There’s been a groundswell of open and honest conversation in recent weeks around women, gender equality and sexual harassment. More and more women are stepping forward to share their stories of assault. Men in high-powered positions are being publicly called out in all types of industries, from entertainment to news to technology. And, most recently, women have been bravely using the social media hashtag #MeToo to bring awareness to what they’ve felt personally when subjected to harassment, disenfranchisement and in a few cases, rape.
When, earlier this year, we decided to host an innovation conference in Toronto, we had these types of swirling conversations top of mind, and we knew we wanted to use the event to shine a spotlight on a more diverse group of speakers.
This meant bringing in diverse speakers from around the world, as well as committing to a mandate to host an inclusive event, with equal representation from male and female speakers alike. A lot has been written about the disproportionate number of male speakers at events (often focused, ironically, on diversity). And often the argument from event organizers has been that it’s just too difficult to find enough female speakers.
Conferences like ours — FITC Toronto — have added diversity mandates to require gender balance in their programming in terms of gender, race, religion, orientation, disabilities, etc. In this context, we’ve recently seen the launch of conferences devoted to LGBTQ diversity in technology (an example:Venture Out)
But we need more, which is why diversity was a priority in nearly every decision we made when we hosted the first TakeOver Innovation Conference earlier this month. We’re proud to have had more female speakers than male — a 52 percent-to-48 percent ratio, to be exact.
So, if you’re organizing an event, here are three keys to ensure you’re making it an inclusive event before tickets ever go on sale:
Be public about your commitment to diversity.
We were very open about our diversity mandate from day one. We included it on our website and in all of our materials, and made it very public that we were looking for amazing speakers with diverse backgrounds and representations.
This not only held us accountable but led to referrals from people who knew we were actively looking to change the ratio on our stage. It also signalled to potential attendees that they would be represented on stage, and led to a much more diverse attendee base than typical technology events attract.
Don’t just accept the person who’s offered up first.
When we decided to host the conference, we put together a great list of companies we wanted to have speak about their digital transformation efforts. While some of the contacts we had at those companies were female, a lot more were male.
In order to meet our mandate, I had the tough job of politely asking some very prominent men with impressive job titles at reputable companies who else from their team could join us on stage. Almost always, they were more than happy to look around at their networks and staffs and extend the opportunity to a woman who was just as close to the product, service or area of expertise as they were.
There is no shortage of female speakers, but sometimes they’re not the ones companies offer up first, so make an effort to ask.
Tap into great communities and community leaders.
While we had a wishlist of people and companies, we knew there were a lot of experts out there we didn’t know about. So, we put the word out to community leaders, including Gescha Haas at Dreamers Doers, and the Women in Wireless community, who connected us with potential speakers.
Tapping into community connectors led to our having an all-female Blockchain panel of experts from Coinsquare and the Blockchain Research Institute. They were the best experts to speak to the topic.
Encourage invitees to “seek permission” of themselves.
While the first three keys described above will set you up nicely to find the right speakers, there’s a fourth step I myself had to take. I found at times that women needed a little more encouragement to accept the opportunity.
It was almost as if they were saying “no” to themselves before having someone else say no for them, even after their boss or colleague put their name forward. So, we must remember to encourage one other. But we must also remember to give ourselves (and encourage invitees to give themselves) the permission to be bold, step out of those comfort zones and take on the opportunities that come our way.
It’s no secret that diverse companies are more successful, and it’s obvious that diverse events are more engaging. Diversity of thought and backgrounds leads to interesting discussions and more compelling content, and we challenge all event organizers to commit to making their gatherings more diverse.