Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Are women invisible?

And if so, what can we, the mobile industry, do about it?

I've recently written about the lack of female speakers at Informa's upcoming Mobile Web conference. I've also been alerted that the Mobile Marketing Association's forthcoming conference in Budapest (also run by Informa) lacks female visibility. And then I discovered that the Mobile Web Megatrends conference is also suffering the same problem.

Why so few women speakers, panellists or moderators?

And don't tell me this is representative of the industry because I know it isn't - we have good female representation at Mobile Mondays, more women come to Swedish Beers now (and growing) and the women in the Women in Mobile Data Association are plentiful! I even hear along the grapevine that the MMA has a strong female contingent.

And yes, this is a particular bugbear of mine. But with good reason. So bear with me.

I'm fed up to the back teeth of conference organisers and their sponsors ignoring women in the mobile industry (Informa being a recent obvious culprit, but they are certainly not alone) and coming up with lame excuses as to why women aren't involved. And many of these events are actually organised by women which makes it even worse. Do women still defer to men? Do women need a license to speak up?

I'm not a bra-burning feminist by any stretch of the imagination. But come on, this is the 21st Century and we've had the vote a while now. Women make 80% of buying decisions, women are more prolific on the internet than men, women are driving social networking - why aren't they (we) visible at potentially game-changing events where real decisions are made about all our digital futures, when potentially, it will probably impact most on women's day to day lives than men's.

I don't expect to get to 50/50 but to get to 25% visibility would be a start and not unreasonable I'd have thought. Or am I deluded here?

And don't give me the comment 'well if it's a choice between a man and a woman speaker and the man's the better qualified speaker then we choose the man' because in *most* cases in my 8 year experience of attending mobile conferences and events, there are few 'brilliant' speakers on the circuit at all - male or female - so there isn't usually an issue of having to choose between them. And with different formats, different styles of speakers get a chance to shine and therefore it encourages diversity.

It still feels like women are pretty much invisible and that the mobile industry is still very much a boy's club. [And yes, I know it's not just the mobile industry - I can only tackle one sector at a time!]


1. Do we need to rethink event formats to make them more accessible to women? And if so, what are those formats?

2. How do we boost the confidence of female participants so that they say yes more times than they say no when asked to contribute as a speaker, panellist, moderator, whatever?

3. How do we encourage women to take networking and conferencing at this level seriously and make it a core part of their jobs rather than something they do once in a blue moon?

4. How do we encourage companies to put women forward as speakers as often as, or sometimes instead of the men in their companies?

5. How do women network differently (particularly married women) and how do we incorporate male and female styles of networking at events without resorting to separatism or golf days for the boys and spa days for the girls? (Much as I enjoy a spa, I don't really fancy networking with other women whilst in a dressing gown. Where would I put my business cards, phone and notebook anyway? And it does just confirm existing stereotypes and ridicules them. Why don't we just have a shoe-shopping expedition?!)

As a woman, you might think I qualify to answer these questions. Unfortunately, I don't suffer from a fear or reticence of speaking at events. I don't work for a big company so I don't have a glass ceiling to break through (I've experienced it in the past though), so I don't necessarily understand some of what's going on here and why these problems persist or what to do about them. In many cases, women themselves, are ensuring these problems persist so I'm not laying the blame solely on men here.  It's deeply culturally embedded so I know it's not a simple issue. Therefore, I'm particularly interested to hear others views and perceptions - and that's from men *and* women please!

I do believe this is a problem. And I do think we can change it for the better if we want to and hope that if I keep piping up about it, something positive will happen.

Some further links here too (and it's worth looking at the comments and links to other posts to get the full picture):

I also spotted this upcoming group 'Needs Women Speakers' who are naming and shaming conferences who need more female speakers, and there's an accompanying blog post.

And I've started the discussion on the Oxford Forum too in the hope we may make some progress and find a way forward from this.

And Jason Kottke has been talking about diversity at web industry conferences and some of them are suffering the same problem - although many have healthy female coverage, showing that it is possible.

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  1. Anonymous12:36 pm GMT

    Mobile Entertainment magazine recently published a list of the TOP 50 women executives in the mobile industry:

    Worth reaching out to them to know their opinions.

    My colleague Julie Ask is also a frequent speaker at industry events and may have her own 2c on your story:

    Thomas Husson
    Senior Analyst, JupiterResearch

  2. Meant to leave a comment here when I first read this. I was talking about your post last night at the Girl Geek Dinner at Google. There was a fairly depressing panel at the end about work life balance & the dreaded work "glass ceiling" was mentioned then avoided like an elephant sitting in the room.

    I have no idea why we still have so few women speakers when every single day I meet and work with the most amazing insightful, intelligent, funny and smart women I've ever worked with.

    Jeremy Olwang made a similar post on this online community & social media blog - saying "where are all the women speakers" or words to that effect.

    Maybe it's lack of confidence (which I very much doubt), maybe it's childcare problems (I also doubt this), maybe things will never change.

    Thanks for opening up the debate anyway and I'm just sorry I have no answers.

  3. Anonymous2:30 pm GMT

    Part of the problem may still be the glass ceiling: most (large) conference organisers would only consider speakers with pretty inflated titles (VP and above), in well known companies, and there are fewer women there. Particularly in the more "bankable" positions from a speaker point of view (C-suite, Strategy, Bus Dev, Sales...). It is less understandable in marketing conferences, though.

    However, I think the problem is simpler than that: women usually find this sort of thing completely useless. Contrary to our social stereotypes of being nice and not standing out from a crowd and not being self-promoting.

    I wouldn't understimate the difficulty of speaking in public, let alone before hundreds of people (of which the majority would be...male) It takes some practice over the years, so if women don't start small/early, we end up in a vicious cycle where very senior women don't like to speak in public and when they do, they are poor speakers...

    At IBM we have a program called "Taking the Stage", sponsored by our women's network, where public speaking skills are taught and practiced... And it is always over-subscribed!

    Maria Shiao

  4. Anonymous7:08 pm GMT

    its probably a case of why is water wet? :-)
    if we stand back, and remove ourselves from the body, and take a Far Eastern view point, we see basic nature (Yin/yang) at action in everything around us. Why are all women's mags about makeup and gossip, while men's mags are about machines, tools and war. Only about 8% of the male populace are born right brained (female), which also represents the Apple Mac market, and favoured by women. Mobile technology is much more used by women, because women love to talk (about problems), while the guys build the machines, and do most of the programming. I'm right brained so I'm more in the female brain sector, and gave up programming in favour of design, but it doesn't change the nature ...of nature. :-)
    Our mobile company in Waterloo is all men, so in a way I represent the female of the company :-))))
    But in reality, I'm half and half. And women in mobile technology are probably the mirror image of that: Techno tomboys. My only warning is don't go all male (yang) and lose your female side (yin)... as balance is an advantage. hehe :-)

  5. Claudia Sagripanti12:58 pm GMT

    Come down to Australia where we have some fantastic women in mobile. There aren't many I grant you but they are out there on a public platform and are well received.

    The local industry body, AIMIA, also has recently started an initiative to give more airtime to women in digital.

    We're so far away that we don't get much visibility up north, but we are doing some exciting things. Most recently was the launch of the Australian Mobile Phone Lifestyle Index, and current projects on updating the mobile advertising guidelines and also putting together mobile measurement standards.

    Happy to provide a list of great women.

  6. Priya Prakash12:57 am GMT

    Read this and have been wanting to comment on this for a while. Being a woman and a speaker in the upcoming Mobile Web Congress, I did look at other speakers who were speaking and didn't see how many men were there vs women until I came across your post and did a double-check. Blimey.. 3/52!

    Are conferences like these a trend that there arent't enough women speakers? Somehow, I don't think so. Having worked a lot in Web before I got back heavily into Mobile, I feel the Mobile community (I use the term 'community' here loosely) is quite fragmented and gender-driven over web.

    Is that a reflection of the fragmented nature of developing for the mobile space with multiple people involved in the value chain with very specific turfs? I don't know... but its fascinating as mobile does feel to me where web was 6/7 years ago.

    I am always struck by how many suits I see at industry meet-ups like MoMo over events like Chinwag where its much more mixed. Until the mobile space opens up both from a development, platform and mindset, we are going to see a lot more suits around. And when I mean suits I am not being gender-specific here.

    Today, developing for web is a lifestyle. You have kids making applications and writing up cool stuff. The key evidence I see this happening for mobile, is in places where mobile is the primary form of consuming the internet- so it comes down to India and even places like South Korea. I am digressing here quite a bit as I feel women not speaking at conferences is not the key issue here.

    The key issue here is not being the token representation for any meetup but being there and contributing towards it in a way where you feel you are being heard, your POV counts and you are not being stereotyped in terms of gender, age, ethnicity etc.

    Whenever designing services (and being the token woman in developer meetings) I have always winced when people say "It should be so easy to use, that even my Mum can use it". I wince because my Mom is probably the most tech- savvy person I have come across for her age group(65yrs). She taught herself Skype etc so she could be in touch with her kids as we live abroad. She did it because she had a necessity and a sense of curiosity. We perpetuate personas of women not being tech-savvy and keep evangelising this myth, so I am not surprised when it does come back to bite us in other ways than we had intended. (Another persona I detest and come across in marketing presentations is the token female "Social Butterfly" who is a fashionista in dire need of a pink swarovski clad phone and uses facebook to keep in touch with her friends. Yeah, right!)

    Maria Shiao from IBM here makes an interesting observation that most women would find this sort of conference thing quite useless. Yes, in its current format possibly, but not if conferences embrace more open formats such as PICNIC, LIFT, CHI, GEL have. There are many women speaking and participating in these conferences and no, these aren't your geeky developer type conferences either.

    So my suggestions are:
    1. Mobile conference formats needs a re-think.
    2. Open up mobile development space to encourage all sort of people to get involved in the conversation of developing, marketing and strategy- not just techies/biz devs/head of product types :)
    3. Have a mobile un-conference? Let's organise one and ask people to contribute towards sessions SXSW style. People vote for who they want to hear. So it doesn't become just a mobile insider industry thing ? If you are up for it, gimme a shout :)

    Priya Prakash | Head of Product
    Flirtomatic (yes, it gets the inflated title top marks Maria ;)

  7. Sarah Lipman8:33 am GMT

    All major conferences (some say so explicitly) invite speakers based not only on their content and delivery, but on their "visibility" -- i.e., how important they (or their company) are perceived to be in the industry.

    Since fewer women sit at the top of major companies (not none, but a small percentage), they seen as less desirable speakers.

    It's a pity.

  8. 1. Conference organisers tend to put their industry mates on stage. 99% of them are men.
    2. They also need to put on stage sponsors, to justify their conference funding.
    3. WE NEED TO: publish more, make ourselves more visible, deliver higher value/insights.

    I totally support what you say, but I spent 10 years in banking - Goldman Sachs and World Bank, before I switched to technology and the truth is, WE LIVE INA WORLD MADE TO THE IMAGE OF MEN (NOT GOD'S) and if we want to claim CHANGE we need to create it ourselves by being better than them.

    I am not resentful, but I know this is the truth in any industry: banking, politics, etc.

    You don't get to be Angela Merkel if you are not DAMN GOOD, or Mary Meeker at Morgan Stanley, or Madonna, let's also credit the most powerful woman in the music business.

    LET'S BE BETTER and let's do something that men don't do that well:

    Women get higher because they make more friends than foes. We do not have the testosterone that makes us fight for our place in the world and self-identity. We have oestrogens that make us want to create a better world, to be encompassing and nurturing.


    And let's deliver better into the industry. No one denies good work and improved added values.


  9. Agreed - great post Helen.
    I started out in the industry as a conference producer for Informa. I now work in business development for a mobile software company. One key point on the "why no women speakers" question:

    Conference speakers are invited by conference producers to attract paying delegates or sponsors.

    Speakers are identified and invited within a very short time frame. Have you ever wondered how speakers are identified? Names are found through telephone and internet research - mainly through sites like linkedin or by trawling through press releases/articles. Very simply, if your name's out there and you will attract delegates, you will be invited as a speaker.

    Gender doesn't come into the invite decision - but it does seem to come into the ease that a producer will stumble across a name. It does seem that women invest far less in self promotion.

    Once a name is on the conference circuit, it often becomes over invited - conference producers feed off other conferences. They are under significant pressure to find new names for their programmes. The majority of the names out there in the ether are currently male. Women need to, and can, take the responsibility to change that... by telling the world who they are and what they do.

    Jane Johnston

  10. Are women invisible?

    I would say mostly YES to that question.

    Why is that in mho:
    1. There are fewer women in the wireless/mobile industry. I've been tracking the growing numbers as it is growing in direct proportion to the lineups in the women's washroom at tech events. It used to be a few of us in suits and the booth babes , now more of us in suits and more waiting in line ups.
    2. There are less women with C level titles - whom tend to get chosen for speaking events over others.
    3. Wireless/tech has traditionally been a very technical industry, which tends to be male.
    4. Women need to do a better job of networking and networking amongst themselves. I've attended a few 'women only' events in this industry and have been really disappointed at the coldness of them. It was far harder to meet other women at a table or break into conversations than at mixed/mostly male events - quite frankly they felt very high schoolish, so I stopped attending them.

    I think in our society too, it is easier for men to go out on a limb with an opinion and be told they are full of crap and they don't take it too personally, women tend to take things more personally, so don't put themselves out there enough.

    I think its better to have an opinion that not have one....

    I've been able to garner a few choice speaking events, but more often than not am relugated to a chair position (which does take some talent btw).

    It also seems like those I am closest too, tend to forget/take for granted that I am available, entertaining and have good content!

    I find when I am looking for speakers, as Jane commented, I often pick those that are right in front of me, or who have contacted me - much based on ease/time.

    At our recent Jam session, out of 25ish speakers, we had about 4 women - would definitely like more.

    We just have to keep putting ourselves out there on an ongoing basis.

  11. Anonymous11:01 am GMT

    Women are not invisible.

    The Open Mobile Summit, organised by a female crew, has a 1:6 ratio of female to male in the keynote line-up, which is not bad.

    That's largely because, as a woman, I'm excited to find female speakers. I found Mary McDowell on Nokia's executive team through a listing of top women execs.

    So no women are not invisible.
    There are just fewer women in snr strategic positions of large companies in high tech/telecoms. And those are the sorts of people that sell tickets to conferences.

    Conferences are a reflection of the industries they relate to. It's not just the speakers - it's the audience.

    High tech events are the only places you are guaranteed never to have to queue for the bathroom!

    What you have to look at is why there are less of us in senior management.

    I sometimes wonder if we're just not ruthless enough. And perhaps a higher proportion of women have more of a life beyond work?

    (sometimes I wish I was one of them!)

    Robin Batt
    MD Bold Business and
    exec producer Open Mobile Summit

  12. No, but it certainly seems that way sometimes! I think it's important to have those opportunities and spaces for women networking. Many of the existing institutions and structures are de facto opportunities for men to connect with and support each other.


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