Spoiler alert: I was the woman. Now I certainly don’t think the organisers went about thinking ‘Let’s have an all male panel because women clearly can’t tech’. What I do think is that a lot of people in the room were disappointed that there wasn’t much diversity in the panel. Diversity creates debate, it educates by sharing different viewpoints, it’s profitable, it’s great for business and it makes the audience feel more thoroughly represented and connected. Andrew made a statement by asking me up on stage – I wasn’t the most qualified just because I asked the question – this doesn’t take away from the fact that there were plenty of more than qualified women in the room.
It’s also important for me to identify that there was a great improvement in the proportion of female speakers throughout. I understand that choosing speakers is down to ability, availability, cost, marketing power and lots of other factors. Quotas of 50/50 in any industry are an issue that I honestly haven’t made my mind up on yet so I’d never be prescriptive on that. It’s also been passed on to me that some of the female speakers had to leave earlier or were hard to find in the first place. I understand that running an event that big is SO difficult. My background is actually in large scale event management and marketing. However, there could well have been plenty of women and men in the audience who could have also been able to offer different perspectives on that panel. It’s also a real shame that unfortunately billed speaker Edwina Hart was unable to attend to close off the proceedings, which I’m sure would have helped diversify the day.
The progression of women’s and men’s careers can depend on choice. A choice is something we’re all entitled to. However, choice is always influenced by many factors. Culture, personal development, work-life balance, access to funding, human capital, and unconscious bias are just a few factors that affect women and men in business. And with a lack of good representation for women in top leadership roles, a vicious cycle occurs as below. This is a diagram I used in my recent PGC assignment (I’m clearly not a designer so no jokes about my smart art please!).
Unconscious bias is a fairly new phrase to me. But I think it’s a really interesting and thought-provoking term. Unconscious bias affects everyone. It’s a tendency to connect with people who you are used to, or people who are like yourself. To take the example of gender, men may be more likely to empathise with and connect with other men. Whereas women may be more likely to connect with and see themselves in other women. And of course, people who are transgender, or identify with fluid gender, may connect more with other people who they see as similar to them. Which is why it’s so wonderful that we have people like Laverne Cox in mainstream media now. So say for example if you’re a senior manager in a firm and you’re male. If you have four people directly below you in seniority, two are male and two are female, you might find it easier to chat to the men over a coffee, discuss similar life events, give them advice, have one-to-one meetings without any awkwardness, help them develop their skills. If those men have taken your advice and developed their skills, they might well be better equipped when promotions come around, and more likely to reach higher tiers of management.
Of course this doesn’t always happen, but understanding the idea means you can get better perspective on how our brains work.
Finding Female Speakers
So why is it so hard to find female speakers? Well funnily enough, I have first hand experience of this. I help run the popular speaking event Ignite Cardiff and we’ve ALWAYS struggled getting an even gender split of speakers. It’s a well-researched fact that generally speaking, women tend to apply for jobs or promotions if they feel like they are completely qualified, whereas men will tend to apply if they are at least partly qualified. This is a choice, yes. But the choice is influenced by confidence, self-worth, culture and role-modelling. If you can bring something into someone’s frame of reference, they can identify with new ideas and see themselves differently.
So how did I fix this? (I’m going to say I because I’m really proud of my actions here, and it’s rare we give ourselves enough credit for our achievements). I insisted to my collaborators that I get a few minutes on stage to appeal for more speakers at one of our events. The event in question had 2/10 female speakers. I wanted to try to set an example, to show that even though again I was really nervous, that I would be signing up as a speaker for the next event. I tried to reinforce the message that our stage was for anyone, as long as they had something good to share, and that they didn’t have to be perfect.
In the three events since we’ve had an even split of gender. This is both because more women signed up to speak, and because we’ve consciously made an effort to get a great blend of speakers and topics.
There’s still work to be done of course, there are so many under-represented groups that we’re working to involve more. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that we’ve come a long way in making sure our stage reflects our audience better.