Female Online Marketing Speakers Counted

Female Online Marketing Speaker Stats: 13 True Evangelists Discuss The Data

Posted in Aimclear News & Events

Posted on January 21st, 2013

Over the years, we’ve heard discussion surrounding the diversity of tech conference speakers.  The conversation was reignited this month with a series of articles and subsequent comment threads. Some pundits went so far as to suggest men speakers should boycott tech panels if there are no women on the panel.  Obviously, that’s a limited and gimmicky solution.

Still, gender diversity of those staking out and/or being awarded thought leadership podiums is an interesting and perhaps vexing question.  I’ve surround myself with brilliant women because they’re plentiful and I’m a smart guy. We wanted to see where the online marketing industry stands, so we analyzed 19 conferences. Data comparing men to women speakers, on a conference-by-conference basis, is published as part of this post.

Not Apples To Apples
There are a number of considerations at play studying gender diversity among speakers. Most major conferences have a public pitch process. They can’t always control who pitches. One also needs to consider the organic makeup of any tech sector.  Who has the jobs? Who are the leaders? Why those people and not others? It may be true that women are underrepresented in some (or even most) tech professions, but is that the conferences’ problem? Well, maybe in a sense it is, or not, you decide (chicken, egg; egg, chicken, and so on).

Straight up percentage is not the only way to measure. Compare a conference with 3000 attendees, 75 female speakers and 150 male speakers vs. a conference with 500 attendees with  9 female and 8 male speakers. Which tech conference is promoting women more, the one with the high percentage or count?

Before setting forth we also posed the questions, “What about other distinctions like race, religion, political party, sexuality or national origin? Why don’t we study those and others?”  We decided that gender is the most basic of demographic delineations and fundamental to human roles. We encourage others to to examine additional diversity dynamics.

As a species we’ve been conflicted about the roles of men and women since Adam & Eve, a foundational story to three of the world’s major religions.

The Study & Method
In light of the recent rhetoric, we decided to gather data to understand the ratio of men to women speakers for each conference and for a sampling in aggregate. We opted to measure the conferences that are important to AIMCLEAR, in our immediate community, and/or that we participate in:  SMX (West, Advanced, East, London & Sydney), SES (New York, San Francisco, Chicago & London), PubCon Vegas, Affiliate Summit East, MediaPost Social Insider Summit Captiva, PPC Hero, MIMA Minneapolis, Charlotte SearchExchange, mozCon, Conversion Conference, San Francisco and Zenith Duluth SocialCon. We’re aware of others we could have included but chose these 19 as a representative sampling.  These conferences represented over two thousand speaking slots in 2012.

We included on-stage moderators but excluded audience Q&A mods’.  We excluded sponsored speaking slots because organizers don’t choose speakers for such sessions. Sponsors do. When any person spoke on multiple panels at the same conference, they were counted multiple times. That’s a big deal because you might have one person speak on several panels and that speaker’s gender should get credit for multiple appearances, a higher percentage of the conference. In other words we measured available speaking slots within the conference, not just the raw count of men and women who participated as speakers.


Once the data was gathered, we reached into our circle and asked a powerful group of female online marketing thought leaders to weigh in.  These ladies offered amazing insight. We also polled conference organizers, both men and women, each deep in professional ways well past their conference organizer roles.   Their perspectives too are golden because, among other reasons, they directly choose or delegate choosing speakers for the conferences studied here and/or others. Here’s our roster, panel to right, Asterisks (*) denote conference organizers:


  • Cindy Krum, Chief Executive Officer at MobileMoxie
  • Erica McGillivray, Community Attaché, SEOmoz, Inc. *
  • Lisa Barone, Vice President of Strategy at Overit Media
  • Melissa Mackey, Search Supervisor at gyro
  • Laurie Sullivan, MediaPost Reporter & Search Insider Summit Chairperson *
  • Carri Bugbee, Social Media Marketing Strategist & Speaker
  • Joanna Lord, VP of Growth Marketing at SEOmoz
  • Danny Sullivan, Founding Editor Engine Land *
  • Mari Smith, Facebook Marketing Expert Author & Trainer
  • Laura Roth, Senior Conference Manager at Incisive Media New York *
  • Brett Tabke, CEO, Pubcon Inc *
  • Chris Sherman, VP Conference Production, Third Door Media (SMX) *
  • Disa Johnson, Software Entrepreneur, SEO Tech, InfoSec

Read on for the data, discussion question and full responses from our panelists.

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  • Carri Bugbee

    Marty, I’m really impressed that you and your team put in so much work to tackle a thorny, but important issue. As you know, I talk about this topic a LOT because I speak at or attend a lot of social TV, social media and marketing conferences and I’m always dismayed by the lack of women speakers, and quite often the lack of women attendees as well (especially in tech and entertainment).

    I appreciated the comments you solicited from other people about this. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that women might feel shy about speaking or undeserving of the attention.

    However, I have to take exception with those who naively believe there is no bias in marketing or technology industries. People may not be conscious of bias, but it certainly exists. This has been well documented and I’d encourage those who doubt it to seek out facts and not rely on personal opinions or anecdotes.

    Those who produce conferences, should make it WELL KNOWN that they’re looking for fresh faces of all genders, races and ages (believe it or not, 30-somethings aren’t more knowledgeable than people with 20-30 years more experience). If they don’t get enough speaker submissions, it may be that people are skeptical that they’ll be chosen since they see the same speakers featured year after year. If conference organizers made at least 30-40 percent (or more) of speaking slots available to people who haven’t spoken at their conferences in the past, I think they’d get a lot more submissions.

    • Marty Weintraub

      Thanks Carri, “I have to take exception with those who naively believe there is no bias in marketing or technology industries. People may not be conscious of bias, but it certainly exists.” There are certainly various opinions out there on this. Thanks for adding to the contribution you made to the post itself.

  • Lisa Barone

    I agree with Carri’s comment above.

    I’ll also admit I winced a bit when Brett commented that we have more women speakers thanks to the rise of social media. He meant nothing negative by it and Brett was among the first to reach out to me to speak at his events, but I’d love to see strong SEO and technical women pitching to speak on technical panels, as well as the social media stuff. Social has a tendency to be written off as “softer”, even though, as aimClear often proves, that’s not the case at all. There’s a long list of super smart technical ladies. Unfortunately, they’re not often as conferences.

    Again, not an attack on Brett. No one would have to convince me how hard he fights to get talented folks of ALL genders speaking at his events. 🙂

  • Courtney Seiter

    It’s super awesome to see AimClear give time and resources to this topic through this study. Putting the data out there is a great way to get the conversation started, and I hope all the smart and talented women of this industry see those numbers and start pitching! Has anyone done a similar breakdown with race, or is that something y’all have in mind for the future? I have a feeling results there would be very thought-provoking.

    • Marty Weintraub

      Courtney, Lisa, Sometimes we throw up our hands and say GIVE ME THE DATA. In this case we spent many hours and a team of 6 worked on the post for over a week.

  • Disa Johnson

    Thank you all who spent time contributing and I’m honored to have participated. I am honored to have contributed over the years, my own conference participation in sessions as moderator or speaker. I still have the same mind even after a significant gender role change in public, where I experienced more than bias, but also hatred.

    One interesting perspective I can bring, is it is not hard to figure out which conferences willingly reached out to me to speak as a man, and who then invited me as a woman (or not), regardless what PR about equality they cite. It’s all part of public record, and in print all over the Web, and a trajectory which won’t complete its course until I’m six underground.

  • Brett Tabke

    Again, interesting topic.

    > there is no bias in marketing or technology industries

    I agree with that and I think the data on employment and wages reflect that. I think too, that we have to be careful to distinguish from employment to the niche of speaking slots at a SEO and Social media conferences.

    I was trying to be delicate with the subject and there is only so much room for a brief comment to fit into this article. I don’t think you can draw any conclusions based on the limited public data set available. The real telling data set would be speaker gender ratio vs attendee gender ratio – and that data is not public.

    We currently are running about 20% female(*) attendees and about 30% female speakers. We would be higher on the female speakers, but we can’t find them. Most of those female speakers, we cultivated by reaching out and recruiting them. There were many years, we took every female that pitched – no questions. I have seen many women give their very first presentation at Pubcon. There is a well know woman in the space, who was so nervous her first time speaking – she had to have someone else stand and press the space bar because her hands were shaking too much (she has now spoken at dozens – if not hundreds of events, and now makes about $350k a year working for a major net firm).

    I would guesstimate, we have had around 18,000 attendees to Pubcon. Of those, around 1000 have been women(*). Yet we run 30% female speaking slots? I know that ratio is similar – actually worse – for other SEO conferences. We run about 600-750 proposals for our big Vegas conference each year. I estimate(*) about 50 of them are female. We accept about 90% of them from women. The other 10% is usually a dupe topic and we have to choose the best speaker. We promote women as much as we can. What is cool – is that the ratio has taken a nose dive the last 4 years, with the arrival of social media marketing and the cross over subject opportunities that exist.

    > more women speakers thanks to the rise of social media.

    Sorry if I wasn’t clear there. I mean there is a talented set of women working in social media right now. From agencies to consultants, I don’t think you can deny that woman have had a major impact in social media marketing! That has equated into more women becoming successful in the space, having more budget for travel, and consequently pitching for speaking slots. We always run more proposals from women for social than women for search. Some of the most difficult decisions on “who gets this speaking slot on social media” is not about men vs women, but women vs women. There are times, we have to stop and put men on a social media panel. We had several panels last year that were all women.

    I just feel women have come a very long ways in tech the last 4-5 years. Those advances are showing up in conferences in the quality of presentations some women are giving. It has gotten to the point, that I am trying harder to ignore gender as a speaking criteria, and focus solely on the qualifications. We can’t always do that with all topics, but I feel that is the direction we are headed.

    (*1) Estimated based on 2011-2012
    (*2) We do not ask speakers or attendees their gender – that would be prejudicial.

  • Rhea Drysdale

    While I did not have a chance to get my thoughts back to you guys on this, I love the initiative this took and that you presented it as DATA. It’s significant and speaks for itself. In the future, I will be simply pointing a link here and saying, “nuff said.” That goes for the boys club who thinks women are fairly represented and women who want change, but aren’t willing to put themselves out there to make it happen. Great job aimClear, thanks for the work/time it took to put together. Also, thank you to the conferences who were willing to share the data.

    • Marty Weintraub

      Rhea, thanks for all you’ve done for the industry over the years. You’re a fantastic speaker and offer a lot to anyone smart enough to listen. Thanks for stopping by.

      Brett, awesome extra perspective. aimClear really appreciates how you challenged us to make this blog post as balanced and deep as possible. Thanks for jumping in here with your comment.

  • Christina Zila

    Thank you for bringing up this topic! I started pitching two years ago for myself (female director) and my male CEO. It was tough when he was selected and I wasn’t, but I chalked that up to him being a CEO versus me being a director.
    Last year, I had four of my pitches accepted, one for the CEO and one for myself at both SES and PubCon. When I mentioned it was my first time speaking at PubCon, Brett’s reaction was, “Wait, haven’t you presented before?” So it’s not just knowing people but communicating that you want to speak, which brings up Mari’s tip on putting “speaker” in your bio!
    This year, I am extremely excited. I submitted two pitches to SMX West, one for me, one for my CEO. My pitch was accepted! Not because I’m female, not because of my title, but because I have real, tactical knowledge of the subject I’m presenting on (PR, if you happen to be going to the show). So in my limited experience, it doesn’t seem to be blatant sexism.
    Cari’s statement about the same old faces really rang true for me last year. I pitched a specific session on my forte and was declined. Ok, no worries. Then I wondered who they did pick. Out of the four speakers on the panel, two were also at two other panels in the conference – and they were both women. As an up-and-coming speaker, that was really frustrating. I understand that speakers want to make the most of their time and organizers want trusted performers, but it’s pretty galling to see the same people throughout the conference. Is that an issue or an anomaly? Do we have a few female speakers who are stuffed into numerous slots in the conference? Both speakers were truly capable and appropriate speakers for all panels, so it’s not a question of inappropriateness, more scheduling and diversity.

    I’d highly recommend Toastmasters to anyone, male or female, looking to get into public speaking. It certainly helps with the nerves and stress.

    • Marty Weintraub

      Christina, fantastic advice here. Thanks for sharing. I love the idea of Toastmasters a a launching pad. There are others. Speak to college classes, Chamber events, social media breakfasts, and take on assignments to train clients. Also another great tactic for pitching conferences is to re-purpose your own leadership blog posts, incorporate them into your pitches, and link to the post. I think it gives you a level of authority to communicate with the pitch that you’re out there. The best way to be a “Thought leaders” is to lead thinking. Thanks again and great to see you in this thread.

  • Christina Zila

    Thanks for the tip on incorporating blog posts into pitches – I did it for PubCon New Orleans, and I’m really excited about it. I actually had my speaking experience inspire a post, too!

  • Kim Krause Berg

    I feel that more women would speak if the topics and focus included the things they work on, care about and deal with in their work or business. Topics like marketing to women, web design for women’s sites, Pinterest, community building, content writing for different needs like marketing, healthcare, women’s issues, female oriented search phrases, emotional and computer human behavior as it relates to web design and marketing, how to market for the female brain, etc. I look at the agendas and can’t find anything I’m interested in learning more about or my skills don’t tie into the themes or topics I see.

    I also have said over the years that cost and time are huge issues for women. Companies send who will best represent them, who is available, and who may have previous experience. I’m betting that men fit this criteria best. Single parents and those who are primary caregivers may be exceptional in their field but don’t have the luxury of picking up and leaving for a conference when they wish to, especially if the costs are not paid by a company (such as self employed.)

    It surprises me how many conferences don’t invite women to speak. It’s nice to be asked.

  • Gemma Birch

    I’ve been quite aware of the male dominated agendas we have at the International Search Summit events – and am very keen to have more female speakers. With ISS, our sessions are all international focused so we have a smaller pool of speakers to choose from to start with – but I do struggle to find women to speak and most of the pitches/referrals we have are men. So if there are any ladies out there who could speak on international/multilingual search – get in touch 😉

  • Jane Copland

    Marty, thank you to you and Lisa for including a link to my post.

    This seems to be a topic that has become of great interest to me in the last year or so. In all my time working in the industry before, I never got too caught up in this subject. Personal experience has not been so kind to me, and while I should have cared about this before it affected me personally, we have a tendency to only notice when we’re personally put out. That fact alone is a large part of why the “boys club” as Rhea puts it, are unaware or unwilling to see a problem.

    I truly believe that part of the problem regarding equality and fair representation in this industry’s events is not so easily collated or represented by data.

    For instance, conference organisers can provide very accurate stats on how many women they approached, how many pitched and how many spoke. They can also record the number of female attendees. They can – and do – record how many women turn down speaking pitches and use that as “proof” that “women don’t want to speak” and that “they tried”.

    They do not, however, always get a good grasp on why these women refused to speak. Lisa mentions being reluctant to make herself extremely visible due to a bad experience. I can cite a few incidents that make me want to turn down offers or not attend events too. Last year, I turned down the London Affiliate Conference who asked me to speak. Their show is chocka with nearly-naked women who act as booth babes, waitresses, hostesses and entertainers. They actually thought (?!) that *this* was a decent, responsible message (sent in an email newsletter about a year ago): https://fbcdn-sphotos-d-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-ash4/398737_10100258541887053_1333399432_n.jpg

    The environment caters specifically and solely to straight men. I don’t feel comfortable there, a friend of mine has been confused as waitstaff and asked for drinks (she was a speaker). I’ll admit this: I don’t like it. And I don’t think I should have to put up with it at what is meant to be a professional event.

    Brett, with all due respect, you defended this practice to me in an email a year ago as well, and you are deluding yourself if you believe “spokesmodels” don’t go some way to making an environment less friendly for women. As I said in the end of the post linked to above, let’s also cut out the bullshit idea that we should employ equal numbers of US-men’s-swim-team-model-quality guys to balance things out. Let’s just stop shoving sexed-up tat down everyone’s throat at marketing and technology events, shall we? Let’s grow up.

    So often, the issue is not about who was asked and who showed up, it’s about how welcome they were made by the unspoken actions of organisers and attendees. I was “welcome” at LAC, but they sure as shit don’t make women welcome once they show up.

    I showed up at SMX London (Danny) nine months ago, only to be shouted at on the showroom floor for ten minutes by someone who was deeply offended by the post linked to above. His girlfriend is on the SMX London staff. That was welcoming and friendly. That made me want to return. That made me think that I hadn’t started a ridiculous, pointless losing battle that would only result in defamation and heartache, after I tried to do something right.

    Those experiences don’t add up in a spreadsheet. They aren’t data. They matter. My experiences are frankly pretty vanilla in comparison to many, many other women. Please don’t read this and think “well that’s not that bad”, because while it’s not, we *do* have a culture problem and a lot of people have had it a lot worse. Those who’ve had it worse rarely want to talk about it in public. They do email me sometimes though, after what I wrote. Those emails are often disturbing.

    I am glad you put data towards this, but we still need frank discussions about behaviour and culture that can’t be deducted in Excel.

  • Katie Saxon

    Some really interesting data and perspectives on the gender issue. I don’t pitch because, quite simply, I don’t like public speaking. A lot of women that I know feel the same – but then, so do a lot of men.

    Unfortunately though, women aren’t always supportive of other women. I have seen tweets on speakers that focussed on fashion choices instead of content. Not often, but perhaps some women aren’t worried about going up against men but are in fact more concerned by how the other women will react to them.

    As so many others have said, it’s a really complicated issue, one that I doubt will change overnight. But seeing other strong, confident female voices is surely going to help those who do want to speak to put themselves out there.

    • Marty Weintraub

      Good point Katie, @aimClear there are several men who are just not into speaking. Speaking is only one way to be a leader. There are many others. Thanks for your comment.

  • Danny Sullivan

    Sorry to hear that happened to you at SMX London, Jane. We spoke at length at the pub gathering after the show, and you never mentioned that to me. I wish you would have.

    If there was some staff issue involved, and you’d told me this (or anyone), I’d have explored what we could have done further.

    Suffice to say, we don’t really want anyone feeling like they’re being shouted at by another attendee over anything. Well, healthy SEO or search marketing debates aside.

  • Melissa Fach

    I have had a lot of woman tell me that women are clearly not represented and have issues with it. There are a lot of conference issues at play that need to be examined.

    It is hard for me to attend and speak at conferences because I am the mom. I run everything at home and school, kids and assignments are a ton of work these days. Every time I go to a conference my child has to deal with it and those caring for him have to try and do everything I do (and they just can’t). A child with real ADD needs a lot of help. I know many moms in this industry that find it hard to leave when they have kids.

    One issue I have, and others do as well, is attending conferences and hearing the same thing over and over because “well-known” speakers are not really creating something new for each conference. I know how long it takes to create new presentations, but when people are paying to attend conferences I think it is important to give them something different each time. As a mom, I am not leaving my child to go hear something I have already heard. Attendees are losing time and money to be there. It needs to be worthwhile.

    New speakers are often not given a chance to show who they are and to share their knowledge because they don’t have a “name” in this industry yet. However, they live and breathe the industry and most likely have great information to provide. I think conferences should throw a new name INTO EACH session – typically those that are newer work very hard to provide good information and their presentations educate.

    Going back to women, in this industry you have to create a “name” which requires a strong social presence, writing for respected sites and being very visible. That is not easy when you work full-time and also run a household. I am not saying that men don’t chip in at the house…I just think men often don’t realize how much has to be accomplished to keep things running, women do more. I work 50 hours a week and running a house too means I work very late, a lot. I work 7 days a week. I just don’t have the time to give that some of the guys do to create the “name”. Hopefully, I can earn some respect anyway.

    Women do need to be represented more, but how is that accomplished?

  • Jane Copland

    Danny – I apologise for not saying anything at the time. Without mentioning specifics here, I was drained over the subject and scared of causing more problems at the time. My email to you will explain why.


  • Brett Tabke

    > fashion choices instead of content.

    It is like all of yesterdays coverage of the first ladys’ bangs. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/17/michelle-obamas-bangs-are_n_2498114.html

    > why the boys club

    Many conferences have women in charge of content at conferences. There are also many conferences – even in digital marketing – that have execs and assistants who do much of the content programming and speaker selection.

    Again, lets not confuse attendee ratios (which conferences can’t control) and speaker ratios (which conferences do control and favor women when a choice is available). It makes good business sense as well as common sense. Trust me, most professional and corporate conferences are trying to cater to women when financially feasible and anyway we can. Women are a huge growth market.

    (aside: We are looking for an exec level in charge of content and speaking… Email me if interested (btabke at pubcon).

    > unaware or unwilling to see a problem.

    Show me data to support that there is a problem in the tech conference industry as a whole. I absolutely know there is a affirmative action type program for women speakers and woman attendees at tech conferences. That chart above actually is, “Number of women who pitch for speaking slots vs number of men accepted to speak”. My position is that women are promoted to speaking slots at a much higher rate than men and that the need to continue to run the affirmative-action program to favor women speakers is declining organically and rapidly with the onset of social media marketing. However, saying anything to the contrary, makes for nice posts that get lots of controversial inbound links.

    > Personal experience has not been so kind to me

    You have been denied a speaking slot at any major tech conference you have applied too? As I’ve said forever, you always have an open ended invite to speak with us.

    > you defended

    I do not defend other conference polices. I do respect that spoke models are part of the sponsorship and exhibit industry and they exist at every major tech conference from AdTech to Web 2.0 and and especially at women tech conferences like BlogHer. For us to stay in business we have to practice accepted polices on display and exhibition. It is hard enough trying to attract sponsors and exhibitors.

    Our policy on it has been a strict interpretation of several guidelines put out by exhibit associations. It was a topic that was talked in depth about at the exhibitors conference I went to in December: http://www.iaee.com/events–education/expo-expo-annual-meeting/ We also are getting ready to attend Exhibitor.net, where there are several topics related to women running conferences, exhibits, and sponsorship directors: http://www.exhibitoronline.com/exhibitorshow/2013/conferenceSessions.asp?f=all (I highly recommend it for anyone with an interest in trade shows and conference policy)

    > spokesmodels don’t go some way to making
    > an environment less friendly for women.

    There is also the “gray area” spokes persons. What about when the owner of the business is what is generally referred to as attractive? Because she knows the topic, is that any less a ‘spokesmodel’? So is the line – “if they know the topic they are reps and not spokemodels”? What about when you have Playboy bunnies come over to rep for Palms hotel and one of the models is a major in marketing and hands out her resume to anyone interested and comes back the next day to attend the conference?

    Google set several very attractive young blond women to a conference to rep for them (which happened more in the early days than now) – there isn’t anything we can say about it. Google announced AdWords at Pubcon Irvine in 2002 by sending two young women who knew nothing of AdWords, but they could hold that sign and get their pictures taken with attendees.

    We have also had a strong policy on gender relations http://www.pubcon.com/anti-harassment-policy In over 10 years of conferences, the only complaint about sexual harassment at the conference we have ever had, has been by a man against another man.

    The most risque things we have had at booths:
    – There are several women who were hired specifically as spokes model reps for agencies to send to trade shows. They travel from show to show reping for the company.
    – Miss Argentina signed autographs last year at a booth.
    – Palms Hotel sent over reps from the Playboy club to support their parties and sign autographs. We noticed that they had more on than a couple of attendees.
    – In 2004 at Orlando, we had a dating service wanted to put men at their booth in thongs to sell adult toys – we passed on that of course and didn’t let them into the show.
    – In 2006 we had an exhibitor that wanted to have Vegas standard ‘show girls’ at her booth. We turned her down when we saw the outfits.

    I would guess, we have had over ten years – probably 10-15 total female spokes models at our show that were hired from modeling agencies. It hardly comes up any more. I am proud of that track record and the direction we are headed in to.

    It also depends on the audience that attends any given conference. Agency targeted marketing conferences tend to attract more corporate attendees that tend to be sensitive to gender roles from their work environment. However, some of the SMB conferences tend to focus on independent contractors and business owners who have no such sensitiveness. There is a big difference between a group of corporate digital marketing agency folks and mom-n-pop affiliates.

    > who showed up, it’s about how welcome they were made by the
    > unspoken actions of organizers and attendees.

    That is true. We had a fashion blogger working for us last few years. Part of that wasn’t about fashion, but about brand appearance from signs to the staff. I think it made a difference in the overall professional nature of the conferences for us.

    > men who are just not into speaking.

    I have several that work for us as well. There have been many times I have asked if they would speak and they don’t feel inclined to do so. We also have sent women speakers to an executive conference for women where men out numbered the woman there.

    Or to put it another way, if the author of the post feels so strongly about this, is he willing to give up all his speaking slots this year to an appropriate woman?

    > have explored what we could have done further.

    Ditto. We can’t do anything about issues if we don’t know about them. Every comment is taken seriously and any resolution is explored. In this era of “Tweet about it first – no question later”, everyone wants to keep in customers good graces as possible.

  • Casie G

    Interesting reading the contributors’ thoughts and the comments above and hearing other women’s perspectives.

    I got my first search conference speaking gig around this time last year and to be honest, I’ve never really thought about whether I was selected because I was female or male. I figured I got in because my pitch was good. Just like I feel I get rejected because my pitch isn’t as good as someone else’s. If I do get selected because I’m a woman…well great! Advantage me! But I still have to show up and give a good presentation if I want to come back.

    That being said, I’ve been in the industry for 8 years and it took until last year for me to feel confident enough to get up and speak (and I consider myself a pretty confident person). Maybe a lot of women feel that way?

    I would also add that thankfully, I have never seen women tearing other women down and only have found the women of this industry amazingly supportive. And sometimes they do wear nice clothes 🙂

  • Jane Copland

    Brett, my bad experiences were not aimed at you or Pubcon or at not being asked to speak. I have always felt welcomed and been asked to speak by Pubcon. I apologise if that was not clear. I see that I mention generic experiences and then address you, which was poorly planned of me. Bad layout.

    I was referring to bad behaviour, nasty encounters and other conferences (LAC in particular). That said, your examples of things other companies have done don’t sit well with me at all. If Google’s reps knew nothing about the product, they shouldn’t have been there. The Playboy girls were there because they were pretty. One happened to be a marketing major. She was not there because she was a marketing major; if she had been, she wouldn’t have been dressed as a Playboy bunny.

    Also, please do not tell me, with a straight face, that people don’t know the difference between a good looking businessperson and a hired model. No one is going to buy that.

    >> Show me data to support that there is a problem in the tech conference industry as a whole. I absolutely know there is a affirmative action type program for women speakers and woman attendees at tech conferences.

    As I said, I can’t quantify the problem with “data” any more than Marty has here. He’s done a good job with his data. I can tell you stories, both of my own and of other people, who know there is a problem with treatment and behaviour. You can’t data your way out of everything, and as marketers, we should know that. Some of our answers are data-driven and some are based on intuition, experience and understanding.

    A friend of mine who owns a marketing agency walked into his business the day after I wrote the post Lisa linked to, and asked: “Do these things really happen?” The female employees nodded and told him yes. You might not see it, but it does happen. In fact, part of the problem is that you don’t see it. You aren’t meant to; those who seek to behave badly towards women at conferences don’t want you to.

    I was also not talking about Pubcon when I mentioned how women were treated “when they turned up.” My main example would again have to be LAC, which I cited earlier, but there have been other events I’ve attended where stupid stuff has gone on. I really dislike the use of “spokesmodels” in general, and on that we’ll disagree, but the rest of this was not aimed at Pubcon (Vegas, London or otherwise). Hell, one of the most ridiculous things I’ve seen of late was at an small, friendly event where, at the after party, ten or twelve women tottered into the bar and strategically placed themselves around the male attendees. It was weird. An organiser saw my face and explained “oh, they’re not prostitutes!” When you have to specify…

    We won’t be able to provide you with the proof you’re looking for if all we are allowed to use as proof is speaker ratio data. I can recommend Twitter users @kurafire and @aral as two people – both male – who have a lot of really smart stuff to say about the intricacies of gender politics and equality in the tech conference sphere. I know scores of women in our space who’ve had bad gender-related experiences at tech events, so there *is* a problem. It manifests itself in small, almost insignificant ways until, like me, you realise that you and your friends have years of experience with it, and you get pissed off. I was pissed off twelve months ago, I seem to get pissed off and make this my champion issue every time it comes up, but I do believe we have a problem, and that the first step to fixing it is both acknowledging that it exists and looking at the norms that perpetuate it.

    Again, I have always loved coming to Pubcon, I have never felt that Pubcon was unfriendly (acknowledging that we disagree on spokesmodels), and my examples were not from your events.

  • Danny Sullivan

    No worries, Jane, and glad we’re catching up on this. My main reason on commenting was to stress that if anyone feels uncomfortable about anything at a conference, I’d encourage them to speak up to the organizers. Most of us are going to want to correct anything we can.

  • Brett Tabke

    > Also, please do not tell me, with a straight face,
    > that people don’t know the difference between a good
    > looking businessperson and a hired model. No one is going to buy that.

    You really want names? Sure, Melanie Mitchell, Stephanie Leffler, Tanya Vaughan, Jane Copland

    Any of those could pass for spokes models (ironic no?). In fact, one *is* a former model (hint, it is the surprising one that cashed out for $50million after exhibiting at Pubcon in 2004, and her new startup just got funded for over $10million a couple months ago http://www.newsonwomen.com/news_on_women/2012/10/crowdsource-co-founded-by-ceo-stephanie-leffler-raises-125-million-series-a-funding.html )

    >It manifests itself in small, almost insignificant ways

    When someone points them out – we will certainly act. Not just out of the sense of fairness, but also out of economic incentive.

    You know BlogHer right? They get up to $15,000 for a 10×10 on their expo hall floor. Most of the time they are sold out for their big show, a year in advance. I would love to see that kind of return!

    So women clearly have alot of money to spend with the right audience. Attracting them starts we as many qualified female speakers as we can find. Women in tech is a growing audience and we all want to be right there in the mix of things.

    btw: We run a large site with a large female audience. We are considering starting a conference in the space http://www.ivfconnections.com Trust me, I spend alot of days saturated in womens issue.

  • Michelle Robbins

    This is a human problem. It’s not a search/tech/marketing/etc. problem. It’s a problem that is real, and is difficult to not only address, but to solve – because it is so subtle and often so insidious that it is easy to not see. And we’ll know we’ve moved beyond it when blog posts like this are no longer written, and conference panels are just full of “people” instead of (n) men and (n) women. When it’s no longer topical, we’ll know it’s not a problem.

    The best post I’ve seen lately on moving the needle was here:

    “You can’t level a playing field without bringing in a few bulldozers.”

    Bias occurs at every step in a given transaction and is usually subconscious. Some of the nicest people I know in the business have said some of the most insulting and outrageous things to me. And they were completely oblivious.

    I wonder what would happen if, as in the world of professional orchestras, there were blind auditions (pitches). A process where the people selecting did not know the name or gender of the person and the speaker was selected on the quality of their pitch alone. Blind auditions made a tremendous difference in the gender makeup of orchestras. (http://www.sfgate.com/business/article/Blind-Auditions-Putting-Discrimination-on-2855410.php)

    Of course, addressing the other points of bias would still be a problem (does a company support its women speaking/attending, will the numbers of women pitching or being pitched/recruited increase, etc.) But it’s interesting to consider if blind pitches would make a difference where there are open pitch calls.

  • Marty Weintraub

    Michelle: “Bias occurs at every step in a given transaction and is usually subconscious:” Thanks for sharing that with us. Deep. True. Thank you.

    To all of the other commentators, thanks so much for sharing this conversation with our readers. You are some of the coolest folks in the industry. <3 and grateful to host the dialog here.

  • Lisa Buyer

    This is an excellent topic and I thank Marty for including me as one of the evangelists, but I was not able to respond in time for publishing. If I had responded, the first thought that came to my mind was: “Well if the majority of attendees are men, that only makes sense that men will dominate in speaking”. There is #truth saying in public relations: If you are going to pitch a story to a publication, you need to have read the publication. That also goes for speaking gigs. Especially if you are just starting out. Pitching to speak is no different than pitching a story to an editor. If you have a great story, something newsworthy, than it should be a no-brainer!

    I attended SES and PubCon before I ever even thought of pitching to speak. And to be honest, when I attended I never even imagined that I would ever be speaking. I sized up the crowd, met the other speakers, engaged with the conference peeps and then decided maybe to pitch. Once you are an established speaker, this might change. But the bottom-line: women need to attend the conference before wondering if they should speak. If you don’t have the time to attend the conference, how could one have the time to devote to speaking at a conference?

    Speaking is energy, work and resources and above-all passion! If a company “sends” someone (male or female) to speak at a conference, there is a noticeable difference than those that have a burning passion to share. I am referring to big brands that send a speaker who may or may not be on the frontline or even really care about a topic. Male or female – it is an equal of a playing field as you make it, or want it! It is extremely rewarding to be approached by Marty to participate in this post and incredible to be called out by Brett and Joanna. 🙂 I also do talk about fashion, but that’s just me and I think men should also care about how they look and what they wear just as much as women, it’s a PR thing! Optimize to speak.

  • Jane Copland

    Brett, the difference between an attractive businessperson and a hired model is stark. Even if dress sense is at all similar (and it often isn’t), the difference is very clear once you start talking to the person. A model, hired directly before a show and there solely for her looks, will not be able to explain a product or service in the way I, say, explained SEOmoz’s technology in 2008 at Pubcon. The toolset, the pricing structure, the size of the then Linkscape index, the history of the company. But you are right that some people become blind to qualifications and assume all women they see on the showroom floor are less knowledgable than the men, because they have spoken to too many women at tradeshows who don’t know their product. That has often frustrated them.

    Were those women you cite above at the shows because they were considered attractive? Why is anyone at a tech show solely because they are considered attractive?

    And I have to revert to my original point. Even if you could prep a booth babe on the intricacies of the product or service she was promoting and have her speak knowledgeably about an industry in which she more than likely isn’t involved, we shouldn’t be using or accepting the use of women as ornaments or entertainment pieces at professional events. To quote someone I respect a lot on this issue, I don’t get the idea of: “oh look, I’m at a professional event, let’s have people standing around to look attractive.”

    Should there even be a situation where I’m confused as ornamental when I’m attending a tech show, due to women often being decorations at tech shows? No.

    I absolutely agree with Michelle that we will know there is no longer a problem when people stop feeling the need to write posts like this one or like mine. I grew up in a culture and environment (my personal home life, etc.) where this was not a problem. That’s a post and a comment for another day, but tech was a rude shock to me. One example: my mother remembers women fighting for the right to run marathons and other long-distance races. If the internet had existed in the 1960s, posts like this dated /1967/08/ would be rampant and we’d consider them ridiculous now 😉 I grew up not having it questioned that I could swim 100km a week in training and race any distance I wanted. I want my kids to hear about equality in tech in the same light where equality as an “argument” is ridiculous. The irony that women *are* usually slower than their male counterparts at running and swimming, and yet I was treated equally in that world, is not lost on me.

    I also agree that it’s a “human problem”, but having once lived in a world where it was far less of one, I believe we should work damn hard on the human problem in our section of the world.

  • steveplunkett

    (skipped all the comments..)

    a. Brett kudos to you, Joe and Lane at Pubcon for having high # of female speakers.
    b. ever seen carolyn shelby on black hat panel at pubcon.. she doesn’t play – a dude just wouldn’t freak people out as much.. giovanni and i have both been on that panel, multiple times.. and she is ALWAYS the one that scares people.. sometimes a man just cant do the job.. and i’m supposed to be the scary one on the panel.. there is no man that could replace her..
    c. ever actually followed an entire Joanna Lord presentation? I have.. many times.. and my life and work is always better for it.. now if i could just see her like 4 more times at same conference i might be able to absorb the wealth of content she slings.. every single time i have seen her speak i have learned something, something actionable for clients.
    d. in the end.. @cshel knows her stuff.. joanna lord knows her stuff.. my direct bosses are all female and they know their stuff.. more female speakers.. =)

  • Angie Schottmuller

    Stellar post and crowdsourcing job, Marty! The male to female speaker ratio is crazy dominant. I think there were only 4 other females speaking at SES London last year. SEO Chicks did host an awesome party though. More work needs to be done to actively engage more women to step up as speakers. I certainly don’t think men are better speakers, there’s just more of them.

    I personally owe you, Marty, a debt of gratitude for encouraging me to pitch speaking in the first place about 3 years ago. Since then, I’ve done over 21 speaking engagements at 4+ major conferences. Without your support and tips on how to pitch, who knows how long it would have taken me. THANK YOU! =)

    Moral of the story: Encourage awesome, knowledgeable people (especially women) to speak!

  • Laura Roth

    This is a really interesting discussion – thanks so much Marty for making me a part of it – I was happy to contribute!

    I’m sitting here going through submissions for SES NYC as we speak – and it’s great reading everyone’s comments above in the post and to the post. Melissa you make a very valid point about new speakers – and we are definitely on the same page! We are always on the lookout for new talent on the speaker circuit to mix with the speakers we know can deliver every time we put them on the stage. It’s a great combination to put a new speaker with a more seasoned speaker on a panel or a seasoned moderator to ensure that the session runs smoothly and to support that new speaker.

    I also agree that some speakers do repeat the same content and that is certainly unfair to other speakers and delegates. Obviously some content can be similar but there should always be updates to presentations. I also find that as a speaker it’s more interesting not to always speak on exactly the same topic to keep things fresh and up-to-date.

    Lastly and back to the gender debate – I would strongly encourage more female submissions – we do make an effort to include women on our speaker panel as much as possible but as has been mentioned by many of the evangelists above – you have to pitch to have a chance! There are so many women I can think of who speak a lot who would be more than happy I’m sure to help others tailor pitches to send in – people like Lisa Buyer, Angie Schottmuller, Krista Neher to name a few. Also – those of us behind the scenes in producing the content for the events like myself are always more than happy to jump on a call (i had one in fact this morning with a potential new female speaker!) or answer any questions on email that anyone has regarding speaking at SES. So don’t be afraid to get in touch!

  • Laura Roth

    Angie – totally agree – and just for reference there are currently 18 female speakers at SES London this year so definitely an improvement on last year, although still significantly less than the number of male speakers. Actually one or two of these we approached rather than the other way around so that’s one to keep in mind – maybe we need to do more to reach out to female speakers and ask for their contribution?

    Goes back again to my point above – need to encourage more submissions from women as the ratio of submissions is still weighted heavily towards male speakers!

  • CK Chung

    Am I the only one who is wondering how these speaker numbers compare to the gender makeup of the audience or the industry in general?

  • Kim Krause Berg

    So the data finding exercise opened the discussion up here and elsewhere. My takeaway is that everyone has had a different experience but for women, the blocks to speaking are more complicated than for men. I used to scold Matt Bailey that the only reason he got to speak so often was because he had Stacey running the entire ship, home/biz/kids back home. It was a luxury I didn’t have, nor did I ever feel (and continue to feel) that conference organizers and attendees cared about. If you weren’t prepared to sacrifice, you didn’t deserve to stand up on that stage. Many women make a hard choice. Some, like Jennifer, brought her baby boy and a caregiver. No small feat and I admired her for it. There are loads of women in tech these days but also many more reasons than men to be prevented from speaking or travel.

    From the conference organizer perspective, I’ve learned from the responses on my Facebook (about this topic) and also privately that selection is extremely complicated. The London SES crew sought people from that area to speak to offer them a chance. If few women are speakers, I would suggest they consider what can be done to tear down the barriers to entry, for everyone, not just women.

    Money is also an issue, but it’s a reason most would be loathe to admit. Some conferences lend themselves better than others for gaining new clients, so the decision to invest in going is not taken lightly. The conference set up may not work for different speaking styles as well. I do far far better unscripted and letting the room guide me rather than power point, which gets in my way.

    Finally, I’ve noticed a change in SEO conferences over the years. They’re far more controlled, professional, and organized. I’ve never had an issue with staff at any of them, and in fact, have been well treated. PubCon does indeed include more women somehow, and they offer an Open Mic for anyone who wants to practice and start small. I feel that more local conferences will help anyone who wants to speak. Personally I love the smaller local ones because the attendees seem to thrive on them and get more time with you.

  • Kim Krause Berg

    CK, I wonder about that too. From my own personal networking, there are a LOT of women working in some area of SEO/SEM/Social/Mobile marketing, as well as content writers. I mean, huge numbers.

    This tells me there are barriers to entry or simply the lack of mobility for many women (and dad-heads-of-household).

    NOTE TO CONFERENCE ORGANIZERS: As a usability fanatic, and not the most organized person when it comes to my own stuff sometimes, I would love to see pitch confirmations via email. I think I double submitted and have no idea where I did that because I assumed I would get some sort of confirmation of what I sent out and from whom.

  • Christina Zila

    It’s great to hear from other conference organizers and other women’s experiences. I just saw this and thought it was interesting and pertinent: http://jezebel.com/5978451/introducing-objectify-a-man-in-tech-day

    Some of you have mentioned worrying about your appearance, and others have had bad experiences, but have the bad experiences been caused by appearance or simply the fact that you’re female?

    In other words, speakers, have you had the “she only got in because of her looks”/”why should I listen because she’s not attractive to me” conundrum?

  • Kim Krause Berg

    “In other words, speakers, have you had the “she only got in because of her looks”/”why should I listen because she’s not attractive to me” conundrum?”

    Absolutely, definitely NOT. Nor have I ever witnessed any of that.

  • Dana Lookadoo

    Having been in the search conference circuit since 2005, I never thought about this topic until reading blog posts about it starting a year or so ago. Yes, there are a few more men. But women are making a big difference and influencing search marketing left, right and center. Some of the early women speakers had remarkable input into my career. But heck, so did many men!

    Similar to Casie Gillette, I never considered acceptance or rejection due to being female. I felt it was simply a matter of pitching content that fit a need for a panel.

    Joanna suggested that many women may not pitch due to uncertainty. This is spot on. I know some kick-butt women marketers don’t pitch due to hesitation, timidity, and maybe being a little down-right scared. So come on, ladies. Some of the most important conference organizers are here welcoming your pitches!

    Aside from all that, there will always be biases and sexism to some extent in every industry. Michelle Robbins’ insight into human nature may hold the key. Biases do exist – no matter what. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could attend conferences with blinders on. Maybe we can measure the effectiveness of men and women by the # of actionable takeaways. 😉

  • Disa Johnson

    I am happy our conferences are inclusive to the degree they are, even when I know there is a lot more work to do. Other industry doesn’t fare as well as ours. The World Economic Forum has reportedly only 17% participation by women, which is a gender gap compounded in size by the magnifying economic divide between us. I get encouraged reading the responses of conference owners and staff here. Misunderstanding aside, I hope people mean it and will be as openly inclusive of LGBT soon (thank you already Danny). It should be intuitive that LGBT inclusiveness can go a long way toward helping women feel more comfortable. We know there are allies around in a diverse crowd. Paltry 17% stat source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/27/opinion/sunday/kristof-shes-rarely-the-boss.html

  • Doc Sheldon

    Great post, Marty! A tip of my sombrero to you and your team for the data and the crowd-sourcing involved, and to the participants for sharing their perspectives.

    The two issues – speaker-gender makeup and sexist behavior at conferences – are inextricably tied together, I think. Michelle’s mention of it being “a human problem” is spot on.

    As such, it won’t go away quickly or easily – I’m of the opinion that it will be more an issue of evolution than of policy. As an evolutionary process, it will require change by the majority in order to affect any lasting change. And that will come only by shining light on it.

    I’ve never been sexually assaulted, never been denied an opportunity or subjected to innuendos because of my gender – I’ve never even been accused of having “slept my way to the top”. But none of that is necessary, for me to know it’s wrong and needs to change. The idea of my wife or daughter experiencing what some women we’ve heard from here and elsewhere fills me with rage. It needs to enrage us all when it happens to ANY woman, ANYWHERE.

    Knowing it’s wrong and saying so when the topic hits one of its cyclical peaks of visibility isn’t enough. It demands constant awareness and action if we hope to see any meaningful progress in our lifetimes (let’s hurry, folks – I have less time left than a lot of you, and I’d really like to be around to see it).

    Some organizers are already giving it more than lip service, which I applaud. Some women have embraced the need to speak out about their own very unpleasant experiences, which I also applaud – I can only imagine how difficult that must be.

    So thanks for shining a little more light on it from a different perspective, Marty, et alia.

  • Angela

    Thanks AimClear for trying to tackle this issue. In the two countries that I’ve worked in, one more progressive with women than the other, women in general have a hard time being heard when it comes to more SEO. Social media in both countries is more female oriented.

    In the more progressive country for female equality, the companies I worked in were primarily male dominated. More often that not regardless of which company I worked for, I was the only female doing SEO/technical stuff. Even right now, where I work for a company it is an all boys club which is seriously frustrating. It’s also why I have recently decided to create my own agency to actually be heard and eventually hire people who want to have intelligent conversations regardless of gender. I think most of you will be surprised which country it is as it has a really good reputation around the world.

    As for the other country, which is known for gender bias, I looked after one of the marketing arms of an “Online Marketing Guru” and there was a position open for an Operations Manager. However the job ad specified that it was for males only. I asked the second in charge why that was, and said that I actually was not interested in the position as I intended to return to my country but I knew some women who had amazing internet marketing minds who may be interested. The response was that men would only listen to men and not women, which I found quite sad.

    That said, as an attendee at SMX I was really happy to see some really fantastic speakers. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see Vanessa Fox speak however I heard that she was totally awesome. I look forward to seeing more females going up on stage to share their knowledge in the future. 🙂

    • Marty Weintraub

      Cool Angela. Will you be at SMX West upcoming in San Jose?

  • Marty

    Sadly no, although I would love to go to SMX West or SMX Advanced. Means flying to the US and that’s half way around the world!