[Guest Post] Five Ways to Ensure Your Next Speaker Lineup Includes More Than Just Middle Aged White Guys

A Guest Post By Sara Capra

Sara Capra
Sara Capra

Since 2007, 57 keynote speakers at Apple’s Worldwide Development conference have been men. One distinguished female, Stephanie Morgan, has delivered a keynote at the event.[i] At the International Consumer Electronics Show I attended last week, of the twenty-two keynote speeches, only three were delivered by women. This represents quite an imbalance, especially given many of the products marketed at the conference targeted women, and that women account for 89 percent of the decisions to buy consumer electronics.

At Orate, we often hear that event organizers struggle to find female speakers for their events, particularly in the technology sector. There are a number of factors that contribute to this, and the truth is, it’s cyclical. There are far too few women in leadership positions, which often times are the positions event organizers target when they’re searching for speakers. However, one of the obstacles of career advancement is lack of visibility. In the field of academics and healthcare in particular, visibility via presenting your research findings can be a significant resume builder when promotions and tenure are under consideration.

If you’re looking for ways to diversify your event, here are a few tips:

Diversify your organizing committee

A study published in the mbio journal, and conducted by researchers at Yale University and Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University showed that by including at least one female in the planning committee for meetings, the number of female speakers invited increases. In fact, about 25 percent of the speakers invited by the all-male teams were women. But 43 percent of the speakers (an increase of 72 percent) invited by the teams with at least one woman were female. They also found that organizing teams with at least one women were less likely than all-male organizing teams (9 percent vs. 30 percent) to produce symposiums in which all panel members were men.[ii]

Communicate inclusiveness

The Lean Startup Productions leads Eric Reis and Sarah Milstein have made significant efforts to be more inclusive with their events. When advertising for your event, Milstein suggests stating that you’re seeking new voices, and looking for people with “advice and expertise to share” as opposed to “experts.” This is important since women are sometimes less likely to identify themselves as experts. Doing so can also surface some surprising and stellar candidates that are up and comers vs. only currently recognizable candidates.[iii]

Be vocal and honest

Let people know that you are looking for speakers from under-represented groups to apply to speak at your conference. Circulate the call for papers to contacts in membership organizations, and look outside your standard speaker bureaus on places like Orate. It’s also important to be candid about your efforts to be inclusive. If you state what you’ve done in the past, and what you’re doing to effectively change the event(s), it will convey genuine action, rather than the mild pursuit for PR purposes.

Develop a code of conduct

Frankly, all companies and/or events should have this to protect your attendees and speakers, no matter what. Your code of conduct should include a list of actions you and/or your organization will not tolerate, and state the consequences if the code of conduct is violated. I’ve spoken to women who will not speak at a conference without it. Once you’ve developed your policy, make sure it’s in a place on your website that is visible to all those who register and apply to speak.

Provide Training

Training doesn’t need to be time intensive. You can conduct general webinars for a group of speakers – which can help get everyone on the same page and better understand your goals – or meet for face-to-face instruction. Either way, if you’re not investing in your content i.e. your speaker(s), your event will suffer.

Sara Capra is co-founder of Orate, an online marketplace where event organizers and public speakers can more easily find one another. A recent graduate of the Startup Factory accelerator program, and the winner of the Washington, DC 2014 Startup Weekend, Orate helps event organizers find the perfect speakers for their audiences and their budgets. An entrepreneur and advocate for helping individuals achieve their full potential, Sara previously worked in Global Partnerships at the United Nations Foundation, where she helped develop strategic partnerships for initiatives that support women and girls, global health, US-UN relations and sustainability. She has volunteered in India and South Africa, helping empower women through job skills training, in local communities.


[1] Larson, Selena. “How Many Women Has Apple Put On The WWDC Keynote Stage Since 2007?” ReadWrite. June 4, 2014. http://readwrite.com/2014/06/04/apple-women-wwdc-keynoteHow Many Women

[1i] Jashcik, Scott. “How to Get Women Panels.” Inside Higher Ed. January 7, 2014. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/01/07/get-women-conference-panels-they-must-be-panels-invite-speakers-study-finds

[1ii] Milstein, Sarah. Putting an End to Conferences Dominated by White Men. Harvard Business Review. January 23, 2014. https://hbr.org/2014/01/theres-no-excuse-for-all-white-male-panels/