Sunday, 9 February 2014

Asking women to speak at events...

I have been involved in organising a few events recently  - Digital Doctor and NHS Hack Day Both are a bit techy and geeky - and I have been acutely aware of  issues of gender balance. Men tend to volunteer to speak. Women more often have to be asked.

People are doing something about this.  Last year I spoke at the first 300 seconds -an initiative to get more women speaking up on tech- started by Sharon O'Dea, Ann Kempster and Hadley Beeman. It was a great experience. It took me out of my comfort zone. Speaking to a digital/techy audience about why I was personally driven to engage in a social media as a doctor was a new challenge, but the audience and atmosphere was supportive and all I had to do was volunteer (after being tipped off about by the lovely Louise Kidney who I have still to meet).

My friend Nicholas Whyte, an independent diplomat, wrote last year about his awkwardness at turning up at a conference, chairing a session and finding that no women were amongst the 22 panelists and moderators at the event. So he says that he will not participate in an event where this happens again. There have been other calls for men to take this action.

The biggest medical education conference in Europe is AMEE in Milan this summer. The provisional programme includes 3 plenary sessions with 7 speakers. All the speakers are men. Only one of the 3 plenary sessions is chaired by a woman: Trudie Roberts, President of AMEE.

I think that as women we have to take responsibility for this too. We have to make the organisations that we are part of aware that we think that having women prominently represented at the events that we attend is important. If we are organising events we should make clear to our co-organisers  that having women speaking is important.

And if we are asked to speak we should try and say yes. It is easy to think that we are not qualified, or there is someone better. Say yes and have a good chat with the organiser; ask them to tell you about why you will be a great person to speak to their audience.

This isn't about having women speaking just for the sake of it. It's about having the best people speaking. The best people are very likely to be women so if your event doesn't have women speakers something has gone wrong.

Everyone who speaks at 300 seconds deserves a wider audience. And it's not just the tech sector that have to think about this. Watch Lily Dart!

Edit: Response from AMEE twitter feed

And 'female conference speaker' bingo


  1. Couldn't agree more with this. It was interesting hearing on the radio earlier that the BBC are finally doing something about their abundance of all male panel shows Hope all's well!

  2. I know it's not perfect (or probably even original) but the South by Southwest Interactive conference (SxSW) does the best of any conference I've seen at ensuring true speaker diversity ... they spell out their criteria directly on the web site, and it's a primary criteria for selection. Here it is lifted directly from their site:

    The most interesting sessions are the ones where there are many different perspectives. When choosing speakers keep in mind the V-O-W-E-L scale of basic diversity principles:

    VARIETY More than 4,500 proposals were submitted to the 2013 SXSW Interactive, EDU, Music, and Film Festival and Conferences. In other words, we have lots and lots of very qualified people who want to speak at the event — so only aiming for big name speakers on your session is probably unwise. Also remember that each speaker at SXSW can only participate on ONE session per conference.

    OPINION If all the other speakers on your proposal have the same opinion on the given topic, then the resulting conversation will likely be boring. Whatever topic you are addressing at SXSW, you need to include at least one person whose opinion differs sharply from yours.

    WOMEN There are thousands of extremely qualified women in the media industry. If you are organizing a session with at least three total speakers, then at least one of these speakers must be female.

    ETHNICITY Different ethnic backgrounds and different cultures take a different approach to different topics and often offer more diverse viewpoints. Different is usually a good thing at SXSW.

    LOCATION Lots of amazingly talented professionals call New York, L.A. and the Bay Area home. But, there are scores of very qualified media experts located in various other locations in the US and around the world. Their voices also help contribute to this ongoing goal of diversity.

  3. That's great! Many thanks for sharing. I hope others take note:)

  4. Terrific post, Anne Marie - thanks! I think I've heard just about everything on that bingo card -- but thanks for making my smile :)

    A few links which I share with conference organisers who cite these excuses are the #ITwomen list: and the list: -- both are open access, so please feel free to add, edit and share.

    I'm off to watch Lily Dart now. Thanks!


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