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Speak up

I am going through a big pile of paper I’ve accumulated in the last couple of months. It’s interesting to do this because without fail, every time, I’ll see repetitive notes on the same thing, which usually indicates there is a topic that’s recurring but nothing is being done about it.

The most recurring note that I found, from different contexts and conversation, was ‘why aren’t more women presenting at conferences?’ I don’t have an answer for that and don’t really know what I can do about it. I’m forcing myself to deal with everything in this pile so I figured writing about it would help me think through that issue.

I truthfully never really cared about that. In the past I was usually so amped that I got to go to a conference or talk that I didn’t much mind who was talking. I notice though that almost every time I return from a conference, someone I know will ask that question. Living in the US has also heightened my perception of that fact. I don’t think I experienced an unbalanced ratio of women speaking in public back in Brazil.

I was discussing this with Kit the other day and she made an observation about seeing presentations that make her go “I can do that!”. I feel that way all the time. But I don’t really present much. Why is that? I know I procrastinate a lot, but I actually do enjoy presenting things to people — but I can’t remember when was the last time I gave a public presentation.

Last year I remember reading Kottke’s post on this topic and his conclusion “[these] concerns are not getting through to conference organizers or that gender diversity doesn’t matter as much to conference organizers as they publicly say it does.” I think that’s partially true; I believe we haven’t gone from ‘aware of the issue’ to ‘acting on it’. And that’s probably because it’s not clear what can be done.

So what can be done? It’s easy to blame conferences, but I’ve been part of conference committees and I really don’t know what we could have done differently to address the issue. I’m hoping to ask that question to more of my peeps and see if I can get some ideas, but I have a hypothesis. When these issues come up, we usually try to look for the root cause (and that’s a lot of effort in itself), so we never really spend the energy working on a solution.

While that makes people aware of origins of the problem, still doesn’t help anyone much. We learn that women typically have family commitments that take precedence over career building activities like public speaking, that some have high standards for what they would talk about and feel like they don’t know enough so they don’t present, etc, etc, etc…

That reminds me of what Jesse said at five-minute madness during the last IA Summit when he was disappointed that new people didn’t come up to the microphone: most folks presenting are making it up as they go. It’s entirely true. And that’s not a negative thing, it’s just a fact. But I do know that myself and other women I know feel strongly that just making something up to talk seems wrong in some way. Why? No real reason I can think of – even if you’re presenting something very rough, putting it out in the world allows that thinking to evolve. Presenting is not regurgitating wisdom, it’s about initiating conversations.

I’m starting to think we’re mistaking facts of life with empty excuses. For example, I have a tendency to over-think things. I can come up with every edge case and scenario you can think of for a given situation, which makes me a good information architect, but a very frustrated person. So it’s easy to think of reasons why I shouldn’t bother to make professional public speaking happen.

But deep down I know it’s important. It’s important because it brings diversity to the conversations that people get exposed to, it’s important because it gives me professional visibility, it’s important because of a number of other things. It’s important — when something is important you just make the time, you make it happen. I am pretty sure that most women know that this is important.

There is nothing at all preventing more women from engaging in professional public speaking. Let me propose an approach then:

If every woman I know professionally today makes a pledge to speak in at least one conference in 2008, I am confident we can make a difference in presenter diversity issue from previous years.

I may not be famous, but I know a lot of people professionally. A lot of them are women. What do you say, shall we?


rashmi said,

May 16, 2008 @ 6:04 pm


I am wondering how we can help promote women speakers on SlideShare. I know for a fact that a lot of conferences now find speakers by looking at their previous talks on SlideShare.

Let me if you have suggestions?



Livia said,

May 16, 2008 @ 6:05 pm

That’s very interesting Rashmi. Do you guys ever do polls? Could be ‘who were favorite women speakers at a particular conference’ with the slides; how about a hot or not style query with women’s presos? — just off the top of my head; if I think of anything better I’ll ping you (must be hard though because I don’t think you have M/F distinguished in your metadata, right?)


Russ said,

May 16, 2008 @ 6:10 pm

I say make it two, and make it a year from now (since so many cons have a longish lead time for proposals).

Well said.


Livia said,

May 16, 2008 @ 6:10 pm

Russ, while that’s true, I think that if we start rationalizing this it won’t get done. To reach a goal for something that has NO OBSTACLES, do we really need to make it easier? I think not, at least the women I know I am sure can make it happen.


Chiara said,

May 16, 2008 @ 6:11 pm

Here, here, sister!

I too have been lax in my conference presenting. I’ve already proposed to EuroIA, but I’ll see if I can get another one before the Summit call in November.


Kit said,

May 16, 2008 @ 6:15 pm

It’s like dating. It’s got to be worth the time.


Donna Spencer said,

May 16, 2008 @ 6:22 pm

I’m doing it. Spoke here yesterday: (3/9 speakers were girls; 7/9 speakers were australian).

Teaching here in August: Information Architecture and Collaborative Design

Teaching in NZ in august (unnanounced). Then another unnanounced conference in September. And maybe Oz-IA – proposals aren’t open yet.

Then here in October:

And here in November:


Livia said,

May 16, 2008 @ 6:27 pm

Way to go Donna!!!

Kit, I agree but anything needs to be worth your time.

Side note: I have to say though that’s a very US-centric approach to dating. Let me suggest a Brazilian approach: Go out to meet people and have fun, you just might meet someone who is special (there is no “dating”). This is why I think people have such a hard time in the US.

The corollary, why don’t we think of presenting as an opportunity to meet new people and share the cool shit you are doing and how awesome you are, instead of the delivery of something specific with an expectation of return?


Christopher Fahey said,

May 16, 2008 @ 6:30 pm

Maybe a good interim step would be for women to pledge to speak in front of groups formally but in a non-conference context first. For example, to a group of one’s co-workers, or to a client team.

Speaking at a conference is a big step, and for me it was preceded by many years of standing in front of colleagues and clients and students and talking about things I believe in.

In many businesses, I suspect, women aren’t given (or do not take) these opportunities as much as they could or should. Public speaking takes practice, and until one is invited or pushed into it, or volunteers for these first steps, taking the plunge into a public conference could be pretty daunting.


Livia said,

May 16, 2008 @ 6:35 pm

That’s a great point Chris. If people aren’t up for a crowd of 300 yet, I highly encourage for example, facilitating a birds-of-a-feather session, or being the question asker on a panel. There are many paths.

I will keep to the core goal as is though, I want folks to aim at speaking in at least 1 conference; if they TRY for that we may not get 100% success, but I’m sure that trying can at least get some to a) consider the idea b) exercise some of the skills, like presenting to a group internally, etc.

PS I’m likely speaking at 3 conferences this year. Once details are ironed out, I’ll note here.


Russ said,

May 16, 2008 @ 6:37 pm

Hey Liv,

I’m not trying to make it easier. I’d still suggest 2. Of all the women I know on my own twtter feed, on lists, etc. It is rare for me to find one of them who shouldn’t be presenting.

So, for 2008, then , I’d say 2. There a bazillion conferences out there.


erin malone said,

May 16, 2008 @ 7:17 pm

I wholeheartedly agree that we should be doing more of this. I know I am lax – frankly I HATE speaking. I also suffer from the “I know that, I could do that” but then never get my act together cause when I sit down to try I realize I know nothing.

On another note – as a conference reviewer – most of the proposals reviewed are blind – so you dont know who is female or not. So if mostly male submit, them mostly male will speak.


Ross said,

May 16, 2008 @ 10:29 pm

I have an idea about this one. It’s pretty simple.

Men like to hear themselves talk more than women do. Bigger egos.


I think therefore IA (Livia Labate) » Women: the issue in women issues said,

May 27, 2008 @ 8:37 pm

[...] recently blogged about women speaking in conferences (or the lack thereof). Since then I have engaged in some fantastic conversations about it. I heard [...]


Karen McGrane said,

May 28, 2008 @ 5:15 pm

Honestly I LOVE speaking. The only reason I don’t volunteer to do more is just that it’s an investment of time and money, both of which are in short supply when you’re running a business. But now that you’ve brought this up I’ll try to get out there more.

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