UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Are There Too Many Male Speakers at Events?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 12 Apr 2012

Are Conferences Dominated By Male Speakers?

Yesterday I announced that UKOLN’s annual IWMW 2012 event is now open for bookings. But is the event, aimed at those responsible for managing institutional Web services, dominated by male speakers? In a recent Twitter discussion Nicole Harris revisited this topic which she has commented on previously:

… more lack of female presenters i moan about. % of female speakers at UKSG plenaries even, not just tech

As we run many events at UKOLN I wondered whether we too tended to fail to give female speakers an opportunity to talk. In order to base subsequent discussion on evidence I looked at the numbers of male and female plenary speakers at IWMW events and also included the figures for the forthcoming IWMW 2012 event. The figures are summarised in the following table.

1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 Total Total %
Male 7  9  11 10 9 7 11 8 6 10  7 7 9 9 7 9  135 86.5%
Female  1 1 1  1 0 2  2 1 0   1 1 3 0 2 1 4    21 13.5%
Link  Link Link Link Link Link Link Link Link Link Link Link Link Link Link Link  Link

It seems then that there have been only 13.5% female plenary speakers at the 16 IWMW events, with the IWMW 2005 and IWMW 2009 events held at Manchester and Essex seemingly being men-only events from a speaker’s perspective. A post about a Gendered Conference Campaign on the Feminist Philosophers blog”aims to raise awareness of the prevalence of all-male conferences … of the harm that they do“. Is the IWMW event guilty of “All-male events and volumes help to perpetuate the stereotyping of [web technologies] as male” as is highlighted on the blog in the field of philosophy?

Although the IWMW event hosts a number of plenary talks, the main focus is on the parallel workshop sessions which aim to provide a more interactive and participative approach to learning and staff development.  What are the gender balances for the workshop facilitators? The figures are given in the following table.

1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 Total Total %
Male  8 6  8 18 17 13 15 15 23  24 17  16  21 12  14  219 74.5%
Female  1 1  0   7  9 14   8   6   6    4   3    6   3   3    4    75 25.5%
Link Link Link Link Link Link Link Link Link Link Link Link Link Link Link  Link


  • A record of the facilitators of the sessions held at the first IWMW event was not kept.
  • The numbers given in the two tables may contain small inaccuracies due to people running multiple sessions, late replacements, etc.

From these figures we can see that there are almost twice proportionately as many female facilitators as plenary speakers. We can conclude that the event is not based on only men leading talks and sessions, although we are far from parity. But does this simply reflect the gender disparity across the institutional web management community? One way of finding an answer to this would be to look at the gender split across the participants at IWMW events.

Since we do not record gender information we made use of the Status field (Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms). This approach does mean that the gender of attendees who are Doctors or Professors may be mis-recorded but for the IWMW event, these numbers are likely to be small. The figures for recent years are given below.

2009 2010 2011 Total Total %
Male 113 132 116 361 71.5%
Female   60  37   47 144 28.5%

We can thus conclude that the overall numbers for plenary speakers and facilitators (354 males and 96 females or 78% and 21%) are not significantly different from the overall gender split at the event.

Do We Need to Gather Gender Statistics?

Dr Chris Sexton

In order to be able to analyse gender information for both participant as well as speakers at future events we have started to have a discussion as to whether we should explicitly ask for such information on registration forms. We had to manually identify whether participants were male or female and are aware that in some circumstances, such as ambiguous or unfamiliar first names, such as Dr Chris Sexton, mistakes may we made.

When we raised this question on Twitter, the responses were mixed. Some people felt that it was inappropriate, perhaps because we should be minimising personal questions which are asked but also, it seems, because of a feeling that gender issues aren’t a simple binary split. But others felt that it would be appropriate to ask such questions, especially if the purpose of asking the question was provided.

This specific issue does raise a more general question regarding gathering of information. Some people feel that information on booking forms should only be used if the information will be used in some concrete fashion. For the IWMW 2012 event we ask about the mobile devices which people are likely bring to the event partly to be able to ensure that any technologies we intend to use at the event can be used on popular devices, but also so that we can identify trends in the numbers of devices people are taking to the IWMW events and the types of devices themselves. We are unlikely to make use of gender information in any specific ways, but we are wondering whether the information about the speakers and facilitators should inform our policies for future events. Should we, for example, actively solicit more contributions from women? On the other hand, if the number of female speakers correlates with the numbers of female attendees, might the imbalance be a larger societal issue for which we, as event organisations, are not in a position to address? Or maybe you feel that such suggesting there should be some form of quotas for female speakers is ‘political correctness gone mad’?

We have now opened up bookings for IWMW 2012, without asking for gender information. In addition Sally Kerr, EA Draffan, Dawn Ellis and Helen Sargan will be giving plenary talks, with Katherine Pickles and Marieke Guy chairing sessions and Claire Gibbons, Sheila MacNeill and Marie Salter, together with Marieke Guy facilitating workshop sessions.

But what about other UKOLN events? And what about other events held across the sector? How does the gender split for participants and speakers at IWMW events compare with, say, ALT-C, UCISA and JISC conferences? And do such organisations have policies which seek to ensure appropriate levels of representation from women? Alternatively, if you run a library event with female participants in the majority, do you face these issues in reverse?

I should add that after the first few years of running successful IWMW event the programme committee pro-actively sought female speakers and workshop facilitators, which resulted in 28% of the workshop facilitators in 2001 and 2002 and 52% in 2003 being female. However in subsequent years gender issues seem to have been forgotten about, with no plenary speakers giving talks in 2005 and 2009.

Your views would be welcome. Feel free to leave a comment on this post. Alternatively you may wish to resp0nd to the survey forms which ask for your views on asking for gender information on event booking forms and policies on seeking larger numbers of female speakers.


13 Responses to “Are There Too Many Male Speakers at Events?”

  1. Interesting topic Brian – as you know I spoke at Networkshop last week, and there were only 4 female speakers, but there were also very few female attendees, which does probably represent the gender balance of this particular area. However, in other areas of IT the balance is much more mixed, and I do feel that organisers should be more proactive at getting a better gender mix for speakers, as well as only looking for the best. I certainly don’t believe in anything like quotas.
    As for asking for people to declare their gender, that’s much harder. Gender is very much not a binary thing, and there are many people for whom having to choose between a simple male/female is very upsetting and difficult.
    And finally, I think it was very dsngerous of you to post the question about my picture, whem I’m fairly certain I have one you for which the same question could be asked. Little black number springs to mind…..

  2. Thanks for the response. I agree that the question I posed in the caption of your photo was inappropriate in the context of the issues raised in the post. I have removed this. So you can hold on to your photo …

  3. Brenda M Boyd said

    Having worked in market research I can quite understand why you its appropriate to collect gender statistics, but why is it necessary to know females’ marital status? The titles Miss/Mrs/Ms are irrelevant unless you want to have sex with or marry someone. The fact that similar questions are never posed to men makes this a sexist issue. If a title is something earned such as Dr, Prof, Rev, Sir or Dame then it may be polite to use it, otherwise a forename and surname is sufficient. And please don’t give me that hoary chestnut about the Post Office or salutations. Initals and a surname are sufficient for the former and I, and many others, am quite happy to read “Dear Brenda Boyd” at the top of a letter. Would you have a fit of the vapours to read “Dear Brian Kelly” at the top of a letter to you?
    As to gender not being a binary issue then male/female/refused boxes than cover that. Although transexualism is a bit of a red herring in a conversation about a percieved lack of female speakers.

    • Agree with the comment about marital status – I’ve always really objected to being asked it, and Ms has never replaced Miss/Mrs. I’m lucky that I can use Dr.
      Complicated subject, but good idea to open it Brian.

  4. James Clay said

    We had a discussion about this for a major edtech conference and the consensus was that male members of the committee were more likely to choose men and that female members of the committee were also more likely to choose men. As a result men dominate the speaker slots. So you often need to stop and think about gender balance when choosing speakers.

    So why do (generally) women choose men? More difficult to answer, but I think we can blame society and our culture.

  5. Hi Brian

    Interesting post – we have similar discussions before every CETIS conference. We are very aware of our lack of female speakers. We do try to be proactive in getting female speakers – unfortunately this year we had diary clashes so had to default to “the blokes” again:-) Jame raises an interesting point about wider society and sadly, particularly in the tech world, there are simply more men at senior levels than women.

  6. Milly Shaw said

    Should you have more female speakers? Yes, if there are appropriate people to ask. Yes, if the only reason they’re not there is because you rely on people you already know. Yes, if you suspect there are good people out there, but it will take you time and effort to find them.

    But don’t do it if you’re only doing it to fill a quota and the event would have ‘poorer quality’ speakers (for want of a better description) as a result.

    I think we have to be realistic about the number of woman who would attend an event such as IWMW. It’s unlikely to be a 50/50 gender split, because the event is aimed at people who work in male-dominated industries.

    A more reasonable approach might be to try and work out exactly what types of areas you expect people attending IMWM to work in (ie web teams? IT provision? Marketing?) and then get a rough idea of the combined gender split for those departments within HE. If it reveals that your target audience is 40% female, but only 15% of IWMW delegates are female, then you have a problem. If it’s more or less the same, then there’s not much you can do and it’s a wider societal issue.

    (And, for the record, I use “Ms” all the time!)

  7. PeteJ said

    The quote you use in your next post (“Hitherto, philosophers have sought to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it”) seems rather pertinent :)

    (Yes, I think tech conferences are too dominated by male speakers, and yes, I think event organisers should actively seek to change that)

  8. Nicole Harris said

    I should probably reply as I am name-checked :-) Basically my response would be ‘what James said’. I don’t think we need to have quotas, but I do want conference organisers to look at their programmes, be aware of the gender balance and say – is this right? I do think there are a whole host of reasons why women do not and cannot speak at events. I do agree with James that programmes set by committees show a male bias. I also think that women are less likely to submit session proposals under open calls. There are other more speculative reasons – childcare issues, personal promotion approaches, internal sign-off etc. etc.

    So no, I don’t think we need specific quotas or counting, but I don’t think we should accept male-lead programmes as a status-quo. It is something we should always be questionning, and asking if it is right. I’m also not sure that we should draw any specific correlation between audience balance and speaker balance – if it happened that all the keynotes at a conference with a 90% male attendance could be filled by inspirational and relevant women…then that should be entirely acceptable.

    Our FAM events have traditionally been male dominated – but with people like Eve Maler and Kaliya Hamlin providing inspirational leadership in identity management areas, I’m certainly questioning if this does necessarily reflect in the way it should do.

  9. […] across all events, the numbers of times they have spoken. In light of the recent post which asked Are There Too Many Male Speakers at Events? it might also be useful to be able to provide statistics on gender balances, although I appreeciate […]

  10. […] Comments Why Would You Not Us… on Are There Too Many Male Speake…How Bottlenose Can H… on How Bottlenose Can Help Turn T…Web 2.0 tools | Pear… […]

  11. […] ago, Brian Kelly blogged asking Are there too many male speakers at events?, and asked on Twitter: Are conferences dominated by male speakers? Evidence from 15 years of #IWMW […]

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