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Why Women Still Get So Few Keynote Speeches

I first published this article in 2015, and there was a universal outpouring of agreement and support for promoting more women into keynote slots. In fact, for conference held in the second half of 2017 and the first half of 2018, there was nearly a doubling of the number of women keynotes. But that still leaves only 2.2 out of every 10 keynotes being women for corporate events and industry association conferences.

This ticks me off, because for 30 years in the speaking industry, there has been very little progress changing the nature of keynote speaking to highlight the strengths of women speakers.

Here is a puzzling statistic: Men get five times the number of keynote speeches than women at conferences. If you subtract women’s conferences from the equation, and the numbers are even more pitiful. Why? We know from interviews that it is not for a lack of trying on the part of event directors (more than 80% are women). They were willing to rattle off a list of women they either booked or considered booking. But compared to their more expansive list of male speakers, the list was embarrassingly short. To understand the issue better, we need to look at what shapes our perceptions of what a “keynote speech” is and the standards we apply when choosing a speaker.

Speeches are as old as history itself. And thru most of history, public speaking was conducted almost exclusively by men. For that reason, the actual speech format holds to a model of iconic imagery and masculine strength. If you close your eyes and imagine a leader on stage addressing a large crowd, the first image popping into your mind is most likely that of a man. This is because history is dominated by men standing above others on a stage or platform and commanding the attention with power and conviction.

Powerful Women SpeakerHowever, women are rapidly earning more positions of authority, expertise, and power. We recognize the wonderfully different behaviors and skill sets that women bring as leaders, shifting our perception of what leadership should be in the process. Yet as Dr. Carol Tavris pointed out more than a quarter of a century ago in her book The Mismeasure of Woman, while men are being compared to men, women are still being compared to men as well, especially in leadership roles.

This gender bias is very apparent in the world of keynote speaking. Although there has been a large increase in the number of women executives, entrepreneurs, athletes, soldiers, academics and the like, very few are being chosen as keynote speakers by corporations and associations.

“Women make up the majority of the workforce, and it is critical to see female keynotes as a reflection of this changing societal landscape.” – Deborah Perry Piscione

Most of us may not admit this, but the behaviors that we demand from our keynote speakers are the very attributes that skew heavily in favor of men. In general, we want strong authority figures who perform dynamic, commanding presentations that are based on one-directional communication. We look for the dominant communicator to boldly address our audiences and hold their attention. When we see a woman on stage, we unconsciously compare her mannerisms and tone of voice to other keynotes, which happen to be mostly men.

The comparisons to men don’t end there. The physical appearance of the speaker matters greatly. For men–even though the business suit has given way to button-down dress shirts, golf shirts, and in some cases, t-shirts–the visual expectation tends to lean towards a pants-wearing “uniform” in dark or muted colors. It is no surprise that the more diverse, colorful and trendy fashions, make-up and hair styles of women play a large factor in how we judge them as speakers. This is especially true in the age of YouTube, where video allows you to preview a speaker to aid the selection process. It continues to surprise me the amount of criticism about the attire of a female keynote speaker, as opposed to men.

We need to change and to make a bigger effort to book more women as keynote speakers.

So how do we fix this? Here are several ideas that I urge you to consider:

  • Intentionally add women to your list of potential keynote speakers. Educate others about their own unconscious bias and break with stereotypes. Force the issue if you need to.
  • Design the keynote session to take advantage of their strengths: Embrace structures that promote more social, two-way communications (feedback) between the speaker and the audience. Accept a more conversational tone. Allow audiences to ask questions in real time via Twitter. Also, consider creating a two or three speaker conversation on stage.
  • Allow for “flex-time” in the speech, which provides the speaker the freedom to read an audience and engage in the content that is driving intense curiosity with the audience. This slightly more nurturing model will payoff in a large way.
  • And a personal peeve…stop “mansplaining” to women speakers. I have been involved in thousands of calls between speakers and their clients, and I have seen women treated in a condescending fashion by male clients that I have never, ever experienced with men speakers. STOP IT!

Lets all agree to shoot for a 50-50 balance within five years. It is a bold, audacious goal to shoot for. If we work hard together, we can radically change the conference keynote for the better.

Michael Humphrey is the CEO of Nextup Speaker Management and has been a speaking industry expert for more than 30 years, serving the needs of smart business events.

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