Events with only male speakers – ethical or not?

A few days ago I had a chat with a conference organiser about gender equality at the event he was organising in London. One of my LinkedIn contacts had shared the link to the event and I thought it looked interesting. Then I looked at the programme. Six male speakers featured and no women, I felt sick. I’ve nothing against men, only bad male:female ratio and ignorance.

I was pondering the idea of writing a blog post and saying that you should avoid going to this conference. Then my next thought was that I should give them a chance to tell me why they don’t have any female speakers, so I called the organiser.

– Hi, my name is Sofie Sandell, are you the one who is organising this event? I’m wondering about the speakers: why are you only featuring male speakers?

The guy on the other side of the line sounded a bit confused.

– Eh, what do you mean? And who are you?

– My name is Sofie and I just looked at your event and I see that there is no gender equality between the speakers on your main stage. I think it looks really bad for your brand. I thought instead of complaining on Twitter I should ask you directly.

– Well, you see what really matters for us is content and people, not gender.

I felt angry thoughts jumping inside my head.

– And then, by the way, we only had male speakers applying to speak at the event.
– Ok, I see. But it looks bad for your brand to only have male speakers.
– We are going to add more speakers to the programme soon, the website is not updated.
– But the event is just 30 days away, shouldn’t the programme be updated?
– I promise that we will add the female speakers soon, ok?
– Can you send me a link with the programme when it’s updated?
– Yes, will do that.

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Just to be sure he got my email right I emailed the organiser, often people spell my name with ph instead of f. The question is: was he telling the truth or was he speaking bullshit? And will there be any female speakers on the main stage or only sponsored talks with women who speak in front of small groups.

Why do you attend conferences?

You attend conferences for different reasons; to gain knowledge, industry news and to meet people. Some of those you network with are freely sharing their knowledge and so do the speakers.

Two questions for you to think about: Should only male speakers and experts be able to share their knowledge? Is the content skewed towards one side of humanity if 100% of the speakers are men?

Why not more female speakers?

There are lots of arguments as to why we have this issue at some events, such as that it’s hard to find a female speaker or expert, and yes you have to approach women differently. I spoke to the event team at The Guardian in London and they said that most men they ask to speak say yes immediately, but not that many women do. Part of the solution is that you must approach women differently. I will tell you how in another post.

What ratio should be ok then?

You should aim for 50-50. You are not fixing the problem by getting one female speaker, if the other nine are men. 50% of the population will not feel welcome, and enlightened men will also feel uncomfortable.

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Do you have a choice?

You have a choice. I have a choice. We have a choice – how we react to these kind of events.

  • You can call and point it out for the organiser that you think their approach is sloppy and dinosaur-istic. Changes in the world have often started with several people doing the same thing and saying out loud that something is wrong.
  • Speakers and emcees can say no thank you and tell the organiser that they are not interested in being connected with events with poor equality.
  • If you are an event sponsor you can say no too – that you would rather spend your money somewhere else and that you think it might damage your brand if they aren’t changing the ratio of speakers.
  • Or you can also pretend it’s raining and say nothing.

It’s your choice.

Stay strong and dare to have an opinion.

You can follow the comments on LinkedIn and share your view there as well.

Here is an example of a conference in the US that has poor ratio of men and women.The Chief Digital Officer Global Forum.