Last week I attended paidContent Live, a GigaOM event, in New York City. The conference, focused on tackling the very big, very sexy topic of how to create sustainable models of monetizing, distributing and creating content. When I registered in February I took a look at the speaker list - noting heavy hitters like David Karp, Andrew Ross Sorkin and John Steinberg. I also noted, a speaker list that was, at the time, 80% male.
I wanted to give the conference organizers the benefit of the doubt. With two months to go, maybe they were still working on shoring up panelists, and maybe those panelists would be women. However, when I showed up, that was very clearly not the case. The program for the event revealed that there were only five women speaking at the event. Five. At a nine hour event with over 40 speakers.
Using the event's official hashtag #pclive I, and others, broached the issue. Presumably conference organizers were monitoring the feed since several moderators and even the emcee for the event were encouraging attendees to "continue the conversation" and asked us to not "just share quotes, but explore other topics" on the feed. I quickly found that I wasn't alone - several attendees noted the lack of gender diversity on stage, and it wasn't just women. This is my storify of the conversation that happened on Twitter throughout the day:
I'm writing this post for two reasons: 1. it's my open letter to the conference organizers , which I'll also send to them directly, and 2. to ask anyone who reads it to remember they can help make these conferences more diverse.
To the paidContent Live organizers:
Don't you think having a diverse group of panelists and moderators makes for a better discussion? Every time there was a woman on stage, she challenged the status quo in some way and offered an alternative view, or unique insight. That's not a coincidence.
Did you not consider that having a speaker list that was 90%+ white males might make women and minorities in the audience feel even slightly alienated? There were women in the audience, sure, but I couldn't help but note when I walked in to register that audience and speaker list alike were overwhelmingly homogenous. I consider myself a fairly confident person but let's just say, next year, I may be bringing back up.
What did your recruiting process look like for setting up panels? I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you probably tried to get more women on stage. But only reaching out to your first, or even second, circle of contacts does not constitute trying. Give Lean In a read, I'll spare you the litany of statistics that show it may be harder to find outstanding women to discuss the topics you addressed last week. We're not exactly walking around tooting our horns and declaring ourselves experts
To conference attendees & speakers:
See something? Say something. A woman I met at paidContent Live told me that, while she noticed the gender disparity on stage, it simply didn't make her as angry as I was. She noted that this is how most conferences are, so she was just used to it. I had to point out, that while I was certainly stewing on it, I wasn't "angry." And that conferences would go on being that way if no one ever said anything, angry or not. Point out the lack of gender diversity in a tweet, to the registration desk or to the conference organizers - whatever forum you're most comfortable with.
Leverage your influence. At some point, many of us will be asked to sit on a panel at a conference - large or small. Take that moment to leverage the influence you have. Ask the conference organizer what the female to male ratio of speakers is. Ask them how they plan to recruit more women if things aren't looking so good. Tell them you'd love to speak on their panel, but you won't be able to do so unless a more concerted effort to recruit women is made, and that you can help them. Make your participation contingent upon more than a good faith effort.
Help organizers find smart, capable women by promoting smart, capable women. The number one thing people (including women) said to me at the conference was, "Maybe these were just the best people to discuss the topics. Maybe the women they found weren't as qualified." This is a laughably bad argument. In all of the world of blogging, publishing, marketing, advertising and communications, there are no women who are as qualified as the 40 some-odd male speakers I saw that day? Ah, no. Again, read Lean In for the litany of depressing stats about why women aren't the self-promotion machines men often are, but you can help a sister out. Send internal emails touting great projects/results yielded by women you work with. Tweet insightful articles written by women, tag those women in your tweets, and tag influential reporters/execs/organizers too! Use your Facebook feed to share initiatives and companies led by women with your friends. Let's squash this idea that there are no women who are as qualified as the most qualified man in any industry to sit on any panel.
I learned a lot at paidContent Live, and have even told my boss and other executives at AARP that they should attend next year. The topics discussed and the issues raised were, no doubt, incredibly valuable. But the glaring lack of diversity on stage that day distracted me somewhat, and I did feel the conversations would have been even better if there had been more diversity. Hopefully the organizers take the issue seriously and next year, they'll have an even better event for it.
Photo credit: paidContent.