I want to add to my earlier response that John Battelle (@johnbattelle), the program chair for the Web 2.0 Summit, is very mindful of the issue you have raised. I sent him additional suggestions for female speakers as a result of this petition (some of them from those of you who replied to my first response), but it turns out he’s already had a good number of them already on his list. Remember that all the speakers aren’t announced – just the headliners, the big name CEOs. We’ll be announcing many more speakers in the months to come.
But mostly, I want to share some comments that Jen Pahlka, @pahlkadot, the general manager for the Web 2.0 Summit, wrote in email to the web 2.0 planning team. She talks about her experience as a conference organizer, and the specific issues with the Web 2.0 Summit. I thought it was a great message, acknowledging both the need for (and benefit of) putting extra effort into finding women speakers, and also the difficulties conference organizers face.
Here’s Jen’s response, which she adapted as a message to this list:
“In the past few days, there have been several questions (and even a petition) on Twitter regarding the number of female speakers at Web 2.0 Summit. As a general manager of that event, but more importantly as someone who’s booked speaker lineups for tech conferences for 14 years (currently a co-chair of the Web 2.0 Expos), I thought I’d offer my perspective. It’s a complicated issue. When I worked in videogames, there were objectively a tiny number of women working in the industry, and as a conference programmers, we started practicing some “affirmative action” to get women on stage, even if they were not as accomplished as the others in the lineup, or in some cases not as good on stage, because we felt that by doing that we would help drive change. I’m not correlating the two, but the gender balance is much better in that industry now, and it’s much easier to find great female speakers. A reasonable and balanced effort towards representing women on stage is something I still value in a conference.
Now the conferences I do content for are in the web industry, which is much more gender balanced. I have been a bit been turned off by how some of the people advocating this issue have approached it, but there is at least one thing that’s been said which I can validate from my own experience. There have been many times when I’ve sat in an advisory board meeting for an upcoming conference brainstorming keynoters, and ended up with a list of all men. If I ask the question, “what about some women?” we usually get about another 20 great names of women the board is very excited about inviting and it always makes me wonder why they weren’t suggested earlier. I believe it is appropriate and necessary to ask the question. And it’s best done early.
On the other hand, as a conference chair, it is absolutely true that women overall submit fewer proposals to speak (for our most recent event, Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase, 22% of proposals came from women), and I’ve been surprised to find that women seem to decline direct requests to speak at a higher rate than men. It’s possible, and in some cases even likely, to give special consideration to proposals submitted by women and actively recruit them outside of the call for proposals process, and still end up with a gender-imbalanced conference. It’s frustrating. It’s worse for Summit events, like our Web 2.0 Summit, where the target is CEOs. There are simply fewer female CEOs.
As I think I’ve made clear, I consider it very appropriate and even helpful for members of the community to ask this question of conference organizers and to suggest appropriate female additions to the lineup. (By the way, we welcome suggestions of male speakers as well). To be the most effective, however, consider the goals of the event and the job that the conference chairs are tasked with. Our first loyalty is to the attendees, to put together a program that’s worth their time and money. We are not doing the cause any favors if we put a woman on the stage simply because she is a woman, if she isn’t ready to meet the expectation of the audience. Moreover, every conference tries to tell a story, to make a coherent narrative out of dozens of distinct voices; if you’re suggesting female speakers, try to really understand the theme the conference is tackling, and how what the person has to say builds that arc. Lastly, if your suggestion doesn’t materialize in the line up, don’t assume it was ignored. Sometimes the person has spoken at several of our conferences recently, and we’re concerned about repeating speakers. More often than I’d like, we’ve asked, but were turned down due to prior commitments or simply competing priorities. All this said, however, in an industry like the web industry, with its wealth of female talent, if your line up is all male, something is probably wrong.
I’ve long meant to start a Women’s Ignite series, designed to let women practice public speaking; I’ve never gotten around to doing it myself but have tried to socialize the idea so someone else would pick it up. I’m not sure how much that would help the Summits, since CEOs of any gender are unlikely to attend, but more women who feel comfortable on stage will help with the left side of that equation. If there is anyone out there who would like to pick up this ball and run with it, or simply discuss this issue further, please contact me (I’m @pahlkadot on Twitter)."
Posted 2009-07-25 15:14:41 UTC
Hey guys, instead of sending a petition, look at the program and its goals, and suggest women you think would be a good fit. My email address is easy to find. It’s harder to put together a conference program than you might think.
Here are some of the constraints:
- The Web 2.0 Summit is an executive conference, and headline speakers are generally CEOs or senior executives of major, successful companies, or founders of hot new startups. This year, we have Carol Bartz, Sheryl Sandberg, Mary McDowell, and Brooke Burke. Please suggest others. Keep in mind that senior executives have busy schedules, and we can’t always land everyone we want. Also remember that we can’t have the same people back year after year. In the past few years, we’ve heard from Meg Whitman, Marissa Mayer, Arianna Huffington, Carol McCall, Rashmi Sinha, Amy Banse, Kim Polese and many more. People pay the high ticket price to hear from people they don’t get on the usual conference circuit, people whose comments are parsed by Wall Street or venture capitalists, or successful entrepreneurs in whose footsteps others hope to follow.
- We also look for people who are showing us new, breakthrough technology that supports the major themes we are trying to demonstrate. The theme this year is “Web Squared,” which is about the connection between sensors, collective intelligence, and the way the web is becoming a part of the fabric of the world.
I’d be delighted with your help. But keep in mind that suggesting the “usual suspects” isn’t helpful. If you’ve heard from them at lots and lots of other conferences, they probably aren’t going to be a draw at the Web 2.0 Summit.
Also keep in mind that we’ve announced only a small fraction of the speakers for the Summit. The program is still under development.
Finally, remember that the skewed male/female ratio at technical conferences is generally reflective of the demographics of our industry. (See http://people.mills.edu/spertus/Gender/pap/pap.html.) I don’t like it either. We try very hard to find top female speakers for our events. We’ve had women protest about the lack of women speakers, then join the program committee to remedy that lack, only to come up short themselves when they actually try to put together a program that hangs together and will draw an audience.
But keep the suggestions coming. I’ll look forward to your ideas.
Posted 2009-07-24 05:00:41 UTC
Please suggest women speakers who fit the theme and goal of the program. Easy to criticize, hard to find the right people.
Posted 2009-07-24 04:22:30 UTC