Why don’t more Women speak at conferences?

I’ll start this article off with a few facts. At the recent IAB Performance Marketing conference 25% of speakers were women.  At last year’s Performance Marketing Insights Conference 20% of speakers were women.  I would guess that the affiliate industry is made up of 50% male / female, so why are women so under represented when it comes to events?  Another fact for you, 40% of the judging panel for this years’ Performance Marketing Awards were female.  This would suggest it is not a knowledge or ability gap. So, what exactly is the problem?

I’ve spoken to a number of event organisers about this and they all tell me it isn’t anything to do with women not being chosen, in fact they all desperately want more women involved. The problem is that not enough women are putting themselves forward to speak at events.  I asked why they thought this and the responses aligned. It was felt that women underpromote themselves, are often more risk adverse than men and lack the confidence in their abilities to put themselves forward.  Men tend to display these characteristics less on the whole, apparently.

I think we should be careful here as many men also display these characteristics, and many women do put themselves forward to speak but clearly there is a problem. From a personal perspective, I love speaking at events, I get a buzz out of it which is comparable to racing in a Sportive or achieving a PB lap of Richmond park. Recently a peer surprised me by commenting that I enjoyed presenting because I “think like a man”.  I do not think like a man, I do not think like a woman, I think like Helen Southgate.  If we take the assumption that women need to be more like men, or to misrepresent who they are to speak at a conference then we really are barking up the wrong tree.

Another danger is implementing a strategy of positive discrimination, a tactic which I really don’t buy into. One conference organiser told me how proud they were of a seminar they had coming up soon where 100% of the speakers were female.  If someone was bragging about having a panel only of men everyone would be up in arms claiming sexism and discrimination. This goes against everything that equality represents and should not be seen as a positive either.

So, how do we get more women speaking at conferences? I think the best approach initially is to ask ourselves how we encourage more young women and men to speak at conferences.

We are lucky to work in a diverse industry, and that diversity creates debate, if young men and women see people they identify on stage then they will be inspired to think “I can do that”. So perhaps this is about looking beyond the usual suspects and finding fresh, engaging and creative talent that we can mentor, develop and inspire to be advocates for our industry.  Getting up on stage is daunting, regardless if you have experienced it one hundred times or once.   We need to create a supportive network to help young people develop the confidence to present and to give them the opportunity to do so.  A year ago, in our UK office I introduced a monthly session where everyone must present for 5 minutes on a topic of their choice. I’ve seen a huge improvement in people’s confidence and each one of these sessions is different, engaging and it’s clear that some are more comfortable than others in this environment.  Developing isn’t about changing someone it’s about taking their strengths and making them better.  By doing this you can start to identify those people that may exhibit some of the barriers I mentioned at the start of this article and give additional support and tools to help them overcome these.

In conclusion, I think the best way to encourage more women to present is not to make this a gender issue but to identify where the barriers are and put in the right support, encouragement and opportunities to break through those. We should as an industry invest more time, focus and resource into encouraging all young women and men, who want to and have the skills to, present at conferences.  But it isn’t just about public speaking, it also develops the skills to be more confident in meetings, and in general life to speak up when you want to express an opinion.  This can only ever be a good thing for our industry.

Helen Southgate

Helen Southgate

Helen Southgate joins affilinet from BSkyB, where she was responsible for the broadcaster’s online marketing planning and strategy. Southgate has eleven years experience in performance marketing and in 2011 was the IAB Affiliate Marketing Council Chair. Her primary focus is to grow business in the UK, but she will also work alongside other country managers to grow the network at a European level.
Helen Southgate

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