What keeps women from showing up?

What keeps women from showing up?

I traveled to attend some great events this fall. At home, my family’s looking for a church. And of course, I write a women’s blog.

Because of these things, I’ve been thinking a lot lately (and again) about women in the workplace, in leadership, on the podium–about representation, and diversity, and why it matters.

Let’s talk about one of those events I attended for a minute.

Last month, I attended Story Chicago. I thought it was worthwhile, but as I said in my recap post, “I wish the presenters had been more diverse. I believe that’s important, and was disappointed that only one woman presented on the main stage.”

(I didn’t used to think that kind of thing was important. Now I do.)

But Story founder Ben Arment left a comment on that post that surprised me and sent my thoughts aswirling: Story invited the women, and the women didn’t come. He said:

We strive for diversity each year. I know the fruit of it wasn’t evident this year, but I assure you we tried… hard….

Believe it or not, we invited no fewer than 12 diverse presenters who declined to speak for one reason or another. People who aren’t conference organizers can’t seem to fathom this, but getting worthwhile presenters to say yes is no easy task… especially with our limited budget and our growing but still-developing clout. We can ask, but they have to say yes….

I was disappointed we didn’t have more women. Again, we asked. They declined. 

I can’t figure out what to do with this.

I would have liked to have told those women, the ones who stayed home: Of course you have to do what is best for you and for your family. And if that means staying home, then stay home.

But, I also would like to say to those women: We needed you to show up. Where were you?

Those ideas don’t reconcile.

Where does that leave us?

*****     *****     *****

There’s evidence that the cultural tides are shifting, even as the number of women in some fields is declining. This anecdote portrays a game-changing mindset becoming more prevalent in corporate America:

Smart companies are thinking differently. They are recognizing that the inherent differences among genders and cultures are not things to be fixed, but are instead sources of strength. It is exactly these differences that drive the higher returns, lower volatility and greater innovation that accrue to more diverse companies. Smart companies will embrace and draw on these differences.

*****     *****     *****

If smart organizations are thinking differently, how are they getting the women to show up? (This problem isn’t unique to Story Chicago; Sheryl Sandberg wrote about it extensively in Lean In.)

95% of MMD readers are women. Friends, I’m asking you: what would make it easier for you to show up? For some of you, this is a very practical question, for others it’s hypothetical.

Whichever category you fall under, tell me: what are the obstacles that keep you from “showing up,” and what would make it easier for you to do so?

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  1. ed cyzewski says:

    This is just a small piece of the puzzle, but my wife has to travel to conferences about 2-3 times a year, and having a child under one made it tricky. I traveled with her to one conference to care for him and to drop him off when he needed to nurse, and my mom and step dad came out to help during the other one. It seems like another level of logistics are needed to make it happen if she needs to go to a conference. She has to be selective since there is so much we need to line up.

  2. GREAT conversation starter, Anne!

    Being part of the speaking circuit myself, I am having ALL THE THOUGHTS right now. 🙂 This gives me a place to work them out, so thanks.

    You know I’m the biggest fan ever of diversity and gender equality, and yet there are some practical concerns that I think may be factoring in here:

    Speaking is EXHAUSTING! It’s not just getting up and talking in front of a lot of people. There’s a bunch of preparation involved, a bunch of travel, a bunch of socializing (which can get a bit taxing for those of us who are introverted!), and so on. Even just a single presentation can take a couple of days of prep, up to three days of travel, and….at least for me…at least two days of recovery time. This year, I speak an average of once a week! So you can imagine how time-consuming and exhausting it is. So…..

    This means that I tend to make my decisions about when and where to speak based on money….with a few pro-bono exceptions for organizations/events I really care about. I know that sounds awful, but when you’ve got books to write and a blog to maintain, it’s really, really hard to justify taking 3 days to go speak somewhere when you won’t get paid a dime or you might just barely cover your expenses. And it makes a lot more sense when you can bring home a decent check. It’s just economics.

    Now, imagine this for someone who is a mother! I think one of the main reasons you don’t see more women speaking at events like these is that, statistically, women tend to be the primary caretakers of children in their homes and it’s awfully hard to justify three days away from the family for little to no money. Again, economics.

    The thing about a lot of folks on the “margins” is that they have to be more practical about economic concerns. White men are working with some inherent privilege that just makes it easier for them to be mobile.

    Another factor within the evangelical world is that, unfortunately, men still outpace women in church leadership…so most of the “celebrity pastors” who draw a big crowd are men. And men still outpace women in biblical scholarship…so a lot of the authors/scholars who draw a crowd are men. Now, on the flip side, if you check the bestseller lists in Christian publishing, women have quite a voice there. But keep in mind that a lot of those women are mothers, so my last point applies to them.

    That said, i’ve seen plenty of conference organizers burn their budget on a single white male “celebrity” who is super-expensive, but who they know will draw a crowd, leaving only a skimpy budget to be divided among all the rest of the speakers. So a big part of the problem is PRIORITIES. If organizers start off with diversity as a priority, rather than an afterthought or a bonus, and if they invest their money that way, they are more likely to have a diverse lineup of speakers. But if you blow most of your budget on a white celebrity pastor dude and a fog machine…well…

    As far as solutions go….

    1) I have a few speakers I refer people to when I have to decline an invitation. That way, if I can’t do something I’ve got a few names ready – usually a women/women of color – who I know are looking for opportunities. I think if more speakers were deliberate about this, we’d see some change. And I am profoundly grateful for people like the amazing BRIAN MCLAREN who have recommended me to venues through the years. There are a lot of guys who are stewarding their power in this regard, and it’s meant a lot to me, often making a big difference in my career.

    2) If conferences make diversity a priority from the beginning, they will likely find the funds necessary to fairly compensate women & minorities.

    3) Posts like these (and Grace Biskie’s posts after the last STORY) make a HUGE difference because it begins to put pressure on conference organizers to make diversity a priority.

    4) We gotta get out of the white male celebrity pastor rut. There are lots of women dong AMAZING things in ministry, in leadership, in writing, in art, in the non-profit sector (where the majority of leaders are women!), etc. But evangelicalism in particular seems stuck in the white male celebrity pastor rut. Sometimes I think it’s just a matter of thinking outside of the box and also using whatever influence we have to introduce people to the women and people of color who are doing amazing things in the world. (I try to steward my blog platform in this way…but it’s amazing how easy it is to slip into the same rut, interviewing and featuring the famous white male celebrity pastor because I suspect it will draw more readers.) We have to be creative and open here, I think, rather than defaulting to what has always worked in the past.

    A big part of the problem is that conventional wisdom says you need a white male celebrity pastor to draw enough people to pay for your conference. We have to change that whole culture in order to change the conventional wisdom.

    I think if conference organizers were more familiar with what women and people of color are doing year-around then they would’t be scrambling to come up with some “token” women and minorities as they plan their conferences.

    Finally, I can’t tell you how often I’m invited to speak at a conference and am told I’m there to represent “a woman’s voice.” I’ve begun kindly responding to this with, “Well, you know, I don’t speak on behalf of all women so you might want to add some others to the lineup.” The other day a conference organizer said, “There are a lot of women at this conference who will be thrilled that you are here.” I wish I’d had the guts to say, “Well I’d like to think that there will be some guys who are glad I”m there too.” 🙂

    So those of us with any amount of influence, I think, really must be working to change the culture. And I think this is more likely to happen when we name SPECIFIC people we would like to see represented at our gatherings, rather than simply saying we value divergent voices.

    Whew! This turned out to be a miniature blog post! Thanks for listening to me ramble. Hope this keeps the conversation going!


    • One more thought:

      Given the practical concerns of women, particularly women who are mothers, I don’t know why more conferences don’t start their speaker hunt in the CITY WHERE THE CONFERENCE IS BEING HELD! I can’t tell you how many conferences happen in Nashville, and I’m thinking, “Um, you’re flying people in from the West Coast when you’ve got, like, Becca Stevens right in your back yard!”

      I think it would be SUPER COOL to see a conference that draws most of its speakers from the city where it takes place. Seems like that would both save money and naturally create some diversity.

      We just need to start thinking outside the box.

      • Tim says:

        “Well I’d like to think that there will be some guys who are glad I’m there too.” – Well, this guy would be glad to see you there, RHE!

        On the possibility of looking locally for speakers, I wonder if it’s the same problem Jesus faced when he said a prophet is without honor in his own home town. Women and men who are always handy are not necessarily the ones that people will come to hear from at a conference. I don’t think that’s necessarily the conference organizer’s failure but more a factor of human nature in the conference goers.


        • Anne says:

          Love your solutions. Thanks for this, Rachel. It’s so good to hear the perspective of someone who has seen these issues play out in multiple situations for numerous events.

          I’m so sorry I didn’t get to chat with you when you were in Louisville to speak at St Matthews Episcopal! But my husband and I had to get home to our babysitter. Case in point, I suppose. Sigh.

          (I think it’s also worth pointing out that many of these conferences that can’t muster diverse presenters have very diverse attendees. And while I’m excited to hear “big name” speakers when I attend events, the speakers that absolutely blow me away are usually people I’ve never heard of. Now to convince the attendees to show up….)

          • Tim says:

            Yet another example of why you guys should live out here near us, Anne. My wife and I’d take your kids for the weekend, and you and your husband could stay at a conference for as long as you wanted to.

      • JD says:

        “I think if conference organizers were more familiar with what women and people of color are doing year-around then they would’t be scrambling to come up with some “token” women and minorities as they plan their conferences.”
        YES – I mentioned to my youth min org that we need some girls on stage. They are trying to diversify race-wise, but being in the South, they are worried putting a woman on stage would lose them too many customers (and sadly, they are right). They happened to ask though, if they ever did a girls’ conference, who would they even get since there are NO WOMEN SPEAKERS for youth min. (for real?!)

        I sent them a list. 🙂

      • Couldn’t agree with you more. I started speaking 10 years ago to MOPS groups, yes for FREE and some were gracious enough to have an honoriaum. I head to conferences here and there to get “refreshed and renewed” only to find myself leaving the same way I came in.

        Thinking out of the box and having a conference in Nashville with Nashvillians, Denver with Denverites is something that would be smart “business”. We can’t just leave wisdom like that in the Business sector. We need business minded wisdom when it comes to the way we do conferences.

        • Anne says:

          “We need business minded wisdom when it comes to the way we do conferences.”

          Yes! This post is not explicitly about the church, but … it has always driven me crazy that Christians aren’t typically the innovators when it comes to education (including things like conferences). Shouldn’t we be the groundbreakers here? Don’t we have a message that justifies it? (End rant.)

  3. Caris Adel says:

    What I’m wondering, is why is all of this family stuff such a hurdle for women, but not for men. Shouldn’t it be equally complicated for men speakers? And if not, maybe that’s part of the issue right there.

    • Anne says:

      I think mothers obviously have a lot more hurdles. Like, I have four kids. That means I was too pregnant to travel far for many months and too pregnant to fly for a year, dying of morning sickness for another collective year, breastfeeding exclusively for four years. Not every mother makes those specific choices, but those were mine, and they definitely complicated work and travel (to say the least!)

      But beyond a certain point, yeah, it should be complicated for men, too. And that’s definitely part of the issue.

      • Caris Adel says:

        Oh, I know. I’m just thinking if conference organizers had to think of children as a complication for men and factor in how to help them, then they’d be just as likely to factor them in with women and be willing to address it. But, that’s obviously an issue that goes beyond conferences 😉

    • Who says it isn’t? Aside from the physical differences/necessities of pregnancy and breastfeeding which Mother Nature puts on women, men have to turn things down for family, too. My husband has not gone to Osh Kosh or to Paris for things he could have because he doesn’t want to leave his wife and kids, or take his wife, but leave his kids for that long or that distance. He does do conferences and education for his work, but often turns it into a getaway for me, or a family vacation where we pitch in the cost difference for the family coming and drive rather than fly. Which means we must go where we can drive.

      Honestly, I’m not bothered by these “inequalities.” Women bear and have and nurse the babies, so motherhood does make itself a bigger portion of our lives and responsibilities if we are mothers, and I think it is unreasonable to ask a woman to put all that aside, burden herself with more tasks and responsibilities simply to check a mark off about diversity. If there are women with the energy to do all that, good for them, but most women don’t have that. If they are without children, perhaps it is easier, but maybe they aren’t interested. Not a lot of people, men or women, really like public speaking.

      Or they think the group wouldn’t be welcoming, or might be hostile, to their view point. I know that most groups that are interested in “diversity” would not be interested in this American woman of Arab descent, as even though you can check off all sorts of boxes for diversity on me, ethnic minority, woman, daughter of immigrants, brought up underprivileged/poor, I’m also religious, Christian, relatively conservative socially and libertarian politically, mother of eight living children, homeschooling, homemaker, and so on. I’m not the right kind of diverse, and I find that often people are looking for diversity of appearance, but not necessarily of thought or experience. Not that anyone is, or necessarily would be, asking me to speak publicly. Though, I’m fairly certain that I lost a design opportunity with a yarn company that had sounded pretty excited and interested at first, because I wrote (not to them, but they were reading my work elsewhere) about the plight of Arab Christians and clearly sympathized with them. They were progressive and interested in diversity, and looking for pattern support and new ideas, but not enough to get over our differences.

      Also, I just don’t think it is the job of any given organization to accommodate every possible situation. We have a family of 10. When my husband was asked to speak at a conference in December, I don’t think they were obligated to make sure that all of us could come, for instance. It is wonderful if people can, but they can’t always do that, and it implies no nefarious or exclusionary tendencies, only that their resources cannot stretch that far.

  4. Jenny Baker says:

    ‘We can ask, but they have to say yes…. I was disappointed we didn’t have more women. Again, we asked. They declined.’

    See, it’s the women’s fault that our speaking line-up is so monochrome; they should have just said yes. I think that shows a colossal lack of awareness of power and privilege on behalf of the conference organisers, and there is so much more than they can do. I worked with an event here in the UK to help them reach their goal of 50/50 male and female speakers. It took them three years, but this year they hit it without compromising on quality. It needs intentionality, and a willingness to go beyond the paranoid fear of relating to women that there often is in evangelical circles where men make rules that mean they can keep women at a distance under the guise of ‘protecting their marriage’.

    • Amy says:

      THIS. Thank you! Women are always expected to be able to relate their experience to the traditional white male, but EVERYONE can learn from women, not just other women!

  5. Darcy Wiley says:

    A lot of good points shared in the comments above about what feels normal in our culture and what feels doable with family life. (I mean, I didn’t even ATTEND a conference this year for motherhood reasons!) I think all of that makes women self-segregate, more easily accepting the offer to speak for women’s events/conferences while feeling like co-ed events are alien territory. Maybe we go where we feel confident, fully understood, a place that feels like a girl’s sleepover instead of a business event.

    • Amy says:

      I think that feeling confident is a big part of it. It’s hard for ANYONE to go somewhere that is out of their comfort zone. Problem here is that conference where women are underrepresented are places where women specifically don’t feel comfortable.

  6. JD says:

    So reading the comments here, it sounds like extroverted single women (or married w/o kids) and with flexible work schedules = the ideal women to ask to speak. But, c’mon. There is a level of respect that I, as a childless single woman, will never earn from an audience. No one is going to invite a non-wife/non-mother to speak. Single guy? Sure. But women are mainly respected, even (especially?) by other women, for their experiences in the home. They can be an expert on anything with a Ph.D, but they are mainly famous for their funny/insightful/inspiring stories about their marriage and children. Look at the bookstores. Look at Bible studies. Look at the top bloggers. It’s hard to find any Christian writing that doesn’t include the assumption that every female reader is a mom. Sometimes I even resonate more with teen books because it’s easier to change “at school” to “at work” in my head than try to relate to examples involving kids or marriage since I have never experienced that life. Several times I have looked at attending conferences only to realize “women’s conference” really means “mom conference.” I don’t think this is because there aren’t single women out there writing books, Bible studies, blogs and whatever else gets you invited to conferences. I think it is that we don’t respect women in our culture unless they have “mom” or “wife” on their resume.

    If a non-mom was invited to a conference, they might have the time to come, but would anyone listen?

    • Tim says:

      My wife and I are going through Kelly Minter’s video study on Nehemiah right now. She’s an example of a non-wife/non-mother who is out there speaking to women and men. Probably a minority representative, but still a representative of the subset.


      • JD says:

        I do love Kelly Minter! We did that study in my small group and for the first time I was like “there is someone in this group who I can relate to!” haha

    • Anne says:

      Oh my goodness, JD, this is horrible! But sadly, it’s not unfamiliar. I have heard this sentiment echoed by many Christian friends and I hate it: “Several times I have looked at attending conferences only to realize “women’s conference” really means “mom conference.”

      I hope you can find some new circles of Christian bloggers (if that’s what you’re looking for) that have more to share than inspiring marriage and kid stories! May I suggest you start with my friend Leigh? http://leighkramer.com

  7. I haven’t read all the comments, so maybe someone already said this, but I think cliques are still an issue. There’s so much separation and so much “us” and “them”. I’ve never been one of the cool kids, so why do I want to go to a conference where I’m on the outs? It’s easier to stay home where people like me. 🙂

  8. Anna says:

    This is such an interesting conversation and I could really sit down and talk with you about this for hours. I definitely consider myself a feminist – albeit a mostly stay-at-home, homeschooling feminist. I guess that makes me modern. I can approach this conversation differently in this week of all weeks because this week I showed up. So here’s what had to happen for me to say, “yes.” First I had to get the offer. Due to my motherhood/pregnancy status I was not initially asked to go even though I’d be an asset. Second, find two full days of childcare for my son who has CP. Easier said than done since my mom was going to be out of town. Third, have a firm chat with my husband about his schedule. For years the prioritized schedule has been his. Now, our son’s occasionally trumps, but usually Daddy wins. My work, leisure, whatever always gets mushed in where possible. I finally had to say boldly to my husband, “This trip is important to me and for it to work means my schedule will be the most important, then our child’s, then yours. I really need you to be OK with that.” And you know what? He was. The fourth thing was sacrificing a lot of physical comfort. In order to get me and my toddler ready for this short two-day trip, I had to prepare the day ahead, and then wake up at 5 am to get ready. By the time I got to my destination city, due to flights, etc. it was only 9:30 there and I’d been up and running for seven hours. When I got there I needed to get out and join my colleagues in selling our new business at a huge convention center. It was a looooong day for this tired pregnant body. And then the next day travel took up most of the day. I’m so glad I said yes. It was the right decision, but the above things it took to get me to basically a one-day thing that will not garner me any extra wages is extraordinary and it’s easy to see why I would usually just stay home. I have lots more thoughts about this – especially thoughts on the church and women. Thanks for opening up this conversation!!

  9. Sandy says:

    When I was younger and being invited to speak, I would often turn down opportunities because I knew what would happen at home while I was gone. My husband was free to accept any opportunities he wanted (when his work would allow) because he also knew what would happen at home while he was gone. I would pick up every job he wasn’t there to do and it would get done, no questions asked. This is the expectation of the ‘help meet’. Meanwhile, no one was going to do my job when I wasn’t there. So, I had my usual work, the extra work for the speaking engagement, and the extra work that piled up because I had been away, not to mention needing to reconnect with my kids. All this, for a speaking engagement I could drive to. I can’t imagine needing to really travel to do this; it just wasn’t an option. Men are free to come and go because the Church expects that their wives will do whatever needs to be done to make it successful. Not only is there not a similar expectation of men, it is actively discouraged. You know, being supportive is women’s work. Now that my kids are older, I’m as busy as ever with family as others have already mentioned, and yes, age is a factor. In church years I’m already a dinosaur. Younger moms have no interest in what I have to say. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other places I can invest my time, but it does mean I don’t expect invitations to speak anytime soon.

  10. Pretty much every reason that is here already, plus, regarding childcare, not everyone lives near Grandma and Grandpa to help out (I wonder how many do have this luxury?). I know that if I did, I might be able to do more stuff but I don’t. Last November my inlaws were visiting at a time when I attended and spoke at a conference and it was great, and then my mil came again this summer so I could attend something. Trying to arrange childcare would’ve been more hassle (and money) than it was worth.

  11. Maybe this was mentioned in the previous comments… but 12 “diverse presenters” were asked. How many white males were asked? Did at least 12 of them decline? I read somewhere recently that when the proportion of women or minorities reaches 15%, people think it’s actually 50%. They perceive that there’s too many.

    On top of that, there’s a literature showing that once it seems more likely that a woman is going to be accepted (for example, there’s an affirmative action policy advertised), applications from women increase enough that the affirmative action policy isn’t actually needed. Just the belief that they will be given a chance increases the quality of the pool. I believe that may be one reason that my department is now mostly female (and otherwise diverse) even though we’re in a male-dominated field– once we got a nice number of women, the pool of highly qualified women increased dramatically, and we started getting more women who are more highly qualified than the white men in the pool. We’re a nice place to work.

  12. Lynn says:

    I don’t usually comment, but found this interesting. I missed this post the first time around because I was at a convention in Louisville (how ironic). I am single and have no children, but I still have a hard time saying yes. For me, between being a full-time college student, working, volunteering, and maintaining relationships, my time is all used up. Every time that I do say yes, I have to rearrange all of that. It seems extravagant and selfish. So many people have to pick up my slack or make accommodations for me.
    When I do say yes, it is usually for someone who I have already built a relationship with or will allow me to see a long-distance friend. It has be service-oriented and unique. It is also much easier show up if someone makes the arrangements for me. Furthermore, I more likely to say yes if a friend recommended me or the event. I need to feel valued before I ever arrive.

  13. Guest says:

    I’m single and 45. Most of my friends who have active social lives and attend workshops, seminars, events, etc., are all single, or their kids are grown. Who did Story invite? 28-year-old mommy bloggers? Then no, I’m not surprised they didn’t show up. Story would have had better success getting women to speak if they had invited more single women, more childless women, more empty-nester women — basically women who actually have time to attend events like Story.

  14. One other thing, though I am late to the party, is that I think it is reasonable for some scheduling preference be given to the breadwinner, whoever that is, if the conference/speaking engagement will generate contacts for that work or direct pay. There is sense in that. If it will either cost little or nothing, or pay something, there is a value to the family that can make the cost to the family worthwhile.

    Likewise, there are a lot of women who say that they don’t want to leave because they know what will happen in their absence, and I can relate to that. However, it is a bit unfair to blame the husbands on that. After all, in most circumstances, it is indeed the wife who not only normally has the bulk of that job, but who is used to doing it. If I had to sub at my husband’s work for a day or two, with only the kind of working knowledge that I have from his talk about it, and my helping him occasionally with editing or presentation focus or something like that, I would make a hash of it as well, and he’d have to come “clean up” the mess I’d left. Yes, they are his children and it is his home, but it is a big job, and unless he is used to doing it day in and day out, he will not manage it as well. And it is unreasonable to expect him to do so. Which means that we have to factor in the clean up and the backlog of work. And that is normal.

    When my husband is away from his job for a conference or class, he knows that he will have a ton of makeup work when he comes back. And it will sometimes mean a late night or three. This is part of how we make decisions about these things.

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