Name and shame

// 26 September 2008

A woman in the tech industry has set up a group to name and shame conference organisers that fill the stage of their events almost exclusively with men.

Dori Smith explains:

Given that I’ve been ranting about this issue for several years now (boy, time flies when you’re having fun, don’t it?) and nothing has changed, I figured I’d try something new this time: creating a group on called Needs Women Speakers. Feel free to join, and once you’ve joined, you can add “Needs Women Speakers” as a tag to any conference you see where you think it’s applicable.

Naming and shaming… it’s certainly not my first choice, but let’s see if it helps any…

Helen Keegan, posting at Musings of a Mobile Marketer, says of a recent conference:

It’s a 3-day conference covering all aspects of mobile web (and apparently the *only* mobile web event you’ll ever need), sponsored by dotMobi and at the time of writing have only THREE women speaking during the whole event so that works out at one woman per day. That really is unacceptable in this day and age. There are plenty women out there worthy of participating at this conference. Informa really must try harder to find them and engage them. I’m not expecting half the panellists or speakers to be women, but I would expect more than a token one a day. Of course the male speakers are interesting and relevant, but to only have one woman per day is ridiculous.

Meanwhile, my friend Darika blogged about a similar situation at a BBC debate on new media:

This isn’t a “why aren’t there more women in tech” question but a much broader question about the new media industry in general; an industry where many women are employed.

Comments From You

Sabre // Posted 26 September 2008 at 11:08 am

I am planning to (nicely) shame a committee I work with for not having more diverse speakers at the events we organise, by introducing a diversity policy next month. We organise science/engineering conferences and it always dismays me how they pick the speakers, not just the same old names, but literally the same white, old, male names!

All I would say to name-and-shamers is most conference speakers tend to be picked by committees/working groups so don’t be too harsh on those of us who just do the legwork! We despair too!

Soirore // Posted 26 September 2008 at 11:38 am

I know it’s not the answer but in Sussex there is the Women in Media conference every year. This year it focuses on digital media including mobile technologies and they have loads of interesting women speaking. It’s a shame that it has to be a woman focused event to hear these women’s perspectives on the industry though.

Details of the conference are here

Tony moll // Posted 26 September 2008 at 12:46 pm

This sounds absurd.

I go for many medical conferences and listen to details of important new studies.

The presenters are usually top experts from around the world and depending on the speciality are mosty European or N American white men. I’m a black man and I’m there for the science so I really don’t care.

The conferences that I hate most are thoes in which I invest many hours and don’t seem to get anything out of.

I certainly won’t attend any that deliberately put up women or non-whites with nothing much to say.

Aimee // Posted 28 September 2008 at 12:47 pm

Tony, I think we’re focusing here on the women who have a lot to say, but are overlooked or ignored simply because they’re women.

Helen Keegan // Posted 28 September 2008 at 9:06 pm

Thanks for linking to my post – much appreciated.

@Tony Moll

You’re missing the point. There are *plenty* women out there who are good speakers and have interesting and relevant things to say, but they never get asked as it’s usually the same voices at conferences and seminars. My gripe with it is that other people don’t get a look in because, in the main, event organisers either don’t think about variety or don’t care.

Equally women seem to need to ask permission more than men before accepting speaking opportunities. And they’re turned down more often than not. Men on the other hand seem to accept the speaking opportunities and don’t feel the need to ask permission in the same way.

In media and digital industries, the variety of voices of all colours, genders and ethnicities is important. It is not science, it’s culture and therefore a more diverse range of speakers is appropriate.

Tony Moll // Posted 29 September 2008 at 9:44 am

Helen Keegan

“My gripe with it is that other people don’t get a look in because, in the main, event organisers either don’t think about variety or don’t care.”

An international conferences will ensure that international opinion is refelcted at the meetings by actively assisting and waiving fees for African experts for example. That makes sense because they will bring a different African perspective to the debates. It is not variety for variety’s sake.

You however asking organisers to factor in variety for its own sake – so let’s have token women, black people etc.

While some organisers may think it enhances there image to have more women, it is not because they value women’s work but because women (and a bit of colour) looks nice in the conference photos.

I was once the only black man at a symposium and when I wandered off to see some posters, they had to delay the group photo so they could have my smiling face in the picture.

I found that hilarious. Big cheers for diversity!

Jess McCabe // Posted 29 September 2008 at 10:31 am

@Tony Moll – I think the point is that the conference programmes or panels do not accurately reflect the proportion of women in these industries. It’s not that there’s no women with interesting things to say, or who are good speakers, or who are at a suitable level in their careers; it’s that the conference organisers are choosing to ask men. This is about a range of subtle and not so subtle influences, which reflects how women are perceived in general, and the sexism of our society.

In the US, WIMN’s Voices runs an interesting sounding programme on conference planning support, which sound like they would help make conferences representative – not diverse for diversity’s sake (although I’m good with that too, to be honest!) They also help put journalists in touch with experts on whatever field they’re seeking experts in, to help expand quoted sources beyond the usual suspects – who are almost inevitably white men.

I’ve seen this happen time and again in the industry I report on as a journalist, for my day job, although the dynamic is even more pronounced when it comes to international opinion – I’ve been to plenty of events meant to be about the impact of climate change on the developing world, for example, and all or almost all the speakers were white European or US men.

Tony Moll // Posted 29 September 2008 at 10:44 am


I totally understand the point you are making, but conference speakers are not supposed to represent the industry as a whole, but rather thoes at the cutting edge with important studies to unveil.

In many industries the composition at the lower end may be different from the thoes at the higher end. IT stands out as an example. There are many women in IT now, but there are few comparable to the male founders of Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, hotmail etc.

We don’t have to fight about everything. Can’t we just try to make sure that women are discrimiated against without lowering standards?

I suggest that when people submit abstracts their names are gender are hidden during the approval process. To be honest, I don’t suspect that will lead to hike in the number of women presenters.

Jess McCabe // Posted 29 September 2008 at 10:54 am

I don’t think we’re going to agree! However:

I suggest that when people submit abstracts their names are gender are hidden during the approval process.

This is interesting, Tony. Maybe it would be a good idea, but the kind of conferences that I go to for work are not ever put together on the basis of submitting abstracts. I don’t go to science or academic conferences very often, but industry conferences, where people are invited to speak rather than applying to speak. It’s basically at the whim of the conference organiser/s.

I can’t speak about the IT industry. However, I know there are lots of high-powered women in the industries I report on, who would be great as speakers, partly because I’m a member of our very well-attended professional women’s group.

Darika // Posted 2 October 2008 at 6:10 pm

Jess, thanks for your link and joining the discussion.

I agree with your responses to Tony, I also totally understand Tony’s concerns about “token panellists” creating a false diversity, I touched on this in my post.

But I also know that our original point, in the media industry any way, is that the current conference scene isn’t representative of the overwhelming high numbers of senior level women who are, yes, at he cuttting edge and have important studies to share.

Yep, we shouldn’t have to fight about it (or fight for it).

Sabre // Posted 29 April 2009 at 12:49 pm

This is slightly off-topic but still relevant. My boyfriend went to an exhibition on IT/computers this week and was irritated at the ‘bimbos in hotpants’ (his angry words) employed by some companies at display stands. He approached one of them to ask about a system and was annoyed to find she know NOTHING about the company she was promoting or about computer systems. He’s seen this type of thing before at motor shows etc but this time seemed particularly surprised and outraged because the audience was fairly gender balanced (unlike the motor show, apparently). She then attempted to be flirtatious and coy with him. He was not impressed.

The interesting thing was that when he went to another company’s display there was an attractive, moderately dressed woman but he hesitated to approach her, just for a second. He told me that he realises now it was because of the other sexily dressed women (who were obviously just being used to lure men in) that he hesitated to talk to her – she was pretty so he thought she might not know her stuff. He was totally ashamed of course, but it does show how objectifying women can immediately alter the way men perceive women. And he’s a feminist! It raises more questions; how did this impact on the women exhibitors who did know about IT? How did it impact on the way women speakers at that conference would have been viewed?

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