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How to Create a Better Gender Balance Onstage at Meetings

How to Create a Better Gender Balance Onstage at Meetings

In recent years, the business-events industry has begun to more seriously grapple with an issue that has long affected meetings and conventions: the lack of gender balance among the speakers. While awareness has grown about the drawbacks of speaker lineups that fail to reflect the makeup of the audience -- and all-male panels, or “manels,” are more likely than ever to be called out on social media -- new research finds that global educational programming is far from reaching gender parity.


A new report from event software company Bizzabo finds that between the years 2013 and 2019, almost two-thirds of event speakers (66 percent) across the globe were male.

The research, taking into account more than 60,000 event speakers -- spanning 58 countries, 45 industries and thousands of events -- reflects a continuing gender gap, albeit one with a 3 percent improvement over last year’s analysis. The United States and Canada were marginally better than the global average, with 64 percent male vs. 36 percent female.

Melissa Majors, CEO of Melissa Majors Consulting, works with organizations to develop an approach that fosters genuine inclusion.

"Diversity brings unique perspectives and enables better problem-solving," says Melissa Majors, CEO of Dallas-based Melissa Majors Consulting, who works with organizations to develop a more inclusive approach to their work and events. "Panel discussions are a powerful method of aggregating wisdom and sharing it via peer-to-peer learning. They thrive when each panelist brings a different viewpoint and a unique solution to a common topic. A lack of diversity jeopardizes the efficacy and purpose of panels."

The gender ratio is more acutely lopsided in some industries. Bizzabo's research found that events in information technology and services, for instance, had the widest gender disparity, with speakers who were 76 percent male vs. 24 percent female. Somewhat more balanced were computer software events, with 68 percent male speakers, while general technology events reported that 63 percent of speakers were male.

Some other sectors, such as education, have made greater strides towards parity. Education management was found to have a 50-50 female/male split in its speaker makeup; higher education reported 40 percent female vs. 60 percent male. 

Effecting a Better Gender Balance

While the numbers seem to be trending in the right direction, planners must be proactive in speeding the rate of change. To start, a panel should be at least as diverse as the people in attendance, Melissa Majors explains. "Conduct an inventory of your target audience and use those percentages as guides for speaker demographics," she says. "Unconscious bias can unintentionally influence our ability to source the best speakers, so establishing goals can help mitigate this."

Dr. Nicole King-Smith, owner of NK Enterprise Consulting

Dr. Nicole King-Smith, owner of NK Enterprise Consulting, agrees, suggesting that when it comes to gender parity, planners may need to explicitly request that speakers for particular sessions be female -- such as coordinating a female CEO round table, for instance.

 "Reach out to top-tier speakers from previous events and give a personal request and ask them if there are any female experts that could speak on specific topics," King-Smith suggests. It may help to set aside money in the budget specifically designated for female speakers, she adds.

But getting an appropriate balance of speakers is just part of the effort. Majors points out that event planners must also source moderators with proven experience being inclusive in their facilitation of panels.

"I have witnessed diverse panels where a select few dominate the discussion," she says. "This is a common example of how diversity was achieved, but inclusion was not."

Above all, Majors adds, any diversity and inclusion efforts, gender-related or otherwise, should be logically motivated and business-driven. "It's tempting to be reactive to perceived pressure and be inclusive for optics' sake alone," says Majors. "But doing so can result in tokenism and the use of speakers that meet a demographic goal but lack in other competencies -- which often results in a poor experience for them and the audience."


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