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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115 comments | Comment


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  1. Jacey says:

    This is such an important topic to consider. Thank you for opening the dialogue. Nothing new here, but this quote from Lean In resonated with me: “Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter.”

    It’s not glamorous, but fear may well be at the root of the problem.

  2. Shay says:

    I’m not a speaker-type, but I do travel for work. When my husband was invited to come along as well, it made being gone for six days a lot more enjoyable. Perhaps making it more open to spouses and families would be helpful.

    He paid his own way to get there, but most everything else was covered. It was so nice to have him around, even though I was working like crazy and could only pop by to see him twice a day–it made a huge difference in my morale.

    I realize this is difficult for families with kids and after school commitments, but just thought it was worth sharing.

    • Anne says:

      I was having a similar conversation with another mom friend yesterday. My own family homeschools, so we have a lot of freedom to travel as a family–including to events like the one I’m referencing here. But what we consider valuable educational trips for our homeschooled kids would be “unexcused absences” for most school-age kids.

    • Lacy says:

      I appreciate this comment, Shay. My husband and I live where I work, and the days when he is less present due to his own work commitments are much more difficult.

  3. Missy June says:

    In a more general sense, I think that many women are already so stretched to the max and vital to their home and family life that being absent for any period of time just isn’t an option. If I get a few minutes away without responsibility, I don’t want to fill that time with … requirements.

    • I agree with Missy. Too much on our plate already. We can only do so much. This is where a very supportive husband comes in. Roles are shifting yes, but when there are kids involved, like it or not, women still bear the brunt of child rearing. I have an extremely involved husband (he’d make a better homemaker than me!), but he’s an officer in the military. The military sort of requires a “military” spouse, to support the role of the active duty person. It’s a non-glam job one that not just military wives experience, but so many other women who support husbands who have extremely demanding careers in public service (that aren’t really flexible in terms of work hours/schedules). At the end of the day, I think that’s in part, why women “aren’t showing up.”

      • Missy June says:

        I was a single mama for several years and now am recently remarried. I have a very involved and supportive spouse, yet my schedule is often dictated by the demands of family life. We are both blessed with fairly flexible jobs, but showing up elsewhere requires a fair amount of planning and enlisting support!

  4. Tim says:

    Speaking only as someone who ahs observed this and not experienced it as a woman, I’d say in part it’s because women have been excluded from so much over the centuries that accepting these invitations is not a culturally engrained norm. When it does become normative, then I think women will be accepting these invitations much more readily.

    Even men can be excluded, of course. Any time an identifiable portion of society excludes another segment – whether it’s based on ideas (as recently happened to me) or sex, or social status, or any other identifier – people in the excluded segment are pushed that much further into the margins. It’s hard to accept invitations from way out on those margins.

    We need to battle those marginalizing forces, Anne.


    • Anne says:

      I was flabbergasted at the experience you shared there, Tim!

      And that’s an interesting point: “It’s hard to accept invitations from way out on those margins.” Excellent food for thought.

      • Tim says:

        Being a mom with primary responsibility for the care of young children is one way to be marginalized too – at least marginalized from the type of interactions you ask about in this post, Anne. Child care, expenses, travel, all the logistics that young moms face are daunting and push them further away from the center of the crowds that organize these events.

        Overcoming this means making a concerted effort to include and to equip those who have been excluded. That is part of the normalizing process I mentioned above. As long as society fails to do this, we won’t have many women – young moms or otherwise – who will be invited to be speakers, presenters and resources at conferences.

  5. Mary says:

    Well, I think that there are a lot of women who would love to be on panels, but they are not in the invitee’s circle of knowledge. There really isn’t an excuse for not having more women on panels and at conferences. As an event planner, I understand that people have busy schedules and it’s not always possible for them to participate, but surely there are more women who have openings on their schedules. It’s just a matter of building the organizations network…and sometimes introducing a new person to the speaking scene.

    • Anne says:

      I think you’re on to something when you talk about limited circles of knowledge. But so many conferences are about making new connections and broadening existing circles of knowledge! Surely there’s a way to overcome that obstacle?

  6. Candice says:

    I preface this comment by saying my husband is amazing and we don’t have kids yet, but we are around A LOT of parents. What we have both noticed is women/moms stressing out over having so much to do and not letting anyone help them, not even their husbands. I think there are some husbands (and wives for that matter) who don’t pitch in enough around the house, with the kids, etc., thus limiting the other spouse. BUT I have been noticing a lot of dads we are close to trying to help, and the mom criticizes the way he does it or micromanages each step to where I have to wonder when he will stop trying.

    • Nurse Bee says:

      This can be true. Even instances where the dad is great (as in our family) though, a lot of times the wife/mom still is the primary caretaker. For example, I work part-time, my husband works full-time. He is fully capable with the kids and when I work weekends he is the one home with them. But we only have childcare on the days I work, so going anywhere would be kind of out of the question for me because of lack of childcare (and besides that, I try to limit the amount of time our children are in daycare).

      • Emily says:

        I heard a comedian talk about the “default parent” once, and I think that moms fall into this most often – even if Dad’s in the room, the kids call “Mom!” We as women may tend to think that we are needed for that reason: Dad never knows who needs to be where at what time, can’t recall their immunization stats, doesn’t know which door to drop off or pick up at, etc. So we can’t go, obviously, the house would fall apart. 🙂 Now, I’m guilty of micro-managing the way my husband did things when our two boys were small; it was a trait I really tried to overcome in myself, and while I have improved, I’m not cured! But Nurse Bee’s comment above brings out an interesting truth – we moms tend to schedule things to be easier on our spouses, and tougher on ourselves. We make their lives simpler. In doing this, maybe we are taking away their opportunity to deal with the kids and get to know these things better? I don’t know. Candice’s point about moms stressing and not accepting help is also true among the moms I know, and myself. I do not delegate well, either because I’ve had to do it myself or because I’m an oldest child, or just because that’s me, or because it’s what society tells me I must do to be a “good” mom. 🙂 Whatever it is, I know plenty of moms who talk all about how they want to be involved with their child’s school/lessons/whatever and actually don’t show up when called, saying they’re “too busy” and “can’t fit another thing in that day”. It’s nuts. Thanks, Anne, for starting this conversation! 🙂

  7. Faigie says:

    I was a high end portrait photographer for 25 years. When I first started out I had young children and I shlepped all over the place WITH my babies. At one point I even took my daughter who was in 8th grade at the time out of school to come with me on a plane an hour or 2 away with an 8 month old so she could watch him while I was in conference. Not everyone is as nutty as I am and its really hard to get away when you have a family.

      • Faigie says:

        I was not a travelling high end portrait photographer. I was a high end portrait photographer who traveled to courses and conferences. Sure If you’d like I could even write a guest post for you about my experiences as I also worked from home which I thought was such an ideal thing in the beginning but, it turns out its not so ideal with kids around.

  8. Karol says:

    As an introvert, I have mustered courage to speak in front of large groups, but it is something I force myself to do. As an INFJ (only 1% of the population), I have deep and insightful experiences to share, and prefer communicating one on one or in small groups.

    Maybe allowing speakers to get their messages out in the form they are most comfortable is worth exploring. Is it necessary to physically be on stage? Perhaps orchestrating a media savvy presentation of speakers live via Skype or other similar technologies would allow the speakers to participate in ways they are most comfortable.

    Bloggers live their lives relaying info via technology, so why would we expect them to change their vehicle of communication?

    Asking the conference organizers to design a video presentation project for speakers could be an innovative and dazzling new way to energize attendees and revel in the synergy of a real AND virtual experience.

    It could be a very progressive and exciting integration of mediums, providing an opportunity to attract the speakers who inspire and delight audiences in a modern way.

    Food for thought. Love your thought provoking questions! 🙂

  9. Alisa says:

    I’m a single mom, and even though I live half a mile from my awesome retired parents who are always willing to keep my son for me, I feel guilty when I am away from him for extended periods of time. Showing up isn’t hard for me during my son’s school hours. After school? Overnight? That’s a bit of a different challenge.

  10. Child care. And a day to recover (and do laundry) in between travel and returning to real life. Those things would make me show up to a lot more. Not that I’m being asked to speak at conferences. But maybe someday. And I suspect the issues will be the same for me then.

  11. Jillian Kay says:

    Childcare is huge. If it’s something work related that takes place during a work day where I am covered then I say yes to almost everything I am invited to (exception: pushy man trying to get me to re-participate in a webinar because he couldn’t manage to keep his computer on for an hour last time.) I make it a rule to force myself to accept every single meeting possible whether it be a meeting with big wigs (I always sit at the table :)) or a birthday party. But weekends and after work just take too many logistics and I have to skip them 9 times out of ten. Baby sitters are expensive and time is short.

  12. Karlyne says:

    Complicated question, Anne! But I want to weigh in on the side of “tired” (or the realization that you’re going to be exhausted and behind schedule when you return). Although fear may keep some people from public speaking, the women that I know are, if not fearless, at least willing to smoosh the fear and keep on doing what is worthwhile to them. I think women are finding out that “having it all” is simply not possible. And when kids are involved, they often do (and should) take priority.

    Should older women, women whose children are grown, answer the call? It sounds so very logical, but I have found that my life is even busier than before – and not just because I have my grandkids five days a week (my non-profit daycare!). I think that young women who pour themselves into their families and expect to find themselves with time on their hands later are often very (pleasantly) surprised to find that family is still the priority. I know I was!

    I remember Katherine Hepburn commenting that she didn’t have children because she didn’t think she could do justice to her career and to children. Life is a constant stream of choices.

    And, although I will defend to the death our right to make the choice to have both children and career, I still have to say that we need to realize how difficult it is and not sugar-coat that choice as something that every woman “should” do.

    • Anne says:

      “Should older women, women whose children are grown, answer the call? It sounds so very logical, but I have found that my life is even busier than before.”

      Interesting. Thanks for sharing the perspective I can’t have for years! Although I will say that I think part of the answer has to do with the season an individual woman is in–not just major seasons, like kids-at-home or kids-grown-up, but the micro-seasons as well. For example, I feel like I have great flexibility and freedom now, when my youngest is three, compared to just a year or two ago when he was younger.

      And of course I’m wondering about the significant percentage of women who (like Katherine Hepburn) never have children…

    • Along the lines of the age issue, I read something recently (I can’t remember where), that the older, wiser, more experienced women experience the marginalization of ageism. Women in their thirties are busy with children and right in the thick of parenting, so they have no time for outside engagements (or very limited ones). Then, by the time they reach an age where they can mentor and devote time to outside engagements, they are bumped for the younger/hipper women in their 30s and 40s.

      • Karlyne says:

        When I was a young mom, my best friend and I kept howling, “Where are the older women?” And now that I am an older woman (gulp, how quickly it happens!), I still wonder where they are. Our media culture glorifies older women only when they are still gorgeous and young looking. What does everyone say about Diane Keaton? “She’s still so beautiful!” We have become a culture of skin-deepedness (although Diane Keaton herself is a funny, intelligent woman). How often has Hillary Clinton been featured in the media – for her hairstyle!

      • Totally tracking with you here. But, I feel bumped even in my 40s, barely in my 40s. There’s some conference out there whose original invite stopped at 39. They changed their tune, but clearly the attitude is out there.

          • Like I said, they did retract that statement, but I feel like since that was their original idea, the mood is already struck. Maybe I hold grudges or am overly sensitive, but that really bothered me — and apparently still does. Ha!

  13. Jamie says:

    Travel for work, particularly in this day and age of poorly managed airlines and ridiculous TSA nonsense, is neither glamorous nor enjoyable. It often comes book-ended with stress, as preparation must be made for both the presentation and the physical aspects of travel, and then the need for decompression (and sometimes dealing with colds/other ailments caught from fellow travelers) afterward.

    Combine this with a demanding and/or creative job (such as one might expect women invited to be speakers to hold), a spouse with work demands of their own, and children, pets, aging parents, a house, or any of a dozen other demands that women juggle in their every day lives, and you quickly find situations in which the return on investment (personally and/or professionally) is just not worth the stress and costs associated with trying to line up other people to fill in all your different roles while you’re away.

    As much as I see your point about valuing diversity, I’m not actually convinced that it’s a bad thing that women are choosing to say no. Perhaps it’s a sign that many women are choosing (and feeling empowered) to focus on the “best” things in their lives, even where doing so means passing up on legitimately “good” opportunities.

    My only creative suggestion for helping fix the problem? Consider using a TEDx format. The main TED conference happens in Scotland every year, but TEDx conferences – smaller versions of the main event, focused around local areas or specific subjects – happen all over the US all throughout the year. When there’s only one of a given conference every year, if you can’t swing that weekend or can’t swing the expense to wherever it’s held, you’re out of luck. Smaller, regional conferences are often closer to home and cheaper to attend, putting them in reach of more people. And, with multiple conferences, there are multiple chances to make your schedule and resources align with a conference, boosting the possibility that both speakers and potential attendees can make it.

    • Karlyne says:

      Jamie, I like your concrete suggestion (and the rest of your comments, too!) about using the TEDx format. It sounds… helpful!

    • Anne says:

      Jamie, I’m cracking up at what you said about travel these days because it’s so spot-on!

      The TEDx format sounds promising. (And what you say about regional conferences rings true. I only travel to events on the Eastern seaboard, because flying to the West Coast from where I am kills two days with travel–one going out, one coming back. The event I’m going to–to speak or just attend–has to be amazing to make that worth my while.)

  14. This is a complex question. I’m a married woman – no kids yet – and I believe it’s often tougher for wives and especially moms to show up, since they are responsible for more people (some of whom are young and need a lot of care). My husband is super supportive of my ambitions, and that makes a big difference.

    I recently read a book called Wonder Women by Debora Spar (president of Barnard College), about feminism and work-life balance and the relentless expectations under which a lot of women struggle. The author provided no easy answers (I don’t think there are any), but raised and illustrated some thought-provoking questions.

  15. I wish it were an easy answer. There are so many factors. I’m married so it’s not just my schedule, but my husband’s that I need to consider. And yet, he travels often for work, with almost no regard for my “schedule”. He’s been in dallas for the past 4 days and will be leaving for memphis for two weeks soon. I’m a stay at home mom to an infant, so anywhere I go has to welcome her as well. Price is a factor as is accessibility. How far from the airport is the conference? Can i take a shuttle or will i need to rent a car? Is public transportation available? There are a lot of conferences that I have wanted to attend this past year and upcoming that I have to pass on and it is very frustrating. But, one of us has to keep the house going and keep our center stable. And right now, that is my job.

    • Anne says:

      I get that. We have several friends with military families (as just one example of what this could look like), and being in the Army/Navy isn’t just a job–it’s a lifestyle. And it just doesn’t allow the flexibility that makes travel easy (or at least easier) for the non-military spouse.

  16. Suzanne Watkins says:

    Overcommiitment to pre-existing activities and events, the backbone to set healthy boundaries, and the realization that, as an introvert, all these events are SUPER draining have all played a large role in my “no’s.” An even must be extremely important in order for me to take that much away from my family and home. Time is non-renewable, and I finally get that and protect it fiercely.

  17. Michele says:

    This is a great question! I’m a writer, but I’m also a wife and a mother of two. I’ve had to turn down some speaking opportunities because of family commitments, but others because I needed my family there and they couldn’t accommodate that. For example, one speaking engagement I would have loved to have done coincided with my daughter still being a newborn (she nurses extremely frequently), and I really would have needed to bring her along as well as my husband (for childcare while I presented). They told me they could only pay for my plane ticket, and so it wasn’t logistically possible. We’re hoping to have a large family, and I’m hoping to continue writing and speaking. In an ideal world, we would acknowledge that there is a difference between a mother and a father (especially with little children) and there are instances where a father could easily get away for a few days for a conference but a mother cannot…at least without being able to bring her family with her! I think if we want women to show up with need to always give the option of bringing a nursing baby along, and accommodate families (and welcome them!) whenever necessary.

    • Anne says:

      I think being able to bring an infant along would definitely make it easier for women to show up. I’m sorry it didn’t work (or wasn’t an option, is more like it) in this instance.

  18. Heather says:

    I believe men and women think about these things very differently. I am married, with two children, and we both work. When I have a meeting that takes me out of town, my first thought is to look at the calendar and see what I am “missing.” My daughter’s class valentine party? A gymnastics practice? Oh that obviously won’t work. My husband (who is wonderfully supportive and does all of our school dropoffs) never even thinks of those things. He thinks of what he needs to do. And (usually) remembers to tell me that he will be away on those days. I think of myself and my time in the framework of my family’s schedule. My husband thinks more independently. I think we could both benefit from eachothers outlook at times.

    • Anne says:

      I don’t know about women in general, but I know I definitely do this! I’ll be dreading fun events I have on the calendar because my natural tendency is to think about what I’m leaving behind and not on what I’m headed towards. Once I can realize this and shift my perspective I’m much happier.

  19. Lucinda says:

    I don’t know how many speakers were on the agenda overall, but asking 12 who would have made the presenters more diverse is not that big of a number. Perhaps they needed to dig a little deeper, try a little harder, spend a little more energy to get a diverse line-up.

  20. Jennifer H says:

    I’m the exact opposite. I used to think this was important, but now, not so much. In fact, it was so important to me in college, I chose a major that only had a couple other girls in my classes. I wrote a paper on “Math Anxiety in Girls” and vowed to spend my life making sure girls felt worth while Then I had a son, and only a son, so that changed a little. Still, I don’t think it would bother me if I went to a conference and almost all if not all the speakers were men. Oh wait, that does happen, because I’m also in a profession with few women 🙂

    • Anne says:

      Interesting tidbit: the financial services sector is one segment where the number of women is actually declining. That’s probably not shocking to you. 🙂

  21. Jessica says:

    In the context of racial diversity, I’ve read a number of articles that talk about the fact that often an all or mostly white committee plans a conference, and then they say, “We need some people of color to speak!” so they ask a handful of people, but the commitment to involve people who aren’t white is fairly surface-level. I wonder if the same thing could be happening with gender in a situation like this, where a conference is put together primarily by men and then they invite some women to speak. If you don’t have (women, people of color, fill in the blank) as an integral part of your organization and an integral part of your planning committee, you can’t just patch over that lack of diversity by inviting some more diverse speakers. It’s likely the speaker may look at who’s inviting them and think, either consciously or subconsciously, “I don’t belong here,” and not feel 100% enthusiastic about agreeing to speak. If diversity is built into the core of your organization, however, then having a diverse lineup of speakers is going to happen more naturally because 1) people will feel more comfortable accepting invitations, 2) you’re less likely to say, “Well, we asked X people in a certain category and they turned us down, so it must be something about those people,” and 3) you’ll have a broader network within your organization or committee to draw from when selecting speakers.

  22. I speak at conferences. I enjoy them. Generally for me it’s about economics. I want to be paid, sell a lot of books, or see very clearly that I will be paid well soon (I spoke at one conference gratis that led to several paid speeches within the year – that was pretty clear to me at the outset). I occasionally do it for other reasons — I have family in the city where it is (that explains Indianapolis coming up) or I have a special affinity for the group or founder, or they’ve got enough other perks that they’ve intrigued me (box seats for the Red Sox!) But if I had no history with the group and they weren’t offering much on the economic front, or very clear promotional front, that would be tough to get to yes.

    • Anne says:

      I’m so glad to have your input on this, Laura! Thanks for sharing the concrete, tangible ways women can be persuaded to say yes: money (no surprise there), but also convenient locations and Red Sox box seats? That’s exactly the kind of concrete info I’m looking for.

      And it reminds me: my gym (yeah, that’s right) here in Louisville scored a one-day seminar with a prestigious expert because they offered to schedule it the day after the Kentucky Derby. The Derby was on his bucket list: the gym scheduled accordingly and made it easy for him to say yes.

  23. Holly says:

    I have to be excited about showing up. That’s my viewpoint and I know that’s different than other women. My husband loves his job but also feels a draw to provide. I love my job too but not that much so I only work part time. If I do any “extra” things it’s because it’s important to me. Because its a lot of work to arrange child care and keep everything at home up but if I’m pumped about it I will be there.

  24. Bernadine says:

    I think we can look to Sheryl Sandberg’s central premise in Lean In – that many women aren’t driving themselves to be leaders in their field – for a clue. Presenting at a conference can be great for professional networking, establishing yourself as a thought-leader, etc. Perhaps men push themselves to make the time because they focus on what it will add to their careers, rather than what it will take away.

  25. Wow, Anne, such a thought-provoking question. I have two daughters, eight months and two years old. It is so natural to have my daughters, especially my nursing eight-month-old with me all the time. Aside from a break here and there, everyone seems happiest that way. I notice I’m way more likely to show up at events where I feel like people are accepting of my kids being along (and being kids). Taking them (especially the eight-month-old) with me places seems like more of an inconvenience to others than to me! I wish society were more accepting of children in general. It is sad that the presence of children is seen as disruptive to so many situations. Their cries, little noises, their needs, their moving around. I feel that if the presence of my children were accepted as a social norm, I would be far more likely to show up at things, and I mean that in a really general sense. More specifically, if I were invited to speak at an event and could wear my daughter in a sling while speaking on stage, I’d be way more likely to show up! As it stands now, I’d say no. So…the short answer? I’d be more likely to come if it was okay for my kids to come with me. Great, great questions.

    • Anne says:

      I’d never thought I’d say this in blog comments, but that reminds me of Sarah Palin signing legislation with her baby in a sling. (I just did a quick google search and found out that was 5 whole years ago! Wow.)

  26. What keeps me from showing up to many events I would love to attend is the realistic, honest knowledge of my limitations. A full-time job, its several associated after-hours and weekend obligations, and my position as church pianist (3 services a Sunday) suck a tremendous amount of energy. I’ve finally learned (the hard way) that if I try to ignore my physical and emotional limitations I will pay a high price for days in fatigue, crankiness, and sometimes, lowered immunity leading to illness.

  27. Honestly, it’s the practical things, like childcare and the ability to bring along and nurse small children that make a difference for me. Of course, I’m not a presenter or someone in the corporate world, but in the things in my community that I would like to be involved in, these are the things that keep me from committing. We just don’t have the money for childcare and many activities are when my husband works and can’t be home with our daughter.

  28. Monica says:

    We actually had this exact problem at our most recent conference. And we asked so many women to participate. We asked people we knew, but we also asked lots of women we only knew of, so we definitely reached outside of our circle. The sad thing is, we got one woman to give a real talk, and she talked about her journey rather than actual business advice. Believe me, it’s a great, hard story, but it was disappointing to not have women speaking on topics that applied to our attendees.

    One theory about women and big events is that, frankly, the women are working. Plenty of commenters talked about families and household tasks. In the startup world, we also see that it’s difficult to convince women that the networking that happens at conference IS work. They often choose to stay home and do the work that’s more easily definable.

    • Anne says:

      “In the startup world, we also see that it’s difficult to convince women that the networking that happens at conference IS work. They often choose to stay home and do the work that’s more easily definable.”

      Yes, I suspect this is a big issue–and not just in the startup world. (I’m so grateful for your perspective as someone who is deep in startup culture!

  29. Lesley says:

    For me, in this season, the short answer is a lack of childcare. We don’t live near family and babysitters are expensive especially when you’re a creative type makin little money. I wanted to attend Allume but would have had to fly my mom up to babysit, which on top of the ticket price and travel seemed too expensive. And, of course, I would have brought our 3 month old. I ended up selling my ticket because it was just TOO HARD. The logistics and the cost hinder what I often want to pursue in my career. And while I do did ways to get writing done, and to pursue my dreams in ministry, childcare help is my biggest obstacle.

    • Anne says:

      I get that. I’m sorry you couldn’t make it to Allume this year … but Owen is really little, and SC is a long way from CA! It’ll be easier soon, and there will be much easier events to attend that don’t involve cross-country, multi-connection flights (and 3 hour time changes!)

      I hope that’s encouraging and not obnoxious. 🙂

      • Lesley says:

        It’s very encouraging and not obnoxious at all. I came to the same conclusions…I was trying to push something into our life that’s supposed to be a fun break, but I needed to face some realities about where our life is at right now. And life is GOOD, it’s just busy. Thank you, friend!

  30. 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.

  31. 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.)

  32. 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.

  33. 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!

  34. 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.

  35. 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

  36. 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. 🙂

  37. 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!!

  38. 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.

  39. 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.

  40. 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.

  41. 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.

  42. 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.

  43. 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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