I’ll start this article off with a few facts; at the recent IAB Performance Marketing conference, 25% of speakers were women, while at last year’s Performance Marketing Insights conference 20% of speakers were women. On the other hand, 40% of the judging panel for this years’ Performance Marketing Awards were female, suggesting it is not a knowledge or ability gap. So why then, are women so underrepresented when it comes to industry events?  

Having spoken to a number of event organisers about this, they all tell me it isn’t anything to do with women not being chosen. In fact, they all desperately want more women involved – the problem is that not enough women are putting themselves forward to speak at events. 

When asked why they thought this the responses aligned; it was felt that women underpromote themselves, are often more risk-averse than men, and lack the confidence in their abilities to put themselves forward – men, on the other hand, generally, tend to display these characteristics less, they said.

From a personal perspective, I love speaking at events, I get a buzz out of it comparable to racing in a Sportive or achieving a PB lap of Richmond park. Recently, a peer surprised me by commenting that I enjoyed presenting because I “think like a man”.  I do not think like a man, I do not think like a woman, I think like Helen Southgate. If we take the assumption that women need to be more like men or to misrepresent who they are to speak at a conference, then we really are barking up the wrong tree.

On another level, there’s also the danger of implementing a strategy of positive discrimination. As an example, one conference organiser told me how proud they were of a seminar they had coming up soon where 100% of the speakers were female – it’s not hard to imagine the reactions if the same were said of an all-male panel. It goes against everything that equality represents and should not be seen as a positive either.

Where do we go from here?

So, how do we get more women speaking at conferences?  I think the best approach initially is to ask ourselves how we encourage more young women and men to speak at conferences.

We are lucky to work in a diverse industry, and diversity creates debate. If young men and women see people they identify with on stage then they will be inspired to think “I can do that”.  Perhaps solving this is about looking beyond the usual suspects and finding fresh, engaging and creative talent that we can mentor, develop and inspire to be advocates for our industry.

Getting up on stage is daunting, regardless of whether you have experienced it one hundred times, or once, so we need to create a supportive network to help young people develop the confidence to present and to give them the opportunity to do so.

A year ago in our UK office, I introduced a monthly session where everyone must present for five minutes on a topic of their choice. Since then, I’ve seen a huge improvement in people’s confidence and each one of these sessions is different, engaging and it’s clear that some are more comfortable than others in this environment.

Developing isn’t about changing someone it’s about taking their strengths and making them better.  By doing this, you can start to identify those people that may exhibit some of the barriers I mentioned earlier and give additional support and tools to help them overcome them.

In conclusion, I think the best way to encourage more women to present is not to make this a gender issue but to identify where the barriers are and put in the right support, encouragement and opportunities to break through. We should, as an industry, invest more time, focus and resource into encouraging all young women and men, who want to and have the skills to, present at conferences.

But it isn’t just about public speaking, it also develops the skills to be more confident in meetings, and in general life, to speak up when you want to express an opinion.  This can only ever be a good thing for our industry.