The case for gender equity at conferences

A few years ago, I watched a whiteboard animation video by Steven Johnson, called Where Good Ideas Come From, and I come back to it often. His good idea is that the really big ideas in history came to fruition not through a solitary “Eureka!” moment, but through what he calls the “slow hunch.” Steven defines the slow hunch as one person working on an idea, perhaps in iterative projects to solve a problem. He contends giant steps forward happen only when one person’s slow hunch collides with another person’s slow hunch.

The historical impact of salons

During the Age of Enlightenment — an incredible period of intellectual growth in 17th and 18th century Europe — these collisions happened in the coffee houses and salons where philosophers, poets, artists, scientists and politicians connected with one another and began discussing the ills, opportunities and progress of the generation.

The ideas that bloomed as a result of these interactions led to a greater emphasis on reason, science and individualism, which challenged the established religious order of the times. As the salon movement continued to grow in the Modern era that followed, these gatherings began breaking down the barriers for educated and intellectual women to participate in and contribute to the conversations that were advancing western society.

Embracing the potential impact of our modern salons

Today, conferences and seminars are our modern salons — events that bring together vastly different experiences, perspectives, roles, industries and companies to share in successes and failures that spark the creative genius in each of us to go back to our offices and solve our challenges in new and exciting ways. When we limit speaker diversity and gender equity at our modern salons, we limit the perspectives and ideas shared, and are most certainly limiting the potential impact of that creative spark for every attendee.

So how can conference organizers achieve this diversity?

Set goals

I’m not suggesting that you set a quota. But if you articulate goals on diversity for everyone involved in planning an event, you will start to move the dial. Even just setting the expectation that your short list for speakers in each topic/industry area must be 50% women will get you moving in the right direction.

Pick up the phone

One conference planner I talked to, who runs events with a formal proposal process for speakers, says her heart sinks every time they open submissions because she knows women will only make up about 25% of the submission pool. Conference planners and advisory boards must leverage their own network (and those of their members/affiliates) to go out and invite women leaders in their field to submit proposals. Make the invitations personal to help speakers understand where the gaps in your tracks and their expertise aligns. If the pool of submissions is more balanced, the final conference roster will be too.

Check your assumptions at the door

There are lots of excuses out there: Women are not as good at presenting on some topics; audiences respond better to male speakers; there aren’t any women who can talk on this topic, etc. I’ve heard them all, and they are all ridiculous. If you suspect your decisions are being biased by these kinds of assumptions, try a blind review process. Give the selection committee applications with redacted names and any other information that would disclose gender and see if that changes your selection results.

Stay the course

If you use conference evaluations as a marker for invitations to return as a speaker, be sure you are examining results for gender bias in the audience. Studies have demonstrated that even when men and women display similar behaviors in speaking roles, their credibility and confidence is rated differently. Understanding how this impacts evaluations is critical if you’re making selection decisions based on it.

For some, the reason to increase speaker diversity falls under the heading of “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Many new professionals need to see themselves on stage and in roles of influence before they can begin to aspire to those roles themselves. Personally, I don’t need to see another woman in a role to know that I am capable of doing it and so much more.  But when panels and speaker lists lack diversity, we all miss out on the full spectrum of perspectives and viewpoints that make a conference worthwhile.

Please help us grow the speakers directory by sharing the link to the registration page: And if you are or know of a conference or meeting planner who would like help with reaching their diversity goals, we’d like to hear from you too:

Jen Swanson

Jen is the Director of Digital Marketing at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, and blogs at on issues related to women and leadership, closing the gender gap and work/life integration. Follow her at @jgswanson and @_imbina.

Photo courtesy of  jesadaphorn.