Podcast

Why We Need More Female and Minority Conference Speakers

If you aren't scheduling diverse speakers at your events, the odds are you're not delivering the best content, according to Katie Orenstein, founder of The Op-Ed Project.

We’re getting a tiny sliver of the best content out there because we’re consistently mining content from a small group of people over and over again.” — Katie Orenstein, founder and CEO of The Op-Ed Project. 

Convene podcast host Ashley Milne-Tyte talks to Katie Orenstein, the founder and CEO of The Op-Ed Project, about why it can be a struggle to get diverse speakers and why it’s worth the effort. 

Katie Orenstein at a conference.

 

“We founded The Op-Ed Project in part out of recognition that good ideas, best ideas, best content is very important and people who are creating things, whether it’s a conference or a media outlet or a company, need that best talent, best idea, best content,”  Orenstein said.  “And at the same time we want to make sure that we’re providing that best content from the full range of human voices.”

Listen now:

(Download here.) Music: David McMillin

Transcript:

Ashley Milne-Tyte: Welcome to the Convene podcast. I’m your host, Ashley Milne-Tyte. This time we speak to Katie Orenstein … founder and CEO of The Op-Ed Project. She understands everyone wants brilliant speakers at their events.

Katie Orenstein: “People who are creating things need that best talent, best idea, best content. And at the same time we want to make sure we’re providing that best content from the full range of human voices.”

AM-T: Coming up, why having more female and minority conference speakers matters.

Convene magazine is published by PCMA, the Professional Convention Management Association, and it offers fresh perspectives on meetings and events. You can find Convene online at pcmaconvene.org.

The Op-Ed Project works with people who aren’t that used to presenting their opinions in public – women and minorities. Katie Orenstein founded the organization to get more of these voices out into the world. The name comes from the fact that the vast majority of opinion pieces in newspapers are written by white men.

When I sat down with Katie I told her about a survey Convene did a couple of years ago. 47 percent of respondents said diversity was a big consideration as they went about picking speakers. But 53 percent said it wasn’t – expertise was.

This idea that, as somebody in the survey put it, content is king. We need that…we need the best person for our content regardless of who they are, and of course very often it seems at conferences that person seems to be a man. I mean what do you say to those people who think it should be, like, expertise? “We’re reaching out to people we know who have expertise in this realm.”

KO: “Right, well let me just start with the phrase ‘content is king’ because obviously the phrase itself, even just the word ‘king’ is embedded with presumptions. And it’s the overarching context for any answer I give, should be, we’re not getting the best content. We’re getting a tiny sliver of the best content out there because we’re consistently mining content from a small group of people over and over again.”

AM-T: She says imagine if you had a baseball team and it was full of pitchers…it would be a lousy team.

KO: “So I would start with that. But that said, we founded The Op-Ed Project in part out of recognition that good ideas, best ideas, best content is very important and people who are creating things, whether it’s a conference or a media outlet or a company, need that best talent, best idea, best content. And at the same time we want to make sure that we’re providing that best content from the full range of human voices.”

AM-T: Early on in the life of the Op-Ed Project an editor told her, “We’d like more submissions from women, we just don’t get them.” So Katie and her colleagues thought, ‘if we increase the number of women submitting pieces, the number of acceptances will go up, [and] more women’s voices will get published.’

KO: “And we actually found that to be true and we have. And the content coming from women just as one example has dramatically increased in the nine years since we’ve existed. And we think it’s for that reason — if you can increase the number of women playing the game you can increase the number of women succeeding in the game.”

AM-T: So that was newspaper and online op-eds. But she says it goes for anything where different types of voices are lacking. And that brings us to something else – women say no to invitations to speak or generally put themselves out there, more than men do.

Science published an article in 2015 in which an evolutionary biologist was quoted. She had studied the lack of women at conferences in her industry. She found many women said no to invitations to speak. Why? That wasn’t discussed. But it’s worth considering that most women today still take on most of the responsibility for kids and the home. So if women speakers are saying no, conference organizers might ask why – is the conference at a bad time of year, or on a weekend? Far more men than women expect to drop everything for a work trip. But with so many women managing career and home, schedules can be more complicated.

But one thing that also tends to be true of women, is that they’re less confident than their male counterparts, less comfortable putting their stamp on the world.

Katie sees this all the time in her work. She says say you’re a woman or a minority man…

KO: “…and you want to put forth your credentials. You want to speak at a conference, you want to put yourself forward for a job, you want to you know run for office, you want to put your name on an article – you want to put yourself out there. And in order to do that you’re going to have to say what you know and you’re gonna have to share your credentials. And you’re going to have to do something that for many of us feels like bragging. And so we’re reluctant to do that. We’re reluctant to share our best credentials and even we often hide them.”

AM-T: She says one of the main things that holds people back is the fear of what others will think of them if they do speak…feelings of being less worthy than others can overtake us…

KO: “For those of us who are under-represented here’s the response I want to propose: other people’s opinions of us shouldn’t be the driver of when or what we share. That’s a very debilitating driver.”

AM-T: So people grappling with their own comfort levels are part of the problem, perhaps. But it can really help when those reaching out to potential speakers are female themselves. The American Society of Microbiology looked at this. And they found that when at least one convener was female, the chances of having female panelists and speakers went up. Katie is not surprised.

KO: “We tend to know people and recruit people who are like us, it just happens. And so if you have a woman who’s curating a conference it’s more likely that you can have women participants, that would be the reasoning there. And there’s something else which is sometimes people think it’s difficult to get speakers or writers or experts in fields that are heavily male dominated. It’s hard to get women experts in fields that are heavily male dominated, and there’s some truth in that.”

AM-T: But she says it’s not the whole truth. She says the gatekeeper – the person finding speakers – should do their homework.

KO: “For gatekeepers the pragmatic reasons for all of this is you’re getting a very narrow slice of the world’s ideas, including the world you’re marketing to, potentially.”

AM-T: Now some conference organizers express interest in having a more diverse line-up…they just have excuses about getting there…

“And one of them is benign-sounding, sort of, ‘well, we’d love to have more women – send us some names.’ I mean is it on – whose responsibility should it be to seek out and seek speakers with diverse backgrounds?”

KO: “Yeah, I mean I’ve touched on this before. I come from a radically pragmatic approach. Obviously if I’m speaking to a gatekeeper I’m going to tell a gatekeeper, 100 percent on you. But if I’m speaking to an under-represented person I’m going to say, 100 percent on us. You know I actually feel, like, 100 percent on both of us.

And when I say that I’m saying that with the best intention and best vision for the future, not critique or judgment. You know as a woman I don’t think the under-representation of women falls only on women. But I think our greatest chance to change that is if we get proactive and don’t assume someone’s going to change it for us.”

AM-T: And one more thing that Katie Orenstein hopes will change. Pay parity in speaking fees. White men, again, tend to get paid more than their counterparts who are not white or male. Katie says negotiating can be uncomfortable for women, so many don’t do it or back off too quickly. And that makes sense…

KO: “Because actually the reasons why we do those things are a complex cultural sort of soup that surrounds us and surrounds us with many different challenges and deterrence and catch 22s. Like, for example you put yourself forward. You ask for more money…for a man and you’re seen as more competent and more likeable, for a woman you’re seen, you risk being seen as less likable and grabby. Yeah. And so somehow you need to learn to dance backwards and in high heels, like they say about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It’s much harder and it’s complex.”

AM-T: But she says that is not a reason to avoid it – and anyone seeking negotiation tips will find a whole podcast on that from last year.

That’s the Convene podcast for this time. There’ll be another show soon.

If you have any comments on the show we’d love to hear from you. Shoot us an email at convenepodcast@pcma.org.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.

Ashley Milne-Tyte