, Well done! You hit the nail on the head, women don’t ask, clearly a generalization, but one that rings true in many cases.  If you have not yet read “Women Don’t Ask” (, read it now, because it explains why these gender disparties exist.  During nearly 10 yrs on Wall Street,  I saw most of my female coworkers, many of whom were smarter and more qualified than me, leave the industry after a couple of years, frustrated by getting paid less than their male peers, and blaming the old boys club mentality.  I was promoted and offered new opportunities when I not only asked, but asked 10, 20, 30, times! I was professional and polite, but I did not accept no as the final answer. The ‘squeaky wheel gets the oil’, but ONLY if it squeaks loudly over and over.

    Yes, female self-promotion carries a stigma, but let’s be honest, guys do it without blinking, so if we want to play with the boys, we better learn to promote ourselves without feeling like it is something dirty. Until each of us asks, not only on our own behalf, but also on behalf of other phenomenal women we would like to see speak at specific events, it is difficult to blame others. Like you said, we need to “kick it up a notch” – each of us knows MANY women we would like to see speak, and potential speakers must be proactive by identifying and targeting conferences, and also by asking other women to speak up, too, to support our collective efforts.

    If we become squeaky wheels, not just for ourselves, but also for other women and learn to self-promote without feeling like it is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, conference organizers can choose to listen or not. First, though, we need to eliminate any potential excuses. I love this quote, but forgive me for forgetting who said it: The only answer to the questioned not asked is no.

  12. Betsy says:

    I often don’t get my own sex.  Hustlers hustle. Despite race, creed or sex. If you want it you have to go after it, cajole it, smooze it or sometimes knock it over the head and drag it back to the cave.  

    And believe me, women are not defenseless. So stop pretending we are. Look I’d rather y’all stay wallflowers. When I walk into a room filled mostly of men, I see opportunity. I stand out. Tall, smart, blond with a math background and an MBA packing one hell of a sense of humor. I charm. I hustle. I hold my own. And I rock business casual.

    You can read more about my personal bent on business, et al at  where my latest focus has been on Privacy, Children and Social Media.  But, hey, it’s only Wed. 

  13. Tara Hunt says:

    Great article, Cathy, but there are a few things that I – as a woman who makes her living as a public speaker and writer nowadays – want to add to the equation.

    #1. Clearly the woman who ‘crashed and burned’ at Gnomedex didn’t crash and burn because she was a woman, but rather her subject matter didn’t fit (as you described it anyway). However, in my experience ‘minorities’ are plagued with the task of representing their entire group. If a man crashes and burns, it reflects poorly on him or his subject matter. If a woman crashes and burns, somehow it taints the view that we have of women as speakers. When I get up in front of an audience, I feel the double pressure of representing my material/myself and representing womankind. I have learned to carve my own Tarakind niche out of it, but it wasn’t easy and has taken years of both successful and failed attempts at entertaining the audience.

    #2. I find it interesting that conference organizers complain women don’t accept or submit. I know TONS of women who both submit AND are dying to be asked (when there isn’t a submission involved), but aren’t. There are oodles of our own industry conferences who have passed me over (even when I’ve offered to speak for free! Free!) and I can point out dozens of women who come to me to ask me to look at their proposals to see why they were rejected at conferences (and they are usually pretty awesome). I’m finally to the point where I’m getting booked fairly regularly for pay, so I no longer have to throw myself on the mercy of conference organizers who don’t pay, but I can point out several women trying to establish themselves who are currently applying and getting turned away. 

    That being said, I agree that, in general, women aren’t putting themselves out there as much as they could. But I have seen way more ‘reluctant’ men be pursued to present than women over the years, so it’s not merely women’s faults for being ‘wallflowers’.

  14. Tara Hunt says:

    p.s. I should add as well (I guess that would be #3) that, though I count women amongst my #1 supporters in the biz, I have also encountered some really awful cattiness from women. That’s another ‘culprit’, methinks, women not stepping up for other women. Men have such strong support networks…that’s why the same groups of them tend to speak at all the conferences. If only we could create equally powerful cartels, we could start balancing the scales. So…enough with the bromance, let’s start femances. 😉

  15. Kathy Sierra says:

    If I felt as Tara does — that I represent womankind when I’m up there — I’d probably never speak in public again. I have such conflicts over this whole topic because I’m FAR more concerned about the lack of women *attending* conferences than speaking at them. I’m in the minority for suggesting that if there’s an event we *want* to be heard at, the best way to do that is to use our hard-earned dollars and speak up *as a customer* of the event. Those who pay to attend a conference carry the most weight with most organizers.

    I worked my butt off to speak at conferences, so that I could finally stop *paying* for attending them– something I did first, for years. If we don’t place a high enough value on what can be learned from an industry event, why on earth are we fighting to present at one? My knowledge as an attendee served me VERY well in trying to eventually get opportunities to present. I paid extraordinary attention to what attendees were interested in, haunted the session hallways doing my own headcount to see which topics were popular, and listened and learned. For YEARS. 

    It’s astonishing to me to see people — men and women — complaining about not being asked to speak at events they’d never spend the time and effort and money to go to. We must support what we value and value what we support.

    It doesn’t help when events which *I* find incredibly useful for both learning and inspiration — like SXSW — are sometimes described as big party/networking opportunities. It may be the introvert/geek in me that still thinks it really IS about what you learn in the sessions, and that meeting people and hallway conversations are the icing.

    I guess that means I pretty much agree with the post. : )

  16. Chris Pirillo says:

    Yeah, I’ll take the blame for how that session went down – but I’m not at liberty to explain why. Thanks for trying to reach me, too – just been kinda busy with the post-mortem.

    I would, however, tell you that Gnomedex had an amazing saturation of women in the audience – and it wasn’t because there were “more” women on stage. 

  17. Betsy Aoki says:

    Hiya, I was a female speaker at Gnomedex – but I wasn’t on the formal program bc I was part of the Ignite session.  I think the other Betsy (Liquid) glosses over a bit of the stage terror issues. I’m tall, half Asian, not a “hawt blonde MBA” , but I have a graduate degree, a technical job since 1995 and a feminist perspective. I’ve spoken internationally at tech conferences.

    Even so, it’s not easy for me to get on stage even when asked – it has taken some encouragement and practice and I’ve been lucky that men and women have kicked my butt to get me out there.  A lot of geek girls are so busy WORKING on the tech they aren’t thinking about SPEAKING about the tech (just like a lot of geek guys, but there are unfort. less geek girls to begin with). Not everyone has a marketing,business or PR job that trains them to speak in public or positions them to be visible. Some will need help marketing themselves and a nudge like this blog post. Gentle mentorship and diversity encouragement among conf. organizers goes a long way.

    As to Gnomedex, yes the auditorium had more women in it than any tech conference I’ve been to or spoken at, ( w/ exception of Blogher) and when speaking myself I found the audience generally supportive. The fact one speaker had a content mismatch I chalked up to Gnomedex/the speaker pushing the boundaries and seeing what diff topics attendees might be interested in each year. My two cents.

  18. Cathy Brooks says:

    I’m so pleased with this conversation, everyone … some amazing comments, and I know a few folks are also keen to chime in but they – as I – hit some technical snafus this evening. Hopefully those things will sort out. Mine seem to be okay but now I’ve run up against a bigger challenge – the clock.

    With a terribly early rising tomorrow, I must scoot to sleep, but replies are marinating and I look forward to continuing this discussion.

  19. LA says:

    Excellent points, Cathy. I was at Gnomedex this year, and witness the very thing you describe. In addition to saying yes, or seeking oppys out, we need to CREATE the forum as well and be a bigger part of setting the agenda! -LA

  20. Dan Patterson says:

    Great post, Cathy – especially your Don’t Wait to be Asked section.  As a white male, ‘advising’ on best practices for margionalized groups can be a tad sticky.  However, presumably the goal is to eventually not be seen or treated as a margionalized demographic.  Your Don’t Wait section hits the nail on the head here.  Thanks.  – DHP

  21. Rick Ca;vert says:

    As I mentioned in our converation Cathy despite our ongoing outreach our speaker submissions run about 90% men to 10% women. So we go out and find women which results in about 35% of our speakers being women. We don’t have a set number or percentage, our overall goal is to provide that opportunity and achieve diversity in our speakers as well as our attendees.

    That diversity goes far beyond gender for us. It also includes ethnicity, point of view, subject matter on your site, etc.

  22. Selena Deckelmann says:

    I agree with all the sentiments here – personal responsibility, be confident, seize opportunities when they come around.

    One point I try to drive home about conferences is that many of the speaking opportunties come about through the complex and completely normal way we socialize — we talk to the people that we know, and then the people that know other people. I’d love to see some graphs of social relationships between speakers and conference commmittees. One degree of separation? Or maybe two?

    My instinct tells me that conference organizers hold a disproportionate amount of power in this situation — if *they* expand their social circles, and actually socialize and work with women who are speaking at conferences, it is far more likely that these conferences will have more women.

    One idea that the Yahoo! Developer Network folks had was to come up with a core set of actions and resources conference organizers could use to find women. There are lots of resources popping up (Geekspeakr, geek feminism wiki, and your Ning :). It would be nice to keep track of them.

  23. Ed Borasky says:

    If they ask, say yes”: Well, within reason! It has to be a win-win-win — for the speaker, for the audience, and for the conference organizers. And I personally think it has to be a bigger win for the speaker. Sure, it’s nice to get recognition, it’s nice to help people out, it’s nice to build social capital, etc., but you still have to earn a living. At some point, you have to stop speaking for free or for just the cost of conference admission.

  24. Carri Bugbee says:

    I’ve done 14 speaking gigs about social media this year, most of which were at conferences (SXSW, O’Reilly Twitter Bootcamp, 140 Characters Conference, WebVisions, OnHollywood/AlwaysOn, Cool Twitter Conference, etc.). Since most don’t pay and do require a lot in out-of-pocket expenses just to get there, I’ve turned down some great opportunities this fall because I can only do so many on my own dime. Big picture, it may be  less feasible for women to justify the time and expense of getting away for events which is why fewer submit proposals to do so.
    However, I suspect the biggest reason there is a lack of women on conference rosters is just plain old traditionalism. I don’t think women haven’t tried hard enough to get there and just need to try harder. I think some conference decisionmakers just aren’t choosing them.
    BTW, I followed the original brouhaha about the lack of women on the roster of The Speakers Group and reached out to that organization. Have yet to hear back.

  25. MLDina says:

    With such a dominant male force in the affiliate industry, I’m not surprised when the majority of speakers are men. I think organizations like Girls in Tech are doing a fantastic job adding to the female audience and participants at conferences, but I agree there could be a lot more!

  26. Allyson Kapipn says:

    <!–StartFragment–>Cathy, thanks for continuing to blog about getting more women speakers involved in tech and social media conferences. I often say that women need to do a better job of promoting themselves, submitting panel ideas to conferences, networking, etc. I also feel that women need to develop a tougher skin when conferences reject their proposal or a blog criticizes them. However, the problem with the lack of women speakers at tech and social media conferences does not solely rest on women. I know you plan on focusing on the systemic issues in future posts, but I think it’s important to discuss them as part of this post too. If we don’t discuss them together, then we only address part of the problem. Fixing the problem requires utilizing some of the suggestions you mentioned above and conference organizers doing a much better job connecting to women in tech and social media. Like I mentioned in my blog post on Fast Company, there are a ton of groups conference organizers should be reaching out to such as the Anita Borg Institute, She’s Geeky, Women Who Tech, National Women of Color Technology Conference, Women In Technology International, Women 2.0, Social Media Women of Color, The National Center for Women and IT, Girls In Tech, etc.  

    Furthermore, conferences should look at their steering/programming committees. Is it diverse? It’s important for conferences to have diverse committees because at the end of the day people recruit speakers and promote conferences to their personal networks. Also, several conferences only fill a percentage of their panels with open calls, the rest are by invitation only.

    I have had discussions with conference organizers as well and they have shared similar responses as you have quoted above. However, when I go back and question how many women did you reach out to on your list, I get a blank stare or “a few.” Are they reaching out to 5 women and 30 men? Securing recommendations for speakers (and speakers for that matter) is a numbers game. The more women conference organizers reach out to, the more women will respond.

    Lastly, there seems to be this notion (which you briefly touch upon in the article) that this isn’t about having women speakers for women sake. I completely agree. I have seen this blogged and tweeted about. Who said or implied that women should be speaking just to fill a slot? It would be a disservice to everyone to have any speaker be on a panel that was not qualified to speak on the topic. 

  27. Faith of Acts of Faith Blog says:

    Well I am an example of someone who is taking the initiative and I haven’t reached the status of “key influencer” – yet! I am a creative interested in new media, social media, technology and interactive applications along with combining advocacy with entertainment. To that end I started a blog, have engaged across multiple platforms, built my reputation started a blog and increased by blog stats by 900% in 6 months.

    I blog about social justice, sexism, racism and politics with some pop culture thrown in for good measure. I am very interested in how the fill the void from the old media platforms like newspapers & magazines where there tends to be lots of gatekeepers and .0000001% diversity along race/ethnicity/gender/education/outlook. So I’m not crying over the failure of some of these models because they were so grossly exclusionary and their preferred audience has all but disappeared. I’m very interested in giving voice to things that have great impact to under-served communities and individuals.

    To that end I’ve submitted a panel for SXSW on: Black Female Bloggers and the Future of Media. The buying power of black women is close to $1B and our issues are not being covered. One of the panelists I’ve invited has paid a veteran journalist to cover the story of a mother and son who were kidnapped, sexually assaulted and nearly murdered that the national media completely ignored. This is the direction of where things are heading, especially in regards to women writing more Op Ed pieces, the use of mobile technology and our thinking outside the box. By the way I’d love if people would take a few moments to vote for my panel because it’s a very important issue that will benefit a wide audience. There are plenty of brilliant women out there who may not be in anyone’s “wish list” because they’re doing things in relative obscurity. It’s time we change that!

  28. Allyson Kapin says:

    Just wanted to follow up on my last point. The notion I’m referencing is when discussing diversifying conference panels. Some are associating this topic with having women speak just to fill up a speaking slot. Why are these two ideas connected? Who said or implied that women should be speaking for the sake of it? I can’t think of anyone who would lobby for such a thing.

  29. Cathy Brooks says:

    It’s amazing to see how this conversation has evolved, and I’m glad that others have been able to comment … in fact as I’m typing this I don’t know whether the comment system will allow me to post (I’ve been unable for the last several days to get the system to work)… so apologies for being “absent” from the conversation thus far … With any luck by the time I reach home this evening I can dig into all the comments and *finally* reply to all the great input…From what I’m reading it sounds like we have some great ideas and hopefully some actions we can all take together to move this discussion forward!

  30. Cathy Brooks says:

    Brava to you for stepping up in such strong fashion. It is precisely this type of fierce, powerful engagement that I’m talking about. Of course, I harbor no illusions on this front. Some people have a harder time than others (specifically women I’m talking about in this context), when it comes to seizing their “inner power”. That sounds a California crunchy thing to say, perhaps, but it’s true. Most women I know are fierce on so many different levels, just not on the level at which it allows them to race to the highest mountain top with the objective of singing their own praises. To be clear, I’m not talking about self aggrandizing shouting, I’m talking about the critical area where many women just are less comfortable perhaps than their male counterparts – and that is speaking up and saying; “Here I am, I am an expert and here’s what I have to say.”

    The women who have that comfort and are stepping up are role models for the rest … so thank you for what you’re doing! I’ll hope your panel gets picked so I get to see it!!

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