Female speakers at conferences

Yesterday, this discussion took place again on Twitter. I hear this complaint all the time, and sometimes complain myself, too. However, I also organized conferences and events in the past and know how hard it is to get more female speakers on board if you still want to cover the topics you find important to cover. We gotta be proactive if we want more women to speak, all of us. I proposed many talks via calls for papers / presentations, because I want to participate in the community, in the discussion and in research. Don’t wait around for other people to cordially invite you. Sometimes these proposals get accepted, sometimes they don’t, but I don’t automatically suspect misogyny or a scheme behind it when I get turned down.

Many times when I spoke at events where I was the only, or one of the very few women, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was only invited because they needed some (more) girls on stage. Because, you know, complaints. This is not the feeling you want to have. You want to think, they invite you or accept your proposal because they think what you could contribute is interesting and fitting.

Instead of only looking at the diversity on stage, we should take a closer look at the boards and teams that are organizing events, the councils and committees that are shaping organizations. And don’t say “they should”, be an active part in your community and offer yourself as a candidate.


  • For Ampersand this year my aim was get a good mix of male and female speakers. I was hoping to achieve at least parity but have fallen short of that, with 3 of the 8 confirmed speakers being women. I’m planning for the final spot to be a woman, which would make 4 out of 9.

    That would be acceptable (to me) if disappointing.

    In my defence as a conference organiser, putting together a line-up is a surprisingly difficult and complicated thing. Oddly, if the whole point of a conference is to *only* have women speakers, then the job becomes easier, or at least more clear cut.

    For Ampersand, the main purpose is to hold an excellent conference on the theme of web typography. That means knowledgeable speakers, capable of delivering in front of 400 people, and a curated line-up covering the topics required with not too much overlap, and a sequence of talks that flows well through the day. Such a conference also needs to include some well known speakers which will attract paying attendees and sponsors. I also try to look closer to home as Brits and other Europeans are often under-represented at UK conferences. Those are the practicalities and the criteria of choosing speakers.

    It is also incumbent upon conference organisers to have a diverse line-up – it should be part of the responsibility of running a conference. So my approach was to look first for speakers matching the curation criteria, from under-represented groups (women, for example). By its very nature, that pool of potential speakers is small, and not everyone I approached said yes.

    That naturally leaves more spots in the line-up to be filled, and so I had to turn to more widely represented groups (white males), which was no bad thing either because I really wanted to see their talks too.

    So all in all, I’ve ended up with a really good sequence of topics presented by a mixture of men, women, Brits, ‚continental‘ Europeans and Americans. Just not as many women as I’d ideally like, despite my best efforts.

  • It is really a sad state of our world and this industry that you may wonder whether the people in charge of events who invite you truly do so out of respect for your work instead of needing a token woman. I am sorry to read that this is your case; from what I’ve seen of your work however, I think it is because it your work merits it.

    I think it’s important to note that when people point out inequalities (for example in type events, or any other situation) it is not automatically a critique of the individuals involved, that it is rarely an accusation of an active plot against women and minorities. We live in a sexist (among other things) world, so this is replicated every where. The critique is to show that this is happening and hopefully from there try to remedy it.

  • It sounds like you are experiencing ‚imposter syndrome‘:

    The impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achievers.[10] Another demographic group that often suffers from this phenomenon is African Americans. Being the beneficiary of affirmative action may cause a person who belongs to a visible minority to doubt their own abilities and suspect that their skills were not what allowed them to be hired.[11] Impostor syndrome has been commonly reported by graduate students and scientists beginning tenure track positions.[12]

  • Maybe. But maybe you are missing the point that women also have to take action and not only blame society, or syndromes.

    I’ve sat on juries and committees that were basically “we have to give this award/job/thing to a woman”, even when there was only one application by a women and it was not a call that specifically stated this. I don’t think that is a form of affirmative action we need today. I would rather want to focus on encouraging women to apply or take part in things.

    And what if they don’t want to? Do we have to drag them there just to achieve parity?

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