“Where are the women?”

By Rob Davidson

source: Reuters

Have you ever attended a conference where all the speakers are men? I would be surprised if you haven’t had this experience more than once. For myself, I have certainly spoken at many events where none of the speakers were women, and I have more than once found myself on male-only panels at conferences. How can this happen in the 21st century when women are present in every industry, every profession, and every field of human activity? And how can it happen in the MICE industry, which is dominated, in terms of numbers of employees, by women?

There is no topic that cannot be discussed by women, so there is simply no rational excuse for excluding women from speaker line-ups at conferences. And yet, it continues to be the case that conferences are organised (often by women!) without inviting any female speakers to contribute their knowledge and expertise. One woman, Dr Saara Särmä, a researcher in International Relations at the University of Tampere in Finland, was so disgusted by this fact that she set up her own blog to name and shame examples of male-only panels, seminars and various other events featuring all-male speakers. Check it out at http://allmalepanels.tumblr.com/ and you’ll be shocked at the total absence of women at so many conferences, even conferences on ‘women’s’ themes such as reproduction, for example.

This should never happen in a world where women are more numerous than men, and where there is no shortage of brilliant women with opinions and knowledge worth sharing with others. Conferences featuring only male speakers are problematic because they send out the signal that only men have the expertise in their given field. Conference organisers need to think about diversity more by making sure than women are fairly represented in the programme, and not just as ‘token’ representatives of their gender. They need to understand that women speakers add real value to events often by getting different viewpoints across, from the female perspective.

Things are changing for the better, however, and a new generation of conference organisers, men and women, are more aware of the need for a better gender balance in speaker line-ups at events. Also, more attention is being drawn to this issue. For example, the British economist Owen Barder has created ‘The Pledge’ which can be signed by speakers who wish to make a public declaration that they will not participate in male-only panels (http://www.owen.org/pledge).

Initiatives such as these can generate real change in the way conference organisers think about and plan their events. And they can, above all, lead to better conferences.

Rob Davidson
MICE Knowledge, UK