Anna Shipman : JFDI

How do I get more women to speak at my conference?

08 December 2014 / Leadership / SPA conference

Last year I wrote about how anonymous submissions affected gender balance at SPA conference. Short answer: not hugely, but it did have some other positive effects. This year, however, we did have more women speaking at the conference than previously. Here are some suggestions for how to replicate this at your conference.

The stats from SPA


8/39 = 21% of the session leaders were women.

2/14 = 14% of the solo session leaders were women.

3/8 = 38% of the people running more than one session were women.

If you compare this to the previous three years of SPA stats, this is both more women speakers and a higher proportion of the total speakers. In addition, unlike the three previous conferences I’d looked at, some women ran more than one session at the conference. In fact, three women did this.

I recently received an email from a friend organising a conference:

Hi Anna,

I'm looking for some help in getting more women speaking and participating at ${CONFERENCE}.

I've (again) promoted the Call for Speakers using (most of) the resources mentioned on the CallbackWomen site. I'm also promoting it through local women in technology groups.

I'm also using an anonymised review process and am (as always) being encouraging to first-time speakers.


These are all really good things to do, and I recommend any conference organiser does the same, but I did have one more suggestion, and that is outreach.

The best speakers may not realise it

As anyone who has organised a conference knows, there is little correlation between those who are most keen to submit and those who run the best sessions.

When we announced the call for proposals, as well as tweeting it and sending it to various mailing lists, I and my co-chair set about writing individually to people we thought would propose good sessions.

One name that was suggested to me was that of Sandi Metz. At the time, I wasn’t aware that she was the author of the extremely good Practical Object-Oriented Design in Ruby, but I looked at her website and the courses she was running sounded excellent, so I emailed her in the hope that she might be available.

She got back to me, but she was uncertain about submitting to SPA. Not because, as you might think, it wasn’t a big enough deal conference for her, but because she was uncertain that her material was appropriate for the conference. I quote from her original email (with her permission):

"I hear that SpaConf is a place for leading edge, new thought, experimental stuff, and I feel like I'm doing simple, straightforward, intuitive, well-known, obvious OOP".

I wrote her an impassioned email back explaining why I thought that topic would be brilliant at SPA (for example, it’s only obvious when you know how…) and she decided to submit.

Her session got top marks from all reviewers, was one of the best attended, and when the feedback came in, was rated the highest. I went to the session and it was really excellent. And amazingly, Sandi thanked me for persuading her to attend. Later, she said “I would never have submitted to SPA; you made this happen.”

You might think someone as successful and awesome as Sandi would realise that her session would be amazing. But that wasn’t the case. She explained, “I imagine that things that seem obvious to me are already known by everyone else”. And there are plenty of other excellent people out there for whom that is also true.

You have to encourage women to submit

Women are socialised not to put themselves forward (here is a fascinating study on one way to address this), whereas men are more likely to put themselves forward regardless of competence (Clay Shirky describes this useful skill as being an “arrogant, self-aggrandising jerk”).

This won’t translate to no women submitting; many do. But it will be worth your while approaching the women you would like to submit. And not just women but other under-represented groups. People of colour, differently-abled people, really shy people, for example. People who may have bought the hype that your conference is only for the cool newness, or who lack confidence, or who aren’t going to put themselves forward for whatever reason. Don’t optimise your process for people who think they are amazing.

This is borne out by my own experience. Ivan Moore asked me seven or eight times over a series of months “when are you going to submit to SPA?” before I finally submitted my Data Visualisations in JavaScript session. It was really successful, and I have since done several other conference talks.

Don’t just look for people who are already on the conference circuit. Ask women you know, people you work with, etc. Everyone has an interesting story to tell about what they are working on, or are researching, or their hobby, or what they are expert in.

You may have to put more work into encouraging those people to submit. It was not an insignificant amount of effort on my behalf to get Sandi to submit, but it was so worth it.

You need anonymity in selection to back this up

It’s important to note that if you are reaching out to people to ask them to submit, rather than directly to invite them to speak, you need anonymity to back this up. To quote from the article that inspired me:

If you go around encouraging people that are usually under-represented at your event to submit to the CFP and promise an unbiased selection, it ensures they don’t feel that they’ve been picked because of a particular personal feature, rather than the content of their proposals.

Our process at SPA remained the same in 2014 as it was in 2013. Read my original post for full details, but submissions remain anonymous until the point a draft programme is produced.

A not-exhaustive note on how to ask

I like your work on X. Y is relevant to our attendees. I saw your talk on Z at ${MEETUP} and think something similar/the same talk would be brilliant at our conference.

Not “our conference needs more women/people of colour/LGBT speakers”. I am already going to imagine that’s the only reason you asked me. It would be nice to know that it’s my work you’re interested in.

A shout out to Andy Allan, who organised Scotch on the Rocks. A slightly different scenario as he invited me to speak rather than asking me to submit, but it was a flawless handling:

If you are trying to encourage people new to speaking, these resources might help.

In summary

Seek out women and other under-represented groups who do great work in our field. They will not be hard to find. Pick out some examples of their work that show they’d be good for your conference. Contact them and ask them to submit. Be prepared to put some work into encouraging people.

This does take a bit more time and effort than just tweeting your CFP and leaving it at that. But if you want to put on a great conference – and why else are you bothering? – it is worth putting the effort in to seek out the people who have something interesting, new and exciting to say.

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