Not taking a Swipe at you: DigiWomen at Swipe Summit

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As a general rule I try to keep my head below the parapet. In private I’m quite ornery and opinionated but in public I try to maintain a facade, I try to stay calm, be professional, and, contrary to my undergrad in theatre studies, I like to avoid the drama.
But now I’m exasperated and feel the need to say, indeed, shout, “Enough!” I’m not the first to shout “Enough!” on this topic and I fear I won’t be the last.

I spent last Thursday morning at the Swipe Summit. Unfortunately for Swipe Summit it is going to be the focus of my ire because, for me, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

My concerns are two fold: “Where are the women speakers?” and “What is up with your conference content?” They are somewhat related.

DigiWomen at Swipe Summit

DigiWomen at Swipe Summit

Just to be clear about our involvement with Swipe Summit, DigiWomen were invited to curate a stream in the afternoon and to have an exhibition stand at the event. We received the invitation 2 weeks before Christmas and we were asked to source speakers for a stream that at the time was titled Innovation. I jokingly said to Pauline, “So it’s innovative to have women speak at a conference is it?” We reverted to the organisers, asking what fee we could offer speakers (not even what donation are you going to make to the entirely volunteer run DigiWomen) and were told there was no fee. We gained 6 subscribers to our newsletter, 42 new twitter followers, and 3 new Facebook Fans as a result of our presence. If each of those were worth a conservative €50 to us we made a mountainous €2550 from our 2.5 person presence at Swipe Summit. We spent money on collateral and Pauline spent time and mountains of social capital on scrambling to get three speakers to commit to the stream we were asked to curate 4 weeks before the event.

So to address my first concern about the presence of women speakers and to give you an idea of how Swipe Summit are doing there was one female speaker during the morning session, Mary Carty. There were 6 more in the afternoon, 4 of whom were chairing sessions. While being an effective chair is essential to the benefits of any conference it is not the same as being a speaker. So conference organisers please stop billing female chairs as speakers. Thanks! There were 29 speakers in total.

Therefore 25% of the speakers were female at Swipe Summit. If we swipe the chairs we can watch the summit fall on its behind with only 10%. female speakers. While I understand the summit is under new management this year, we and many other women in the online industry last year appealed to the Summit and other events organisers to aim for 30pc female speakers.

Damien Mulley recently announced the line-up for his annual MeasurementConf. His line-up is made up entirely of women. Women who will share their experience of using and measuring digital to promote their businesses. Women from whom I am excited to hear. Mulley won’t mind me saying this but I am certain that he did this out of sheer divilment. If women benefit all the better. The reason I say it is sheer divilment is because it is one in the eye for conference organisers who say that they couldn’t find the women to speak at their events. Where are the women speakers? If Mulley could get 12 top quality speakers why are other conferences unable to get even 25%? Here are my theories and they relate also to the “What is up with your conference content?”

  1. You are curating, you are not organising an event. A curator according to is “a person who selects content for presentation, as on a website.” It is not enough to fill slots with whoever happens to be available that day and reasonably au fait with the area. If you can’t find enough (female) speakers for a given day then something is off. If you are curating, you should have a clear pitch to speakers about the overall theme, where they fit in that theme and who else you are considering approaching. Decide what your theme is initially and propose a very defined event to your potential speakers, rather than trying to shoehorn great speakers into an event that doesn’t fit them. So the order should be
    This may seem counterintuitive but if you give them enough warning (“The event will be in 6 months time, say September.”) they should know, as business people, whether they will be able to set aside the time needed to prepare and attend during a given quarter. The date and venue are irrelevant if the theme and speakers are strong enough, just ask Eoin Kennedy about Congregation.
  2. Relevance. It is key that a conference is relevant, that the topics for discussion are the hot topics. While I am wary of going broad, your theme does have to be broad enough to allow room for developments between the time you begin developing your conference until the day the attendees are rocking up to register. Certain issues remain relevant no matter what and it is the insight of the speakers in those areas that will sell your content. c.f. MeasurementConf. always about measurement which is always relevant. It’s the different insight from folk across industry, the mix of case studies and experience, that keep it relevant. Therefore you have to be embedded in the sector for which you are creating the event in order to understand who has dealt with an issue, who has an interesting case study, who has won awards for a client, who has opinions about best practice, who is entertaining, useful, RELEVANT. You yourself have to be relevant to potential speakers. They have to believe you have the influence and know how to promote the event; that the look and feel of the event from logo to registration will be quality to which they are happy to put their name.
  3. If you don’t pay cash, somebody is going to have to foot the bill.We are all busy people. Conferences take time. If your speaker is an engaged, engaging and community focused individual you would hope that they would stick around for the whole conference and get stuck into issues raised on the day. That is at least a half day’s work. If they are good enough to speak at your conference one would presume that they will fashion a bespoke presentation for you with the most up to date facts and figures. That’s at least another half day’s work. You do the math. So if you are not going to pay them a reasonable fee the audience are going to have to pay by sitting through a sales pitch. The audience who have likely paid for their ticket . Apart from the peanuts/ monkeys equation consider the impression an inability to pay speakers makes on that speaker.How much confidence is a (wo)man hearing that going to feel about your ability to sell tickets, book exhibitors and attract sponsors?
  4. You are not going to please all of the people all of the time. Realistically we can each expect to take only a few nuggets home from any event but you will increase the level of nugget rehoming if you ensure that your speakers don’t have to justify their presence with a sales pitch that results in leads. Leads and exposure should be the icing on the cake of reasonable fees. People who are good enough to be speakers at your event don’t need to justify speaking with leads or exposure, amiright?
  5. Women speakers where are you? I know that Swipe Summit , for example, did approach women to speak. I don’t want to get into a bitchfest about what wasn’t right about Swipe Summit because I have been in their shoes. I have also been the woman who has been approached to speak. I know I immediately start thinking about the logistics, the disruption, the act of actually standing up there and speaking. I also know it’s a sweeping generalisation to say that other women react like this and that men just say yes and worry about the logistics later. But is it possible that this is what is going on? In my case if I was approached to speak at an event and told there was even a small fee I can respond positively to it because I know that at the very least I can pay a childminder or treat my long suffering support structure with those earnings. But, women, we have to start saying yes and dealing with the logistics later.
  6. Don’t say yes to bullshit. However, Potential Speakers, a caveat: do your homework. Respond positively in principle. Ask about theme, other speakers, diversity, involvement of industry practitioners rather than service providers. Ask your contact to send you some collateral, check out their website. I’m not saying a slick website is the be all and end all but it will certainly be more attractive to sponsors, right? If they are organising a digital/ technology event and they are not walking the walk, how on earth can you believe that they are capable of curating this event? If I, Roseanne Smith, with the little influence that I may have, am thinking this way about your event then be damn sure there are sponsors thinking this way. Both sponsors and speakers want their brand to be associated with quality. We all have our opinions about the event formerly known as the Dublin Web Summit but one thing you could never accuse them of was not embracing the technology. As they built their brand they developed their online advertising, social, email marketing and application strategies: they walked the walk (all the way to Lisbon, granted.)

In summary it shouldn’t matter what gender, race, sexuality, religion or planet your speakers are from; it shouldn’t. However, as a woman, it is genuinely galling to be given the impression that only men know enough about digital and technology to be asked and to agree to speak about it in our industry’s events. As Marian Wright Edelman, advocate of children’s rights, is oft-quoted “You can’t be what you don’t see.” She also said “If you don’t like the way the world is, you have an obligation to change it. Just do it one step at a time.” This is one of my steps; the next step is yours.

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  1. Jillian Glancy 10/02/2016 at 11:51 am #

    I wonder did they ask the male speakers to speak for free? I sincerely doubt it. Great article, and well done for sticking your head above the parapet.

    • Roseanne Smith 10/02/2016 at 12:39 pm #

      Jillian, we have no evidence as to payments one way or the other. I am also curious to know. However event organisers would understandably balk at sharing such sensitive information.

      Do you know what, Jillian, it not as bad as I expected above the parapet. The view is not bad! 🙂

  2. Robert Moloney 08/02/2016 at 4:58 pm #

    Hi Roseanne, fair play to you for speaking out, I am in a quandary at the moment about what to do in a situation that has made me very angry, more so because I have let it happen and it belittles my years of experience. I came to you as the result of one f Mr. Mulley’s tweets.

    I spent an hour this morning with an amazing woman who was a corporate exec for 20 years, the top of the tree as CEO, it was when she overheard her 8 year old son refer to her as Chief Execution Officer, that she thought she might in in time for a change and now drives a not for profit organisation, using the full range of skills her youth and corporate life gave her.

    My comment really is that this is a woman that should be held up as a speaker, how to have your cake and eat it, reach the top of the corporate tree, 20 years experience, now the “inner socialist” comes out and she is giving back and getting more time with her family. If she needs to work late, she does, but then closes the laptop and goes home.

    I came across another woman, in a 42 year old family business, founded by her Mother. Again, another role model, building a business that spans two generations and retains the core beliefs.

    Then there are the stay at home mums the run their own home based businesses, life style businesses. more great models about what is possible to tap into the immense skills of the female working population.

    Yet they are not asked to speak at events, even women centred events, run by women. I have benefited from working with amazing women over the last 35 years, we should value them more highly, yet we don’t.

    So well done for speaking out so vociferously on the topic and I look forward to hearing you speak sometime.

    • Roseanne Smith 09/02/2016 at 1:48 pm #

      Thanks for your comment Robert. I would be the first to agree that much of the work done by women (and indeed men) goes unrecognised. I’m a huge proponent of work life balance for entire families regardless of their composition. The reality of it is that not everyone is going to be asked to speak at events, no matter how powerful their story, strong their opinions or in-depth their experience. The reality is also that many folk genuinely have no interest in public speaking. However, my point here is that event planners have to be organised when organising events, to create the optimal environment for success. Events have to be designed with adequate lead time, organisers have to be engaged with the community they are serving to understand their needs (and one of those needs might be to have the diversity of the sector reflected or underlined) and they must pay attention to detail to ensure a level of quality that will develop trust among stakeholders.

  3. Stephanie 08/02/2016 at 3:18 pm #

    First off, props for speaking out about this. Do you know if anyone on the lineup (speaker, chair or otherwise) got paid for their contribution? I find it hard to believe that you could source a lineup for an event with that sort of price tag without compensating the lineup.

    • Roseanne Smith 08/02/2016 at 4:24 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, Stephanie. I know for sure one speaker was not only NOT paid but no expenses were covered either. Sometimes it would seem immoral to take a payment but it shouldn’t cost anyone to speak either, right?

      • Stephanie 08/02/2016 at 4:56 pm #

        I have so many questions and thoughts on this, some similar to what you’ve pointed out in the post above. Was that speaker promised pay and it didn’t come through or were they discriminated against and just not offered compensation of any sort?

        • Roseanne Smith 09/02/2016 at 1:36 pm #

          TBH I’m not sure on the ins and outs of it and can only comment on what happened to DigiWomen. I don’t know if any of the speakers at the event above was paid or had their expenses covered. However it’s kind of a moot point as all the speakers decided to participate on the terms proposed to them. My argument is that when speakers aren’t paid the whole event is cheapened. Also the bond of trust between someone PURCHASING a ticket and the event organiser is borked by this approach. It completely undermines the agency of the event organiser: I pay an event organiser on the assumption that a proportion of that will go towards paying the speaker I’ve been enticed to hear.


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