Subscribe to our newsletter

Parity at the Podium: Why We Need More Women Speakers #STMchallenges

29th March 2016
 | Guest Author

If you are a woman working in scholarly publishing, you are in the majority: most industry surveys show a roughly three-fifths female composition. However, if you are a female CEO or Board chair working in scholarly publishing, you are firmly in the minority: despite their overall numbers, women still trail men in these key leadership positions, occupying just one-third and one-fifth of these roles respectively.  And what of our industry conferences, those events that are so critical to professional development? Do these go the way of the C-suite, or is there more parity at the podium?

Sitting in front of an all-male panel at a European conference last year, we decided to do a quick count of the speaker gender split for the whole meeting, using the conference program. The results? Less than 40% were women – and all the keynote speakers were men. But was this just a one-off or was there a lack of female speakers at other scholarly publishing conferences as well? We decided to investigate further and, over the next few months, we analyzed the conference programs for seven key industry events held in 2015 – AAUP, ALPSP, APE, OASPA, PSP, SSP, and STM. There were also a total of 15 all male panels across all seven meetings, although interestingly, both AAUP and SSP had several all-female panels (five and six respectively).

Why is this important, and what does it have to do with the gender gap in senior leadership positions? Public speaking increases visibility, which leads to more invitations to speak. (Take a look at any industry conference program; chances are that most of the names are familiar to you.)  This, in turn, often results in improved job prospects and leadership opportunities. Indeed, job descriptions for senior-level positions often specifically require significant public speaking experience. There’s nothing wrong with this, but when women aren’t equally afforded the opportunity to speak it puts them at a disadvantage in terms of visibility and promotion, and the cycle continues.

So, what can we do to help change the situation? We believe that three levels of commitment are needed – by women, by the scholarly publishing organizations we work for, and by the industry organizations that form our community.

A number of studies have shown that women are especially susceptible to imposter syndrome – what this article describes as, “the fear of being exposed, that you don’t deserve your success, aren’t as good as others – and could be “found out” at any moment.” We can safely say that most of us – women and men – have felt this way at one time or another. But we can’t complain about inequity if we aren’t actively pursuing parity.  If we are asked to speak at an event – no matter how small or large – it’s because the person or organization that has invited us believes that we have something interesting to say. We are doing ourselves a disservice if we decline because we are scared to say yes.  Public speaking is frightening for many people, but it does get easier over time, and success breeds success. Conversely, saying no without a genuine reason to decline makes it less likely that you’ll be invited again.  So please be brave – push yourself outside your comfort zone, and say yes next time you’re invited to give a presentation. It’s a great professional development opportunity for you and a good first step towards redressing the gender split at conferences and other meetings.

But this isn’t all on women. The organizations for which we work also need to commit to supporting us as we develop public speaking skills. Having taken a number of training courses on presentation skills between us, we can vouch for the fact that they really do help. Most organizations have a training budget, and this is a great way to help prepare staff to speak at meetings, both internally and externally.  Organizations can also help by actively looking for opportunities to recommend women speakers for industry conferences and other events. It’s all too easy to keep suggesting the same names when asked to provide a speaker for a panel or a keynote. Next time, take a chance on one of the many knowledgeable, talented people in your organization who have yet to speak up and be heard.

Last but not least, we hope that those industry organizations that are crucial to our community will accept our challenge to improve the ratio of speakers at their future conferences to better align with industry demographics. To reward those that are prioritizing diversity, we suggest an accreditation system that  recognizes these strides.  For instance, conferences that adhere to agreed standards around speaker diversity might carry a seal of approval, and be more worthy of our overstretched staff travel funds.

Agreeing that change is needed isn’t the same as making that change happen. To be successful, we must all be committed – at the personal, organizational, and industry levels.  And that means setting ourselves SMART goals that enable us to measure our progress and be held accountable.

Ensuring that more women’s voices are heard at the podium is, we believe, a practical first step to ensuring that more women also have a voice in the boardroom.

Lauren Kane (@lauren_publish) is COO for BioOne. Alice Meadows (@alicejmeadows) is Director of Community Engagement and Support, ORCID. Their full analysis and report is now available online and will be published in the April 2016 issue of Learned Publishing. The author accepted manuscript is available on figshare.