Last month, I attended two email conferences. In my nine years in the email industry, I've attended... a lot of events and conferences. Everywhere I've worked, my email teams have been a healthy mix of men and women. The industry seems pretty evenly balanced in terms of gender. And yet - conference and event speaker lists don't seem so balanced.
A few weeks ago, I attended the Email Innovations Summit in Las Vegas. It was a great conference, full of awesome content and excellent people. However, there was one panel, the "Email Vendor Shootout" that gave me pause: of the TEN speakers on the stage, only one of them, Justine Jordan, was a women. Justine's fantastic and I always love seeing her speak, but it made me wonder, where are all of the other women?
From my understanding, the companies were asked to participate and to select who they wanted to represent them. It's possible that women at these companies were asked to participate and declined. It just seemed odd to me that an industry that seems to be very balanced in terms of gender isn't represented that way at conferences.
This imbalance made me look at the rest of the schedule with a critical eye. And sure enough, all of the solo women speakers (myself included) were scheduled up against hot topic panels, with multiple industry "big names" that would be difficult to compete with for audience members, so our sessions were poorly attended in comparison. Most of the male solo speakers were "keynotes" and not scheduled up against other sessions at all. Of the 49 speakers scheduled for the conference, 33 were men and 16 were women.
There was one all woman panel. Samantha Iodice, Karen Talavera, Jeanne Jennings, and Kath Pay led a great discussion about starting their own consultancies. It was fresh, useful content I had never seen at a conference, and all of the women speaking were extremely candid and very generous with advice. It was my favorite session of the entire conference. But that panel was scheduled up against another rock-star panel about email design, and wasn't nearly as well attended as it should have been given the topic and speakers. The same thing happened for a lot of other women speakers.
As I'm writing this - Bill just sent out the scores for the top speakers at this conference. In all three categories (Top 5 Speakers, Best Content, and Best Combined), three of the top five are women, and in two categories, all three of the top three are women. So, it's certainly not a quality issue. Women are good at this.
Since it's not a matter of ability, and there's no shortage of smart, talented women in the industry, it's hard to pinpoint the exact cause of this. Like many other conferences, there was an open call for speaker submissions, and we ended up with a group of men and women who tend to speak at other conferences fairly regularly. I don't know what the speaker submission pool looked like, so it's entirely possibly gender was fairly represented based on the submissions. But if that's the case, then it begs the question - why aren't more women submitting presentations? And how can we all fix this?
I have a few ideas.
Women: If you want to speak at a conference (especially if you haven't before): Propose something! Speaking at conferences is fun, and a huge adrenaline rush. You usually get to go to the conference for free, and it's a great resume addition. If you've never spoken at a conference before and want help with a proposal, email me.
Men: If you're asked to speak on a panel that's all men, recommend a woman (or two) to speak on the panel as well. Or even better - go to www.speakerdiversity.com and join the movement of men pledging to ONLY speak on panels that have diversity.
Companies: Encourage your women employees to speak at conferences! If your immediate reaction to that is "We don't have a lot of women working here," please think about what that really means for your business.
Conference and event organizers: Take a step back and look at the overall diversity of your speaker pool. Is there a good mix of men and women? What about age? (Contrary to popular belief, a lot of millennials use email, and even send email for a living. Millennials have things to say too). What about ethnic and cultural diversity? A range of different points of view makes for better, fresher, more interesting content. And that's what we all need.
One of the best things about the email industry is the community around it. We have weird, difficult jobs that not a lot of people outside of our field understand. Let's try to have our future events represent our awesome community, in every way possible.