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“There Aren’t Enough Qualified Women Speakers” and Other Garbage Excuses for Why Your Marketing Event Isn’t Gender Diverse

Blog images by Alejandra Porta.

I’ve attended enough tech and marketing events to make a few generalizations:

  1. Women are hugely underrepresented; whether it’s a panel or a conference speaker lineup, chances are it’s overrun with white men.
  2. Sexism is prevalent, and it spans from subtle (think underrepresentation, pinkwashed girls’ lounges) to overt (think harassment, non-consensual advances).

There are exceptions (there always are), but this is the general rule, and it’s a huge stain on the industry you and I are both a part of.

Now I want to make it clear, I’m not here to chastise anyone. As a used-to-be conference organizer, I’m guilty of it too.

When I ran Unbounce’s first-ever Call to Action Conference (CTAConf) four years ago, I invited four women to speak, two of which spoke on a panel. The other seven were — you guessed it — white males.

My reason was an all-too familiar one: “There aren’t enough qualified female speakers.”

This is garbage. It’s unacceptable. And it’s not a reason at all — it’s an excuse. What it really came down to was, I wasn’t trying hard enough.

I wasn’t asking my network for recommendations. I wasn’t doing enough research. I wasn’t making the extra effort required to widen the pool of speakers. I wasn’t committed to gender diversity.

Fast forward to today and my perspective has completely changed. Not only because it’s important to me on a personal level, but also because it makes business sense.

See, when you pull from the same pool of speakers as other folks in your industry, everything starts to look like white bread — bland and borderline junkfood. Your conference looks like that other conference that happened a few months ago. And the content? Yep, it’s the same, too.


When you use the same speakers, your lineup looks like white bread—bland and borderline junkfood.
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By digging a little deeper and expanding your search a little wider, you can discover fresh up-and-coming talent with new perspectives, new things to teach. And you show female attendees that their voice and their professional development matter.

And did I mention you sell tickets and attract more female attendees?

Moz, which hosts its own conference (MozCon), reported that as the percent of female speakers increased so did the percent of female attendees. What else can I say but duh?

I see a lot of progress being made around improving gender diversity in marketing and tech. People are asking questions, they’re holding companies accountable, they’re having those tough conversations, which is a great start.

But what are people actually doing about it?

This post will dig into specific steps you can take to improve gender diversity at your next event. They’re the result of an honest-to-goodness desire to do the right thing and our own cringe-worthy fumbles (more on that later).

It’s my hope that these tips and tactics will help to alleviate any hesitation you or your organization might have about taking the leap.

Commit to gender parity

At Unbounce, we’ve been having conversations around gender diversity for months, so when Unbounce CEO Rick Perrault challenged us to commit to gender parity at CTAConf 2017, the response was a resounding YES, YES, YES.

Making progress one Slack convo at a time.

It’s as simple as this. And yet it’s a bit more nuanced as well.

The truth is, achieving gender parity did take a bit more time and a bit more effort. But the result is a more dynamic lineup of speakers and an opportunity to tap into an audience that otherwise might’ve passed on your event.

Forget ROI — talk about RO why not?!


Commit to gender parity at your #marketing event—the result is a more dynamic lineup of speakers.
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So how did we do it? How did we stack our lineup with talented male and female speakers? (And more importantly, how can you?)

  1. Leverage your social network and ask for recommendations via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter (like Unbounce Co-Founder Oli Gardner did for the Unbounce Road Trip in 2015).
  1. Pull from existing comprehensive lists such as this list of 1,000+ tech speakers who aren’t men and this one featuring 100 influential women marketers.
  2. Trade past speaker lists and ratings with your network of event organizers. I sent personal emails to every event organizer I knew asking them for their past speaker lineups and ratings, and in exchange I shared our list and ratings. This tactic is one is my faves, and it’s how we scored a ton of speaker leads for CTAConf.
  3. Email past presenters and speakers and ask them for recommendations. It’s how we found Claire Suellentrop, who’s speaking about creating high-converting campaigns using Jobs To Be Done at this year’s conference.

Sponsor the women at your own company

I honestly believe that everyone has something to teach. EVERYONE. Regardless of gender, regardless of age, regardless of job title, everyone is an expert in something.

It’s this belief that gave me the courage to raise my own hand and ask to speak at last year’s CTAConf.

But I wasn’t a quote unquote speaker. I guess you could have called me a speaker in residence. I spoke at a few small-time events here and there, but I am not famous like Seth Godin. I don’t travel the world speaking at industry events or conferences.

I was caught in a classic Catch-22: I couldn’t become a speaker without experience, but I couldn’t get experience because I wasn’t a speaker.

But rather than focusing on what I didn’t have, our speaker selection committee focused on what I did have: enthusiasm and a whole lotta event marketing experience to boot.

Once the committee deliberated, I spent two hours whiteboarding my talk with Oli. He and Unbounce Senior Conversion Optimizer Michael Aagaard also reviewed my slide deck multiple times, providing constructive feedback.

Their expertise helped fill the gaps in my resume, so that when I stood up on that stage I felt prepared and supported.

And guess what? It went really well.

So this year we reserved one CTAConf speaker slot for employees, and we sent a callout asking for applicants. The response blew my mind: Four applicants, all women. And though the choice was a tough one, I’m pleased to say Alexa Hubley — Customer Communications Specialist and first-time conference speaker — will be on stage at CTAConf 2017 with her talk “Master Customer Marketing By Watching Romantic Comedies.”

So what can you do to improve gender diversity at your upcoming event? You can start in your very own backyard. Encourage high-performing women at your company to speak at events, and offer them mentorship and support to get them up on stage.

And if you’re a man who’s been asked to speak at an event, consider if there’s a woman you know who is equally qualified to speak on the subject. If there is, offer up your slot. In fact, Oli already did this, when he recommended me to speak at CIMC 2017.


For every man asked to speak at an event, there’s a qualified woman who hasn’t been. Find her.
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Create a code of conduct

A clear code of conduct helps create a safe environment for your staff and your event attendees by setting expectations for what is and what is not acceptable behavior.

From a diversity perspective, a code of conduct is an especially helpful tool for making women feel at ease, because there are strict policies in place to deter discrimination and harassment.

Creating a code of conduct out of thin air might seem intimidating, so I suggest pulling inspiration from existing codes and adding your own personal flavor.

When we created our code of conduct, we looked to other companies we admired, specifically Moz and Atlassian.

Wistia has written an exceptional post about how and why they created their code of conduct for WistiaFest, including how they made it visible. Humble folks that they are, they highlighted where they could have improved (so you can learn from their mistakes!).

You’ll notice three core principles outlined in all these codes:

  1. Be nice/respectful/kind/inclusive
  2. Be professional
  3. Look out for others
Wistia’s “Golden Rules.” Image via Wistia.

Including these three core principles and your company’s core values is a great place to start.

And remember, there are no rules when it comes to creating a code of conduct, except one… you have to be prepared to enforce it.

Enforce your code of conduct

A code of conduct is like insurance; you hope you never have to use it, but in those unfortunate circumstances, you’ll be glad you have something to back you up.

At this year’s conference, we’re making our code of conduct front and center with printed posters hung around the venue.

You’ll also find the code on the CTAConf website as well as in our conference app. And we’ve made it simple to report a violation by including a direct phone number to our event marketing coordinator in our code of conduct.

While I can’t go into the specifics of every reported incident, I can tell you we’ve enforced our code multiple times, with attendees and speakers.

Yes, speakers.

Remember when I mentioned cringe-worthy fumbles? Well read on, readers.

See, live events are a tricky beast. You have this very passionate person up on stage who’s pumped up and maybe a little nervous. You have no idea what’s going to come out of their mouth. You hope it won’t be anything offensive, but you really have no idea.

You do, however, have control over their content, specifically their slide deck. This is something we learned the hard way:

Props to Annette for calling us out. It wasn’t our slide, but as event hosts, the content that gets projected for all our guests to see is our responsibility. Period.

So what did we start doing to make sure this never happened again? We leaned on our code of conduct:

  1. We send all our presenters the code of conduct beforehand via email
  2. We include the code of conduct in our Speaker Field Guide, which contains everything a speaker needs to know, such as contact information, travel and accommodation info and slide deck specs
  3. (This one’s a biggie.) We review and sign off on everyone’s slide decks, slide by slide, to ensure there’s no offensive or discriminating content
  4. We don’t invite back speakers who’ve broken our code of conduct

And next year, we’ll take a page out of Moz’s book by including our code of conduct right in our speaker and sponsor contract.

So does all of this “extra stuff” add to our workload? You bet it does. But it’s something we account for now. And the payoff is invaluable.

We’ve still got growing to do

You may have noticed this post is focused on how to create a gender diverse event and not a diverse event. The truth is, we know we can #dobetter at elevating folks who aren’t typically asked to speak at events — not just white women, but people of color, non-binary folks and members of the LGBTQ community.

We know we have more growing to do and we’re committed to it, just as we were committed to achieving gender parity at this year’s conference.

I think we’ve come a long way as a company, and I think I’ve come a long way as a champion for women. The excuse I gave as a conference host nearly four years ago — that there weren’t enough qualified women speakers — is no longer an excuse.

We’re welcoming 10 exceptional men and 10 extraordinary women to the CTAConf stage in June, and I couldn’t be more excited.

Hope to see you there :)

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