The gender issue on stage

You may have noticed that we have a gender issue on stage. There are so many more male speakers out there who are making their voices heard.

This year I’ve been invited to quite a few conferences where 95% of all speakers were men. Do the organisers only have men’s numbers in their phonebooks or male connections on LinkedIn? What’s wrong here? Some of the events I’ve been invited to were in London and Londoners are picky, so I am pretty sure that more people than just me pointed out this male bias to the organisers.

I think that people go to events and conferences to get a better view of the world and there are about as many men as women in the world. Not 95 % men and 5% women.

What the speaker bookers and conference producers who have been arranging these kinds of events have been thinking of (or not thinking of) when preparing such an unequal programme is beyond comprehension.

They need to educate themselves, take a course in diversity and equality and check out equality statistics.

I recently spoke to James Bellini, a speaker and MC, and he said that when he works at an event that has low diversity he points this out to the event organiser and advises them that the event would probably be more successful if they had a better gender balance.

What speakers say on a stage challenges what’s going on in the world. Speakers open up new perspectives. Therefore, it’s fundamental that we get a chance to listen to both men and women. If this is not the case, our ‘new’ perspective will be skewed towards the male viewpoint.

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I also recently had a chat with Alan Stevens, former president of both the Global Speakers Federation and the Professional Speaker Association UK, and he said that there are many great women speakers in the world and if he had a say in the speaker selection process he would push for proper representation of both men and women. If there is an event with ten speakers and only one is a woman this will not reflect well on the organiser.

Words and language matter

The audience that attends events with primarily male speakers will only get half the picture, a picture that does not accurately reflect our society. The other half of the picture is never revealed, because women are not asked to speak.

I’ve booked a lot of speakers myself and I know that men’s and women’s approaches to being on stage are different. You may have to stoke the fire a bit longer to convince a woman that she will be great on your stage. It’s good to bear that in mind when asking around for speakers.

Professional and aware speaker bookers know this. Conferences that have no gender balance might be planned by people who live in a bubble. I don’t know.

Men and women are not on an equal footing yet – and this is a democratic problem. It concerns all of us who search for new knowledge and uplifting information.

So, whose problem is it? Who shall lead the change?

I think you can do something – here are some suggestions:

1) If you are invited to a conference with very bad gender balance or too many white, middle-class, male speakers then you can tell the organisers that you think this makes your experience less valuable.

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I’ve done this and it might help them in the future. Your words matter. You matter. And your opinion matters.

2) If you are invited to speak at a conference where there is low diversity among speaker (which will not reflect the whole of society) then you can point this out to the organisers.

I’ve done this as well and the response you get is often that they simply did not plan the event that well.

3) If you are the compere or MC you can demand that the organisers pull their act together and think more about how the audience will receive the content.

Lots of MCs and comperes have done this and the organisers often feeling ashamed and make a bigger effort to make the event look better from a gender perspective.

I have also educated quite a few male comperes about the issue and they all tell me that they have felt extremely uncomfortable when emceeing a male-only panel after that.

4) If you are the organiser then you can learn more about how to plan a better event. You may have to ask around for more speakers outside your network. 

TIP: If you are planning to get an expert panel together you can ask a few women first to see if they are available – then you will not be left desperately trying to find a female speaker at the eleventh hour.

Yes, I believe you can do a lot yourself to make sure we share better stories on stage, stories that are inclusive of people and do not exclude them. This can only be done by increasing diversity and equality at events.

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My final thought

This year I’ve been in discussions with editors of business magazines, conference producers and video producers about their inability to include the whole of society in their work. They have produced magazines, events and videos with zero gender balance.

I’ve received a mixed bag of replies and I can clearly see that a lack of planning and bad ‘network thinking’ – who you have in your network – are contributing to the problem.

We can all do something and people in leadership positions are often open to feedback. It may be the way you share this feedback with them that makes a difference.

Most people I meet want to listen to both men and women. It’s not just me who is tired of going to conferences with zero gender equality.