Do Digital Marketing Conferences Suffer From a Speaker Gender Gap?

Annual Gender Gap in Digital Marketing Conference Speakers Report

Gender Gap at Digital Marketing Conferences
Author: Mike Gracia
Mike is the head of strategy at Curation Wall and a frequent contributor of Curation Wall articles. Over a decade of working in the digital marketing industry have contributed to Mike's grey beard

How This Post Came About (click to expand).

The idea for this post first came about following a conversation at the Turing Festival in Edinburgh, back in August 2016. I was attending the small (but very good!) conference and had a surprise meeting with Mark Scully, who runs another awesome conference, Learn Inbound (over in Dublin, Ireland).

I've known Mark for a few years now, and whilst catching up with him over a meal one evening after the event, Mark mentioned the efforts he takes to ensure his Learn Inbound conference has an even gender split with regards the speakers.

I have to admit that although I've attended numerous digital marketing events over the years, I'm guilty of not considering, or noticing, the gender balance of speakers at these events. The conscious effort Mark puts into this aspect of his conference, mixed with annoyance at myself for not knowing this was an issue in our industry's conference scene, got me thinking about other digital marketing conferences. I wanted to know if the industry really does have a problem with gender equality, so this post was born.

This Will Be An Annual Report

We will be publishing an annual "Gender Gap in Digital Marketing Conferences" report.

This first report is a little concise, however we intend to grow the yearly report year-on-year, taking into account more variables (possibly including country-specifics) and we absolutely want to include more conferences in this year's (2017) report.

Curation Wall welcomes input for future reports. If there's a conference you'd like covered next year, or if you'd like to become a contributor to the report (research, content, proof reading etc), please email me personally (mike@curationwall.com), or fill out this form to offer to contribute, or this form to suggest an event to be included in the 2017 report.

Encouraging Not Criticising

It's important to explain that the intention of this report is not to criticize or sensationalize the issue of gender equality at digital marketing conferences. Rather, we're aiming for a considered, balanced discussion about gender equality in the digital marketing conference sector, where we're at currently, where we should aim to be, and what the challenges are in getting there.

The aim is that any conferences who suffer from a speaker gender gap, are encouraged to work at closing that gap in the future. I'd like to think that any gender gap of speakers is due more to unconscious bias rather than sexism or misogyny, in which case highlighting the issue will hopefully be all that's needed to encourage event organisers to take action and work at addressing the imbalance.

Additionally, as we'll see in the quotes from event organisers later in this report, some event organisers explain it can actually be a struggle to find enough female digital marketing speakers to fill speaker slots. We consider possible solutions for this too, both steps events can take, and how the rest of us in the industry may be able to help.

Conferences Covered in This Report.

This report covers digital marketing conferences that took place in 2016 (we are tracking 2017 conferences now)

To create the list of conferences to check, I drew up a short list, then posted on Inbound.org to ask folks for any I may have missed.

From here, I created a Google Sheet of conferences to check and set to work manually checking the speaker lists on their websites, looking at the gender gap between speakers.

I split this into two lists, in future reports this will likely also be split by country:

  • Large Conferences
  • Smaller conferences of 500 or fewer attendees.

Larger Digital Marketing Conferences:

Smaller Digital Marketing Conferences:

After writing this post, I also sent emails to each of the conferences, asking them to confirm the results and inviting them to comment. If any event organisers would like to correct our speaker counts, please email mike@curationwall.com. We are also happy to share our spreadsheet and sources with anyone interested.

Methodology

Our primary metric is the percentage of female speaker slots vs the percentage of male speaker slots. We felt the best way to judge the female/male speaker balance, would be to calculate the number of speaker slots filled by either gender, so this is what we tried to count in this report. Unfortunately it wasn't always possible to find this information on each event's website, in which case the speaker count was used. Where possible, we have also obtained this information from the event organisers for cross-checking. State of Search was a particularly difficult one, we are currently using the speakers list on their website, which appears to only include keynote speakers.

During a feedback round on our initial draft report, it was suggested that we also list the actual number of speakers at each event, in order to show how many actual female speakers slots each event has. For this reason, we have also how added a chart with our raw count of female (and male) speakers.

This post will be updated with any corrections as soon as they come in and are confirmed and I will be happy to publish any comments or quotes from conferences.

Moving forward, we are aiming to work much closer with the events to ensure very accurate and up to date data.

The Gender Gap Results By Conference

Conference Speakers - Raw Numbers Tally

The following charts show the raw count (rather than a percentage comparison) of both female & male speakers at each event.

Female & Male Speakers Count At Large Events

Female & Male Speaker Count - Smaller Conferences 2016


Female & Male Speakers Count At Smaller Events

Female & Male Speaker Count - Smaller Conferences 2016

Conference Speakers - Female Vs Male Comparison

The following charts show a comparison of female vs male speakers, as a percentage, for each digital marketing conference in the report.

Gender Gap Amongst Speakers at Large Digital Marketing Conferences 2016

Smaller Conferences:

Gender Gap Amongst Speakers at Smaller Digital Marketing Conferences 2016

Data from all charts available on request

Statistics

Of the 13 conferences surveyed, 10 of them have more male speakers than female, meaning:

  • Nearly 77% (76.92%) of digital marketing conferences surveyed suffer from a speaker gender gap.
  • With larger conferences surveyed, this rises to 90% of events having a gender gap that favours men.
  • If we remove the outlier (Mozcon), this changes to 100%.
  • Smaller conferences performed better (though this was a very small data set), with two thirds of smaller conferences being either even, or having more female speakers than male.
  • Of the larger conferences that have more male than female speakers, the median average difference was 11 speakers.

The Best Performing Conferences

When it comes to the highest percentage of female speaker slots, Mozcon scored highest out of the survey of larger conferences, with 16 female and 11 male speaker slots. Learn Inbound (6 female and 4 male speaker slots) and SMLondon (5 male & 5 female speaker slots) both scored well in the smaller conference survey.

Having More Female Than Male Speakers Isn't Equal... But That's OK!

It's likely that someone is going to point out that we said Mozcon scored very well, despite the fact Mozcon wasn't 'equal' as such, as it had more female speakers than male.

In my opinion this is actually a good thing. Currently there tends to be a bias towards male speakers, so it's okay for some conferences to buck the trend & have more female speakers than male (in my eyes anyway).

The tendency towards male speakers means it's harder for female speakers to get noticed. It's a bit of a catch-22... You usually need to be popular to be invited to speak at conferences, but it appears women are less likely to be invited to speak and, as the 'side note' section (later) explains, women don't tend to be promoted to leadership roles as often as men, so are will find it harder to get noticed, and so less likely to be invited to speak.

This being said, it may be the case (considering Danny Sullivan's comments) that larger conferences actually struggle to find enough female speakers to create a gender balance. Even then, though, perhaps when some conferences have more female than male speakers, it will encourage more female digital marketers to pitch.

I certainly don't see a conference having more female than male speakers as a BAD thing. When thinking about this, the image below comes to mind (image source: The Good Men Project). Though, personally, I'd argue that the image on the right is actually 'TRUE' equality, as they have an equal chance/view, even if the initial support looks 'unequal' in the eyes of some.

Equality Vs Justice

If things need to be weighted for a while in order to effect true equality, as far as I'm concerned, so be it.

What Can Conferences Do To Improve

Actually, although most would freely admit that we're not there yet, many conferences do appear to be already working hard to achieve gender balance...

Mozcon

Reading Erica's post about Moz joining the 50/50 pledge makes it obvious that Moz take the issue very seriously too. Rand Fishkin, the founder of Moz, is also very well known for being pro-diversity and speaking out both in support of feminism, and equality in general.

Learn Inbound

Having talked personally with Mark Scully from Learn Inbound, I know the gender equality of their speakers has a conscious effort behind it, Mark puts a great deal of effort into ensuring an equal gender balance at Learn Inbound, which shows in their male to female speaker ratio.

Mark provided the following quote regarding his efforts:

Mark ScullyWhile we were blind to gender imbalance during our first year of running events, it's something we're now deeply passionate about resolving as we scour the globe for speakers. Ultimately, we consider a speaker on a case-by-case basis in terms of the knowledge and experience they can bring, rather than what brand or company they currently work for.

While we'll never reject a speaker based on their sex, we try to look past the typical male speakers you generally see present at a lot of conferences, and instead search for upcoming talent we can help to nurture. As a conference organiser, I feel it's our duty to look past the number of ticket sales a "big name" can help generate, but instead, focus on the value-add for both the speaker and audience.

Over the past two years, we've noticed that the feedback from our events has greatly improved as we've strived for (or exceeded) a 50/50 balance. This has also led to our audience profile shifting towards a predominately female demographic (65% male during our first year). Going forward, we're also looking into ways to nurture upcoming talent outside of our events in order to give less experienced speakers an opportunity to build their confidence and experience.

SMX Conferences

Likewise, Third Door Media (who run SMX Advanced, as well as numerous other marketing conferences) have also published an interesting post about their efforts towards equality. The post explains that their goal is actually 40%, as a minimum for either male or female speaker numbers, as this gives them room to select the best speaker for their event whilst keeping the gender balance as equal as possible.

In a recent email, Danny Sullivan (of Third Door Media) explained that often there are actually difficulties in getting enough female speakers to create the gender balance they strive for, mainly because more men pitch for speaking slots than women. Danny went on to explain that this is one of the reasons they don't solely rely on pitches to find speakers.

In the email chat, Danny explained their 40% goal like this:

Danny SullivanWith our 40% goal, we’re saying that we think gender diversity is super important, but we’re also going to keep flexibility so that ultimately in the end, we’re not going to reject someone solely because they are a man or a woman.

Pubcon

Brett Tabke, from Pubcon, also explained in an email conversation that whilst it's easy to fill some topics with female speakers (mostly marketing, content, and social media related topics), other topics can prove much more difficult. Brett went on to explain that despite their best efforts, finding female speakers for topics such as managing RedHat Linux, programming, and server management can be especially challenging.

Brett's comments about the increased difficulty with finding female speakers for some of the more technical subjects like server OS, makes me wonder if conferences that include a more technical element to their talks will find it harder to achieve a speaker gender balance. Perhaps this is something we'll look at in future reports.

Brett went to to explain:

Brett TabkeWhat is hard, is finding quality female keynote speakers. We look for people with 5-6 years of keynotes, 100k twitter followers, a brand name author, or someone well known from a grade A internet corporation.

Search Love

Talking via email with Will Critchlow, of Distilled (the agency behind the SearchLove conferences), Will said:

Will CritchlowWe put a lot of effort into our sourcing for SearchLove, and we're actively working to find great new women speakers in particular. We know we have some way to go on this front. We certainly anticipate that our 2017 numbers will be better than 2016. We also launched our code of conduct in 2016 and have been proactively discussing the code with all attendees at the beginning of every event.

It's also important to note that gender diversity is only one form of diversity, and we are putting proactive effort into looking for exceptional speakers who are diverse in all kinds of ways. The biggest efforts here have been widening our search, and specifically seeking recommendations from people who move in different circles and who know different people to us. In addition, I am personally trying to mentor up-and-coming speakers from under-represented groups, and trying to help them overcome the challenges they have traditionally faced getting visibility and pitching themselves.

We were really pleased to see that although we have some way to go in raw numbers, our efforts are paying off in quality. At our most recent conference - in London last October - when I look down the list of speakers sorted by "outstanding" ratings, there's only one straight white guy in the top 7 sessions.

State Of Search

Chatting about these issues via email with Sha Menz, Speaker Liaison at State of Search, said:

Sha MenzState of Search organizers have been concerned in the past by the low numbers of women who submitted pitches to speak.

In 2016 this was again evident, with only 19% percent of pitches received coming from women. We want to proactively try to improve this situation, so rather than just relying on speaker pitches (which tend to be predominantly from men), we established a new sub-event at State of Search, to address this. We introduced our audience to the event with this post: Women in Marketing: Elevating the Conversation with Elevation Breakfast and followed up with a wrap-up post here: Lift Each Other Up: Women in the Industry.

I'd also ask anyone reading this report to pause for thought before judging conferences too harshly. Drawing conclusions about the intent of conference organizers, based solely on the final composition of a speaking roster can be quite unfair.

It's all too easy for the hard work that goes on in the background to go unnoticed. It can be the case that despite a serious and sustained effort by conference organisers to achieve good gender balance, the end result may fall short of what they'd hoped for, often for reasons beyond their control. Speakers may withdraw, there may be far fewer female speakers pitching than hoped for, outreach for speakers can be tough… All these things were factors that led us to create Elevation Breakfast, as we strive to improve year-on-year.

The Inbounder

Gianluca Fiorelli, the founder of The Inbounder conference, explained in an email conversation with Curation Wall that, as well as speakergender balance, he also strives for other forms of equality...

Gianluca explained:

Gianluca FiorelliPersonally, I have been very aware and concerned of the gender inequality existing in the digital marketing scenario since before I even started thinking in creating a conference like The Inbounder.

Therefore, when The Inbounder project was born, I tried to be consistent with my belief that female marketers should have that visibility they do not have. However, in the specific case of The Inbounder, I am also interested in another kind of inequality I see (and suffer somehow) in big conferences: the one for which speakers from countries like Italy, Spain and others tend to have very few visibility and opportunity to share an expertise and knowledge that's not at all inferior with respect the most common keynotes from USA and UK.

Also for that reason The Inbounder was not able to reach a 50/50 balance in its first edition last May.

However, we are getting better. In fact, if we consider the four events we are organizing all over the world as all, the balance is perfect and, if I am lucky with the three speakers I am waiting the answers from about their availability, female keynotes will be even majority.

Note: If any conference mentioned in this report wishes to include details of the steps they take towards gender equality, please email details to me at mike@curationwall.com and I will be happy to add your comments to this post.

For any conferences that aren't already striving for gender equality, there are a few steps conference organisers can take:

  • Conference organisers can have an outreach campaign to actively find female speakers, rather than just relying on pitches (many conferences to outreach, any that don't should start)
  • Sign-up to the 50/50 pledge. Once you become a Pledge Partner, they will identify talented leaders who can speak on your topics & to your audience
  • Have an anti-harassment policy, to ensure all feel welcome & safe at your conference
  • Publish reports on your efforts towards gender equality, like the Moz or SMX examples.

How Digital Agencies & Industry Folks Can Help

Whilst there are things that conference organizers can do to ensure gender equality (and equality in general), there's also a lot other digital marketing industry professionals can do, for example:

  • Digital marketing agencies can ensure that, when they pitch staff for speaking slots, they pitch an equal amount of female staff to speak.
  • Likewise, others in the digital marketing industry should encourage any successful female digital marketers they feel could deliver an interesting talk, to pitch to speak at events.
  • Female experts who feel they could deliver a good talk should be sure to reach out to digital conferences, letting them know they are available.

To make a real change will likely require effort from all sides, both conference organisers and digital marketing professionals themselves.

Why Does It Matter? We're ONLY Talking About Digital Marketing Conferences Anyway!

It may seem that in the grand scheme of things, with all of the important political issues we're facing this year, gender equality at marketing conferences isn't really THAT important. There's bigger fish to fry, right?

The issue with this attitude, is that very big problems are often made up of lots of smaller ones. Just as with most topics, when it comes to gender equality (and equal rights in general), society's opinions of what is 'the norm' are formed from lots of everyday experiences, experiences that all too easily go unnoticed.

With gender equality & sexism, then, it seems common for 'small' everyday issues to go unchallenged. So much so that 20 months after Laura Bates launched the Everyday Sexism Project, the site had received 50'000 stories of everyday sexism, uploaded from around the world.

If we want a fairer society (which we all do, right?) then we must consciously check ourselves against unconscious bias, identifying, challenging, and fixing any unfairness. That is why, yes, gender equality (in fact, equality of all kinda; gender, race or physical impairment) is important, 'even' at digital marketing conferences.

Side Note: Gender Gap In The Broader Marketing Industry

Although this report is focusing very specifically on the gender gap of digital marketing conference speakers, it's worth mentioning gender equality issues with the broader marketing industry as a whole.

For example, despite almost TWO THIRDS of all (UK) marketing professionals being female, only 8% of in-house female marketers are working at director level (source).

A report by Mary Firme found that whilst women make up around 80% of marketers, as people are promoted and awarded leadership roles, this figure plummets to just 37% of marketers being female. In addition, Mary found that women earned less than men in just about every marketing job role.

Marketing Salaries By Gender - Mary Firme, LinkedIn

Future Reports

As mentioned, our "Gender Gap in Digital Marketing Conferences" report will be compiled and published every year. We hope that publishing this report yearly will encourage digital marketing conference organisers to put considerable effort into gender equality with their event speakers.

We have emailed every conference listed in this post and asked for confirmation or correction of our figures and will update this post should we receive replies or corrections.

As mentioned near the top of this document, we welcome requests to include other conferences in future reports, as well as requests to help contribute to future reports.  Either email me (mike@curationwall.com), or use this form to offer to contribute to the next report, or this form for suggesting events to be covered.

Summary

As shown in the charts, there does indeed appear to be a gender gap when it comes to speakers at digital marketing conferences.

I believe there are plenty of amazing female digital marketers out there, many of whom are highly engaging speakers, so let's hope 2017 will see a greater balance between male & female speakers at digital marketing conferences.

That said, we've also seen that several conferences do already have tactics in place to try to get a gender balance, so what is the answer?

  • Do you think conferences need to work harder to get more balance?
  • Do you think others in the industry, like digital agencies, need to do more to encourage their female staff to pitch for speaking slots?
  • How much do you feel this matters?

What are your thoughts? Feel free to let us knows below...

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