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One Small Step for Women, One Giant Leap for Conferences

Perhaps you’ve seen a tweet or LinkedIn update from me bemoaning the lack of women on stage at conferences. Based on my data from over 50 conferences this year, the average marketing research conference puts forward 13 male speakers for every 7 female speakers.

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By Annie Pettit FMRIA

Perhaps you’ve seen a tweet or LinkedIn update from me bemoaning the lack of women on stage at conferences. Based on my data from over 50 conferences this year, the average marketing research conference puts forward 13 male speakers for every 7 female speakers. That’s not a great statistic given that our industry is more than 50% female.

What? Why? How? These are just 3 of the 3000 questions I have regarding this phenomenon so I asked some brand new and experienced female speakers who will be taking the stage at this year’s ESOMAR congress to reflect on a series of questions.

Why did you submit a proposal to ESOMAR? Two main reasons were key for these speakers. Many submitted out of pure giddiness to share some cool insights they’d found, and they thought that the ESOMAR audience would benefit from learning about them. Since my experience tells me that giddiness leads to entertaining talks, the conference is looking promising already!  The second reason, which topped the chart, was the opportunity to demonstrate thought-leadership and innovation for the speaker personally or for their company at ESOMAR, which they view as a prestigious event.

What holds you back from submitting to conferences? These speakers recognized that writing a proposal for ESOMAR, in particular, is a lot of work and not everyone has the necessary time. And for some conferences, all the work required to write a proposal might not be worth it when research providers may be penalized for not presenting with a client. They also realized that making your work appeal to an unknown global audience from diverse backgrounds, from language to life experience to industry, isn’t easy.

On a different note, a couple of speakers mentioned that, in their household, they were the primary caregivers and, as such, weren’t as free to submit to as many conferences as they might like.

What do you worry about? The list of worries is long, varied, and extremely familiar. These speakers worry that they are less qualified than others, their topics are less interesting than others, and their work is not relevant to others. In other words, Imposter Syndrome has a hold on them, as it holds viciously on to me. And yes, some get so nervous that they wonder if there is a paper bag nearby.

On a more practical note, a few speakers lament that they are unable to talk about proprietary issues. Others were concerned that some conferences, particularly marketing conferences as opposed to academic conferences, are more concerned about the entertainment value of presentations, not the scientific merit of the content. They feel this would make it difficult for competent, but less exciting or less experienced, speakers to be appreciated once on stage, and subsequently be invited back.

How can we increase the diversity of speakers? There are so many things each one of us can do to make diversity among conference speakers a non-issue. Several people suggested that experienced speakers should encourage and mentor new speakers to submit proposals – indeed, several speakers said that they submitted simply because their employer pushed them to submit. Experienced speakers should also share the stage with new speakers who can then, over time, become mentors of their own. And, instead of putting forth a sales person who might have more speaking experience, companies ought to put the main researcher on stage and grow the expertise within the research team. Start early, and start internally! One great thing is that these women felt their employers had always encouraged them, and conference organizers always welcomed them to speak at conferences. pettit

These speakers had many suggestions for conference organizers as well. Blind submissions, where the conference organizers are unaware of who is submitting, was a popular idea. This might help to address unconscious gender issues and it would also help to get more junior, lesser known speakers on stage. And, since there may be more men in senior roles, putting more junior speakers on stage could serve double-duty to increase the number of women on stage.

They also suggested that conference organizers could be more vocal about their desire to increase diversity on stage by showing a greater diversity of speakers in their marketing materials. Sometimes, we need to see people like us doing something in order to feel comfortable doing it ourselves. In addition, some mentioned that organizers could have workshops or webinars about how to create high quality submissions, or lower fees for speakers from smaller companies or poorer countries.

Finally, our speakers recommended that being a speaker should be glamorized, particularly since ESOMAR is peer reviewed and is therefore a stamp of quality. Roll out the red carpets and put on those ball gowns and tuxedos!

To sum up, you’ve probably noticed that these opinions are gender neutral, and that you can relate to many of them. Everyone, even the most experienced speaker on the ESOMAR stage, gets nervous about public speaking or worries that their topic won’t WOW everyone in the audience. The trick is to accept that you will be nervous, and to submit and speak in spite of the nerves. The next time a request for speakers crosses your path, submit your first ever proposal. Encourage a promising young expert to submit. Encourage an underrepresented expert to submit. Don’t think about it. DO IT.

If you’ve never spoken at a conference before, you could start small by joining 1 of more than 15 New Research Speakers Club chapters around the world, each chaired by a local mentor. The club ONLY accepts people who have never spoken at a conference before so you can practice your skills among like-minded people.

So get ready to settle in for a few great days in New Orleans and say WOW as these women share their cool insights!

Thank you to Adelina Vaca Padilla from De la Riva Group, Annelies Verhaeghe from InSites Consulting, Carolin Kaiser from GfK Verein, Catherine Rickwood from MESH,  Ritanbara Mundrey from Nestlé India, Sherri Stevens from Millward Brown, and 6 other anonymous contributors, who were kind enough to share their frank opinions.

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One response to “One Small Step for Women, One Giant Leap for Conferences

  1. Such a great message Annie, one that encourages ALL of us to push further beyond whatever limitations may or may not exist. While reading it, I noticed the popular authors list on the greenbookblog page and only 21% are women.

    The idea of starting small is great. The biggest key is to START.

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