Guest post by Cathy Brooks, read her blog | follow her on Twitter
There are more men than women in the tech and new media sectors...
I know. Shocking.
Joking aside, I thought it was time to take a slightly different whack at the conversational kerfuffle that's percolated yet again in recent weeks. Yes, that seemingly unsinkable subject - the lack of women on the tech industry speaking circuit.
So when Brian Solis graciously offered me the opportunity to guest post here and use this topic as my inaugural soapbox, I couldn't say no. Well, I could have, but it would have been silly.
To set some context, let's be clear. This debate is not a new one, though the flames have been fanned recently as you can read in this post ... or this one ... or this one.
If you're already up to speed on this story let's wait here a second for the folks who went to peruse those links above.
Okay, everyone back?
Are we on the same page?
Now turn the page.
I began flipping forward to the next chapter last week when I reached out to Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly Media. He produces some of the top conferences in tech (which extends to vertical focus like government, healthcare and green/eco friendly) he also was directly involved in the most recent set of public discourse on this matter.
More than getting his take on the situation overall, I wanted to hear Tim's thoughts on where the challenges can be overcome. During a phone chat Friday afternoon Tim agreed that the current dearth of female speakers overall needs to be addressed and he called on other conference organizers to do the same. "I think the talent bench is way deeper than any (directories or conference organizers) show. It's time (for those of us producing conferences) to dig deeper."
He also explained that it's critical to remember that producing a conference is telling a story.
"It's not just about finding fungible talent. When I'm trying to put a conference together. I'm trying to put together a story and I'm trying to find (qualified) people who are aligned with that story and are really able to drive the point home," he said.
In other words, this isn't about having a woman speak just for the sake of having a woman speak. That doesn't do anyone any good. She must be qualified on the content and she must be able to articulate it. After all, if it's a public speaking opportunity that whole speaking thing becomes pretty important.
I couldn't agree more, and I will take it one step further. Beyond the need to ensure that the most qualified, well-versed women are chosen, it's also critical to ensure that the right women are chosen for the right formats. As I detail in this post, some folks just aren't cut out for some kinds of presentations.
Kara Swisher offered a more salty perspective - literal and figurative. As we finished up a Fort Funston beach romp with dogs and kids on Sunday afternoon, I mentioned this blog post and topic to her, and her perpetual intensity sparked. She emphasized that she and her irascible partner in crime Walt Mossberg spend considerable time ensuring the composition of their on-stage roster is as balanced as humanly possible. In the case of All Things Digital, where the same C-suite mandate O'Reilly faces with the Web 2.0 Summit comes into play, this becomes challenging as the ranks of available speaker candidates thins rapidly on the rise into the Fortune 500.
With the assumption that we're talking about truly qualified, articulate, solid presenters, what's next?
The fact that the issue is on the table again is good. The fact that there are new conversations happening to address the issue also is good, but talk is cheap. It's time to take more bold action.
Like making a point to step up and be counted.
Like working together to appropriately support relevant, credible individuals.
Like turning to our male colleagues and ensure that they have our backs.
These are all great, socialized actions that will go towards chipping away at the institutionalized behavior to which we are all accustomed on this front.
What about something a bit more tactical? As Brian Solis and I discussed in Los Angeles during Twiistup6, what about creating a centralized, searchable resource through which organizers can find qualified, well-vetted female speakers and conference attendees can comment on performance, experience, and expertise?
After many conversations I keep coming around to the idea of a resource center that conferences organizers could use to source great speakers who happen to be female.
And of course any good idea worth having is likely to have other instances, as does this one. Several years ago Mary Hodder and some others launched a wiki on which they began a speakers list. Personally I think the list is a great start, but has some several limitations. For starters it's too unwieldy, and that's largely due to the fact that this list is not curated in any way. There's no determining which speakers have more expertise, who has the best stage presence for a given format or, frankly, if they are as great presenting as they are on paper.
This is the problem Tim mentioned when we talked about the speaker database resources that currently exist. He noted that generally those lists are filled with people "who tend to heavily promote themselves."
I get what Tim means. I've certainly been around my fair share of those sorts who spend so much time promoting themselves as experts of this, or gurus of that, I can't help but wonder - when do they actually do any of the things about which they purport to have such expertise? Oh so many "pick me pick me" voices sound shrilly in my ears, or perhaps more accurate to say they ring hollow.
So do we need some resource lists for qualified female speakers? Yes. Should they be wholly open and just anyone can be on the list. I think not. Lest you think this is based in elitist or exclusionary principles ... well, you're right, they are.
I think there should be a barrier to entry. There should be qualifiers, because when it comes to public speaking, no matter how qualified someone may be on paper, their ability to translate that into a compelling discussion - whether as a panelist or on a keynote - may not be in sync.
Please also read: Building Bridges Between Knowledge and Aspiration.
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