Why is it often difficult to get women to speak at conferences, when man say ‘yes’ straight away?

TrinityP3 founder Darren Woolley wants to see more women speaking at conferences, but his own experience as a session curator at the Mumbrella360 Asia conference leads him to believe there are deep-rooted issues at play

I doubt there would be anyone that argues against the importance of having a greater diversity of voices and opinions discussing the myriad of challenges and opportunities facing marketing, media and advertising. And by diversity I mean the full range of diversity including cultural, age, gender and more. 

After all, as the most quoted historical figure on the internet (Albert Einstein) is quoted as saying: “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” Hearing the opinions of a greater diversity of professionals within the industry in the discussion around addressing the issues we are facing can only be a positive, right? 

Therefore, it was refreshing attending the Mumbrella Asia Finance Marketing Summit last month in Singapore where there was a broad cross section of the marketing community represented on stage. From millennials to baby boomers as well as marketers, agencies and media – and a good representation across genders too. Although the latter is one area where some of the panels were challenged, relatively speaking.

Now it is well known that Mumbrella has a policy of encouraging gender diversity in their events and this should be commended. But I have a confession to make. While I have been accepted (in the call for sessions) to curate a session at the Mumbrella360 Asia conference running on November 5-7 at the Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre in Singapore, it has been a challenge to recruit an appropriate representation of women for the panel.

Let me explain. The session is addressing the issue of pitch behaviour. It is not a standard panel, but a television game show format called ‘The Pitch – A Game Show beyond All Others’. Like any game show it needs contestants and in this case I am looking for agency personnel who are involved either directly (business development and marketing roles) or indirectly (senior agency management).

Now I understand that the topic of pitching, especially in some markets, is highly controversial. There is often trade media reporting on unfair and unjust pitch practices and likewise it is a topic that can be polarising with both buyers (marketers and procurement) and suppliers (agencies). It is with a deep understanding of the sensitivities of the topic that we developed the format of the session for the MumbrellaAsia 360 session.

Rather than taking a page out of the Institute of Communication Agencies in Canada and starting an industry ‘name and shame’ campaign against those advertisers who take advantage of the agencies in the pitch process, we felt it would be more productive and safer to have fun with a game show format.

Here is where the gender issue arises for me. I contacted a number of senior industry people and invited them to participate. Responses came directly and quickly from the men I invited, most of whom have senior management roles. The responses were almost immediate with most accepting to the point I had to turn down a few because potentially the panel of contestants would exceed the audience in the room.

On the other hand, the number of women I have invited so far is five times greater than the number of men and still we are short of women to be contestants. Why?

Some had to check with their boss, who then said ‘no’. Other suggested it would be better if their boss were invited, who on checking was a man, so I said ‘no’. One said ‘yes’ and then said ‘no’ because they were worried about what potential clients would think and so on.

Yes the topic is a sensitive one, especially for agencies. That is why we have deliberately designed the session to be fun. But it is an interesting observation that while the men of various cultures were happy to say ‘yes’, the women in the industry were far more cautious. 

I can only speculate on the reason for this caution. It could be due to the apparent domination of men in the most senior roles (almost all the bosses that needed to be consulted were men), or as is common in many markets the women not feeling confident their opinion was important enough to be heard. Or it could be the workplace culture in the context of the wider diversity cultures. 

Now I know this is a generalisation and there are certainly professional women out there with strong opinions and willing to share them, but if we are committed to hearing a diversity of opinions in the industry – how do we make it safer for women to participate and have their opinions heard without fear or favour?

One way is to have a register of women who are not just willing, but able to stand up and be heard. I know of two. One is Rock Star Keynote Speakers founded by Chris Reed, earlier this year, for paid keynote speakers. 

The other is Peggy’s List, which launched four years ago and more and has recently expanded into Singapore. Peggy is a reference to Peggy Olsen, the character in Mad Men. The list is free to join and is an invaluable resource for conference organisers to find the names or the women who want to contribute to the industry conversation, have a point of view to share and have the permission to share it. 

In the meantime, if you know of anyone who fits the billing to be a contestant for our session then please do let us know. We can only change the status quo together.

Woolley from TrinityP3

Darren Woolley is CEO and founder at TrinityP3 – a consultancy firm with a presence in Asia, Australia and Europe


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