Female Speakers Underrepresented at Professional Gatherings

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek January 14, 2020
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woman speaks to conference session

​The nominations for the Oscars' best-director category, released Monday, did not include any women, omitting potential contenders such as Greta Gerwig for "Little Women."

Gender diversity at other professional work events has not fared much better. The representation of women as speakers and panelists at conferences and summits is low across most industries and types of gatherings, according to an analysis of more than 60,000 event speakers from 2013 to 2018.

In fact, the percentage of female speakers declined from 33 percent to 32 percent between 2017 and 2018, according to Bizzabo, a New York City-based provider of event software.

The findings are based on speakers at thousands of the world's largest professional events across 58 countries and 45 industries. Bizzabo used facial-recognition technology to categorize gender profiles while keeping the speakers' identities anonymous.

The analysis looked at summits, defined as exclusive events for top-level executives or influencers within an organization or industry; conventions; and conferences. Summit speakers were predominately male (85 percent, versus 15 percent female), as were speakers at conferences and conventions (66 percent, versus 34 percent female).chart of gender distribution of speakers by industry


More women than men tended to be speakers at events focusing on job search and information (69 percent) and fundraisers and galas (58 percent).gender distribution of speakers by event type

"We found that the topic has been on the rise over the past few years, raising awareness and pushing for change," said Stacey Dolchin, director of corporate marketing at Bizzabo. "We clearly see that change happening across sectors throughout the events industry. Unfortunately not fast enough. But movement nonetheless."

In the Bizzabo analysis, Kenya had the highest number of female speakers at professional events—40 percent—followed by Mexico at 38 percent. The U.S. and Canada tied for third place at 36 percent.

"We cannot specifically identify one reason why Kenya has the most diverse gender distribution of speakers, but perhaps we can attribute it to their history of strides in greater gender equality in other categories, such as government positions," Dolchin said, pointing to that country's 2017 election. It saw the largest number of women ever seated at all levels of the Kenyan government.

"Despite slow changes to societal attitudes and cultural beliefs, more women are joining the movement for gender equality, which could play into the increase of gender distribution of speakers, and much more. "

Dolchin thinks events such as International Women's Day last year, when hundreds of female activists spoke out against violence toward women, also have helped create gender-diversity balance in many countries.

However, 18 of the countries studied had almost no female speakers: Turkey, Czech Republic, South Korea, Philippines, Cote D'Ivoire, Macau, Norway, Malta, Qatar, Indonesia, Poland, Bahamas, Austria, Malaysia, Finland, Uruguay, Peru and Slovakia. 

"Fixing the problem," Bizzabo CEO and co-founder Eran Ben-Shushan noted in a news release, "requires a conscious effort on the part of conference organizers to look outside their immediate networks and to set goals, like aiming for 50-50 representation."

Male-Dominated Programming

While the number of female speakers at tech conferences in the U.S. and abroad has been small in the past three years—25 percent were keynote or stand-alone speakers—it has increased globally 4 percent from 2016 to 2018, according to a March 2019 report by Downers Grove, Ill.-based tech company Ensono.

Researchers saw a more equitable distribution of speakers by gender in education management and human resources. However, male speakers dominated at events that focused on information technology and services, while more women spoke at events featuring job search and information sessions, and fundraisers and galas. Summits, conferences and conventions tended to have more male speakers.

The findings in Ensono's Speak Up: Bringing More Women's Voices to Tech Conferences are from a survey of 500 women across the U.S. and the United Kingdom who have attended a tech conference during their career. Ensono also audited three years' worth of keynote and stand-alone speaker lineups from 18 major tech conferences around the world to determine the ratio of women to men.

Male-dominated programming, including speakers, "are often accepted as a given," the report noted.

The mix of speakers impacts an event's success; 94 percent of women surveyed by Ensono who have attended a tech conference said it was important to have other women in the keynote lineups, and 76 percent said they are more likely to attend a conference that features a woman as a keynote speaker or panelist or in some other programming role.

"It's our hope that members of the tech community encourage their companies to take part in this opportunity for change—whether they are a part of senior leadership or just starting their career," Ensono Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Agona said in a news release.

Here's how the company suggested that employers do their part:

  • Offer support to all associates who represent the organization at conferences, such as allowing them time off or to set aside time to prepare for conferences.
  • Pay for any materials or technology necessary to present at a conference.
  • Offer to pay for public-speaking or presentation training.
  • Create a mentorship program to encourage a new group of women to speak on behalf of the company.
  • Celebrate the employees who will speak or present at the events, encouraging other associates to attend and promoting these opportunities to the public through social media.

"At the end of the day," the Ensono report read, "anyone who wants to participate should be able to participate."

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