Search Marketing Conferences: Do Women Speakers Get The Shaft?

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girlpowerAh, the battle of the sexes. It’s been raging since the dawn of time, and will continue long after we’re all gone from this earth. Most of the time, I don’t pay much attention to all the flap. Over the past few weeks, however, there have been a couple of well-researched and well-thought-out posts about why search marketing conferences don’t have more women speakers, and they got my attention.

I covered the first one in an earlier post. Marty Weintraub from aimClear did a great job interviewing female conference speakers, myself included. Go back and read the post if you didn’t already.

Today, Hannah Miller from State of Search published a follow-up post on the topic – and the points she made completely changed the way I’d thought about the dearth of female speakers at search marketing conferences.

Women are more compliant than men.

Hannah posits that women get lower speaker ratings because they’re more compliant than men.

Let’s face it – people love a good brawl. Long-time search conference attendees will remember some of the legendary shouting matches and black-hat vs. white-hat panels that never failed to entertain. How many women were on those panels? Very few, and those that dared participate were given labels such as “SEO Bitch.” Nice.

But most of us women won’t stick our necks out like that. We follow the guidelines that are given to us by conference organizers. We stick to the time allotted. We turn in our presentations on time. We don’t pitch from the podium. We give carefully measured answers during the Q&A.

As I think back on all the conferences I’ve attended recently, there were speakers who ran way over their allotted time. There were speakers who were obviously unprepared, or worse, recycled a presentation from another conference, complete with the other conference’s logo! And there were speakers who pitched from the podium and asked for business cards.

Every last one of them was a man.

Women are too hard on themselves.

Because we are compliant, we’re not as “memorable,” maybe. Playing by the rules isn’t interesting. So we don’t get stellar speaker ratings. When we get lower speaker ratings, we tend not to pitch again.

This sure rang true for me. While low ratings haven’t kept me from pitching (because I love speaking too much to quit!), I still get discouraged by them. A few years ago, one of the comments on my session was that I “didn’t seem confident about the topic.” I was speaking about small-budget search, which was the majority of my day-to-day job at the time! I was totally confident about this!

Even in my most recent speaking gig, the ratings I got didn’t match my perception: both in terms of preparation and the vibe in the room. My first panel was one I had pitched and prepared for. I’d practiced my presentation thoroughly. Throughout the presentation, I got head-nods and smiles from the room. People asked good questions. And I got lackluster ratings.

The second presentation was one I hadn’t prepared for at all. I was subbing for a speaker who’d fallen ill at the last minute and couldn’t make it. I was totally going off-the-cuff. And I got 4.5 out of 5 stars.

The point is, we’re our own worst critics anyway. If we get bad ratings, we blame ourselves. If men get bad ratings, they blame the environment.

Girl Power

I’m by no means saying that all women are wimps and all men are self-absorbed jerks. Nor am I saying that conference organizers are totally biased. Most speakers follow the rules, regardless of gender. And we all get bad ratings at times.

What I am saying is that the facts are clear: women are under-represented as speakers at search marketing conferences. And it’s time we changed that.

If you’re a woman in search and have thought about speaking, now is the time! Got any speaking tips, man or woman? Share in the comments!

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  1. Arianne Donoghue says

    I’m speaking at SES London Wednesday on the Winning PPC Tactics panel and I think speaking as a woman is a funny thing. I’ve had great feedback from sessions at other events I’ve done before and then not been invited back to subsequent events while other (male) people on my panels have – go figure.

    I agree with your point about women often being too hard on themselves, or self-critical. I’ve tended to never pitch to speak because I get consumed with “what on earth could I say that people will want to hear” thoughts and honestly struggle to think of what I could talk about what could be on value. This ties in with what Hannah said in her post and I guess an area I need to try harder at in future!

    Most of the events I’ve spoken at, I’ve been the sole female speaker in my session, or at the event. I’m glad to see that this appears to be improving and I’ll await my feedback post-conference with nervous anticipation 🙂

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Hi Arianne, first let me say that I’m so glad you’re out there speaking! I’m sure you’ll do great.

      For years, I avoided pitching to speak for the same reason you state: I didn’t think I had anything to say that anyone wanted to hear. I thought I didn’t have anything new to add. Once I got past that, I’ve been able to successfully pitch many times. I don’t think men go through this; they just pitch and go!

      Thanks for your comment. I hope we can inspire other women to speak at conferences.

  2. Great post Melissa! I’ll be first to admit, I’ve been discouraged by lower ratings and lack of support. I hope some of the smart, well-spoken women I know in search heed your advice and pitch more search conferences ~ me included 🙂 And I hope some of the conference organizers and moderators do more to encourage their female speakers, before and after pitch selection.

    It takes of a lot of effort to pitch, prepare, travel, carve out time from your already busy life to do these conferences and honestly, I’m not sure it is worth it. I know you relate to this, but as a Mom juggling all in my life (I’m still second bread winner in my HH and primary caregiver), it is something that relative to everything else, I have a hard time seeing the value. And I don’t love speaking like you do, but I do like sharing my experience and expertise, and meeting other search geeks like you.

    Also, as I’ve grown in responsibilities and in my position, I’m finding I’m doing less of the tactical account management, and more of relationship building and team management, skills I’m very good at (note my confidence here…). But these are “fluffy” subjects, “common sense” to some, and attendees don’t feel like they have real take-aways after these presentations, however entertaining you try to make them. The know-it-all’s in the audience give you blank stares if you go down this path. These types of subjects are a double-edged sword for organizers to choose pitches like these, but I feel there is real void of these at conferences.

    All that said, yes ~I’ll pitch these ideas anyway, and let conference organizers decide the content. I guess that’s why we pay them the big bucks for our staff to go to these opportunities for growth, learning and networking.

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Lisa, you’ve hit on several key points in your reply. As a mom, I agree 100% with your comment that it’s often hard to justify the time and effort needed for conference speaking. In all honesty, that’s why I don’t speak at more conferences. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s that my desire and need to be with my family outweighs my desire to go to 10+ conferences per year. The whole reason I work from home is to spend more time with my family – running off every other week to speak defeats the purpose.

      And I hear you regarding soft skills presentations. 10 years in as an industry, and still everyone wants the tactical/how-to stuff. I don’t mind speaking on that, but again, CEOs and upper management won’t speak on that because they’re not close to it. And then people complain that CEOs don’t speak. It’s a no-win situation.

      For any conference organizers who might be reading, here are some takeaways:
      * Don’t be afraid to program a few strategic sessions. If set up properly, they’ll be great.
      * Keep in mind that a lot of women speakers are also moms. For better or for worse, it’s really hard for us to attend conferences close to holidays and school breaks, over the summer, and in early September during back to school. Our family responsibilities are just too great to be away at those times.
      * As Hannah suggested in the State of Search post, take non-anonymous feedback. Make people accountable, and maybe we’ll get fewer comments about how cute our dresses were and more on how we can improve.

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