Where Are the Women Speakers?

With women outnumbering men in earning undergraduate and graduate degrees, women outnumbering men in holding professional-level jobs, and a frontrunner female candidate for the President of the United States, we tend to think we are moving forward when it comes to gender equality. But are we really?

Six months ago, I spoke at a TEDx event outside of Boston, where John Sculley, the former CEO of Apple, headlined. It had been a dream of mine for a few years to speak on a TEDx stage, but it was one of those “back-of-the-mind” dreams. Maybe you’ve had these, too.

Shortly after being accepted as a TEDx speaker at this event, I had a phone call with the TEDx organizer for us to get to know one another and speak in more detail about my upcoming talk. On the call, I asked the organizer how many women speakers there would be, as I wanted to get a sense of the energy that might be present that day in the room. And truth be told, I wanted to know how far I could go with my feminine message.

He told me three women. Three out of 11 speakers.

When he shared this information with me, I swallowed hard. While I knew there might be some gender imbalance, as the school where I would be speaking has a history in the old boys network, I was not expecting this level of disparity. Really? Three women out of 11 speakers?

Even though I was exasperated by this, I held my tongue. I didn’t want to “rock the boat.” More to the point, I didn’t want to upset the organizer and lose my spot as a speaker. I realized, probably like many women, that I could be replaced by a male speaker at the drop of a hat, or by a woman who was more “likeable” than me — one who wouldn’t challenge male authority.

The irony did not escape me. Here I was, intending to carve a new pathway for the female voice through my TEDx talk, yet I didn’t want to upset the organizational male leadership for fear of losing my spot.

After experiencing this massive imbalance on the speaker list, I began to get curious about the gender breakdown at other TEDx events.

So, I did some research, asked around, and here is what I found:

Right now there is a glaring gender disparity on TEDx stages.

At TEDGlobal in 2013 in a workshop for TEDx organizers, TED producer June Cohen posed a question that had her stumped: Where are the women speakers?

According to Cohen, only about 20 percent of the short-listed TEDx talks that come to her for consideration on TED.com are by women. Worse than this, only 15 percent of the recommendations that come in for the main stage TED are women. That means that less than 20 percent of our ideas are being heard on the TED and TEDx stages (and 80 percent of men’s voices are being heard).

The TED and TEDx stages are about people connecting around the power of ideas. If our voices are missing on these stages, then our ideas are not being represented.

This under-representation of women at such a prominent global speaking platform concerns me.

When women’s voices are missing from the stages of leadership, the truth of our lives is also missing. Law, public policy and cultural consciousness, therefore, never reflect the truth of our lives. As a result, women suffer tremendously physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually.

Today in the United States, one-third of women live in poverty or on the brink of poverty, and worldwide, one in three women will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex or abused in some way (without recourse to the perpetrators in many cases).

On the flip side — according to the latest studies, when more women are leaders, companies and communities have been found to be more productive, innovative and successful. As the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College has said: When more women are leaders, we change society’s understanding of what a leader looks like, how they operate, and how they respond to social, political and and economic needs. When more women are leaders, we raise the aspirations of women and girls around the world.

I have come to believe that simply stepping onto the TEDx stage as a woman is an “idea worth spreading.”

In her talk at TEDGlobal, Cohen said she has observed that when it comes to inviting speakers, women are 1) harder to find; 2) more likely to say no; and 3) slightly more likely to cancel than men.

She asserts that the reason we see fewer women speakers is because individual women make these consistent personal decisions to decline public speaking.

I don’t buy this as the whole truth.

In my research, I spoke to a variety of women who had applied to be a speaker at a TEDx event, but never heard anything back from the organizer. In some cases, they had applied to two or three events. The door never opened for a conversation.

As Lauren Bacon wrote in The Atlantic in October 2015 in her article, “The Odds That a Panel Would ‘Randomly’ be All Men is Astronomical”: “The underrepresentation of women on speakers’ lists doesn’t ‘just happen,’ despite many conference organizers’ claims that it does.”

So, how do we turn this around?

Longtime TEDster, former TEDx speaker and gender parity advocate Susan Macaulay of AmazingWomenRock and SheQuotes suggests these three simple steps to start:

    1. If you are TEDx organizer, invite more women speakers. If at first they seem reluctant to speak, don’t give up! Encourage them, offer support and help them with their talks. Get public speaking coaching for them; tell them that their voice is important, their knowledge and expertise should be shared, and perhaps most important, that they are valued.
    2. If you are a potential TEDx attendee, talk to your TEDx organizers about gender parity, and suggest women speakers. When Susan saw that only 30 percent of the speaker nominees for TEDxRamallah were women, she enlisted the help of a friend, and together they proposed an additional 14 women speakers.
    3. If you are a woman, start speaking and sharing your ideas. If you already speak, speak more. We need more women speaking up, speaking out and taking the stage at conferences worldwide — not just at TED. Your voice deserves to be heard. Sharing your ideas will help create a better world for everybody — women, men and children. Aspire to speak at a TEDx event, and take steps to make it happen. Organize your own TEDx event, and make the speaker line-up inclusive and diverse.

Let’s make 2016 the year where we see gender parity on TED and TEDx stages worldwide. Let this be the year TED and TEDx organizers hear a resounding “YES!” from women speakers everywhere. Let this be the year that conference organizers realize that women speakers are reliable, powerful and captivating and that they belong on TED stages in equal numbers to men.

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Tabby Biddle, M.S.Ed., is a leading voice and advocate for advancing women’s leadership and the human rights of women and girls. She is the author of the bestselling book, Find Your Voice: A Woman’s Call to Action. Watch her recent TEDx talk on Activating Women’s Leadership.

On April 6th, Tabby is hosting a FREE 60-minute training call on “How to Become a TEDx Speaker” for women aspiring to speak on the TEDx stage. (This is an independent program, not affiliated with TED or TEDx.) Learn more & register here.