Anyone who attended Oi (Online Influence) Conference 2015 on Thursday I’m sure will remember ‘that question’ I asked at the live panel debate. For anyone who didn’t attend first I’ll explain the day and then the subsequent twitter storm!
Oi Conf is a Cardiff-based annual Digital and Social Media focused conference, boasting names like IBM, Youtube, Salesforce and Twitter taking to the stage to share their views, plans and new technology and innovation with an audience of around 750. As a Cardiff-based Social Media trainer it would pretty much be a mortal sin for me not to attend, but even if it weren’t I’d probably shell out the £199 for a ticket anyway. Last year I learnt ideas and structures I still relay on to my clients, and I really enjoyed being around so many other people in a similar industry. There aren’t many people I see on a daily or weekly basis who actually do what I do all day, so Social Media can sometimes be a lonely industry (ironic I know).
I really enjoyed the conference this year, in particular the opening speaker, Stephen Bartlett of Social Chain, and a masterclass leader, Amanda Neylon of Macmillan. Last year I’d tweeted the main Oi Twitter account and said I was a bit disappointed by the amount of female speakers (1/10), when Social Media and larger connected industries (Comms, Marketing, PR, Customer Service) all show a very even gender balance at the conference itself. Why is it disappointing? I suppose it’s because it’s sad to see that even in a century of equal pay, with Sheryl Sandberg heading up Facebook and a pregnant Marissa Mayer appointed to Yahoo, women are still hard to find in the top tiers of company hierarchy and at tech conferences.
This year, when we all piled into the final engagement of the day, a panel on ‘The future of Digital Technologies’ lots of attention was directed to the fact that the panel was 5 strong and all male, both on Twitter and in person. After a little encouragement on Twitter and a bit of time to chew over how I’d ask the question I decided to put up my hand for the microphone.
It’s worth saying at this point that I was insanely nervous. Public speaking is something I do all the time, but opening yourself up to a panel of 5 leaders in your industry and a room of a few hundred people with a really awkward question about gender made me physically shake.
I started off by trying to place the question in the context of the ‘Future of Digital Tech’ seeing as that was the panel title. I asked how the proportion of women in leadership can progress in the future. And I summed it up by asking ‘In essence, how, in 1 or 2 or 5 years time, can this panel be of an even gender split?’
To my relief and elation the question prompted applause from the audience and great reactions from the panel and the compere too. To my utter shock the question also prompted IBM’s Andrew Grill to throw the panel rulebook out of the window and rectify the situation by offering me his seat! As I made my way down from right at the back of the hall I think my whole body turned red from blushing. Also it’s actually quite lucky that this was a conference about something I am pretty well-informed on in hindsight…
There was applause, there was a mad rush on Twitter and I got to hold my own on a panel with people about a billion times more qualified to be there than me. We all debated gender equality in technology companies in a large progressive room. I heard about how Andrew mentors some of his young female co-workers, and how Salesforce went through their entire workforce with a fine tooth comb checking for equal pay disparities. I also carried on contributing to the rest of the panel questions about lots of other topics which I’m exceptionally proud of. In my surprise I’d left my phone in my seat but when I was reunited with it, I’d been inundated with nothing but overwhelming positive responses to my question on Twitter. People who weren’t at the event were emailing me congratulations and texting me to ask what was going on. Now if that isn’t worth asking the awkward question I don’t know what is! You can see some of the responses below.
Huge thanks to Andrew and the rest of the panel for being so welcoming, letting me contribute and not being afraid to shake things up!
Now the event is over I wanted to write this blog and state that it was really important to me to try my best not be inflammatory or place blame. I certainly don’t think the organisers went about thinking ‘Let’s have an all male panel because women clearly can’t tech’. What I do think is that a lot of people in the room were disappointed that there wasn’t much diversity in the panel. Diversity creates debate, it educates by sharing different viewpoints, it’s profitable, it’s great for business and it makes the audience feel more thoroughly represented and connected.
It’s also important for me to identify that there was a great improvement in the proportion of female speakers throughout. I understand that choosing speakers is down to ability, availability, cost, marketing power and lots of other factors. Quotas of 50/50 in any industry are an issue that I honestly haven’t made my mind up on yet so I’d never be prescriptive on that. It’s also been passed on to me that some of the female speakers had to leave earlier or were hard to find in the first place. I understand that running an event that big is SO difficult. My background is actually in large scale event management and marketing. However, there could well have been plenty of women and men in the audience who could have also been able to offer different perspectives on that panel. It’s also a real shame that unfortunately billed speaker Edwina Hart was unable to attend to close off the proceedings, which I’m sure would have helped diversify the day.
The progression of women’s and men’s careers can depend on choice. A choice is something we’re all entitled to. However, choice is always influenced by many factors. Culture, personal development, work-life balance, access to funding, human capital, and unconscious bias are just a few factors that affect women and men in business. And with a lack of good representation for women in top leadership roles, a vicious cycle occurs as below. This is a diagram I used in my recent PGC assignment (I’m clearly not a designer so no jokes about my smart art please!).
Unconscious bias is a fairly new phrase to me. But I think it’s a really interesting and thought-provoking term. Unconscious bias affects everyone. It’s a tendency to connect with people who you are used to, or people who are like yourself. To take the example of gender, men may be more likely to empathise with and connect with other men. Whereas women may be more likely to connect with and see themselves in other women. And of course, people who are transgender, or identify with fluid gender, may connect more with other people who they see as similar to them. Which is why it’s so wonderful that we have people like Laverne Cox in mainstream media now. So say for example if you’re a senior manager in a firm and you’re male. If you have four people directly below you in seniority, two are male and two are female, you might find it easier to chat to the men over a coffee, discuss similar life events, give them advice, have one-to-one meetings without any awkwardness, help them develop their skills. If those men have taken your advice and developed their skills, they might well be better equipped when promotions come around, and more likely to reach higher tiers of management.
Of course this doesn’t always happen, but understanding the idea means you can get better perspective on how our weird human brains work.
Finding Female Speakers
So why is it so hard to find female speakers? Well funnily enough, I have first hand experience of this. I help run the popular speaking event Ignite Cardiff and we’ve ALWAYS struggled getting an even gender split of speakers. It’s a well-researched fact that generally speaking, women tend to apply for jobs or promotions if they feel like they are completely qualified, whereas men will tend to apply if they are at least partly qualified. This is a choice, yes. But the choice is influenced by confidence, self-worth, culture and role-modelling. If you can bring something into someone’s frame of reference, they can identify with new ideas and see themselves differently.
So how did I fix this? (I’m going to say I because I’m really proud of my actions here, and it’s rare we give ourselves enough credit for our achievements). I insisted to my collaborators that I get a few minutes on stage to appeal for more speakers at one of our events. The event in question had 2/10 female speakers. I wanted to try to set an example, to show that even though again I was really nervous, that I would be signing up as a speaker for the next event. I tried to reinforce the message that our stage was for anyone, as long as they had something good to share, and that they didn’t have to be perfect.
In the two events since we’ve had an even split of gender. This is both because more women signed up to speak, and because we’ve consciously made an effort to get a great blend of speakers and topics.
There’s still work to be done of course, there are so many under-represented groups that we’re working to involve more. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that we’ve come a long way in making sure our stage reflects our audience better.
I’ve been overwhelmed with the amazing reactions in person and on Twitter after the panel debate. Take a look at just a fraction of them below. One person on Twitter, whom I won’t mention as they didn’t tag me in their tweet, directed a response to my question calling it a ‘feminist rant’. I don’t quite know how I feel about my question being classed as that. I certainly don’t shy away from the label ‘feminist’. My view of feminism is fluid, I don’t identify it with the antiquated view of man-hating. But ‘rant’ isn’t what I wanted to put across.
I wanted to highlight a larger problem in our industry that women don’t move up management tiers as easily as men by posing a balanced question that was well-considered. Who else to help solve that than leaders in our industry? I know that I did that to the best of my ability, and I’m really very proud of the fact that I stood up to say what lots of us were thinking. I’m even more proud that I’m certain someone else would have said it if I hadn’t, which means progress is being made.
Great day at #oi15 today, it's an online world, good to keep up. Let's see more women speakers next time, it's not hard to find us!— Helen Murdoch (@helenmurdoch) May 7, 2015
@Miranda_Bishop Well said. Its intention wasn’t harmful, but potential harm was still caused. #panelgate — Steve Morgan (@steviephil) May 7, 2015
@Miranda_Bishop Good on you today! #Respect #WomeninBusiness ##AwkwardQuestion #Oi15 — Nic Ingledew (@Nic_Ingledew) May 7, 2015
I think it's fair to say we witnessed #PanelGate at #oi15 today. @Miranda_Bishop was an inspiration to be brave, get up and speak out. — Joy-Aisling (@secondmagpie) May 7, 2015
@DanekaNorman We said the same thing!— Christine Cawthorne (@crocstar) May 7, 2015
"I hope you don't mind me chipping in?" - @Miranda_Bishop to the panel. NO. CHIP IN MORE. #highlightofmyday #Oi15 — Jon Aitken (@jonbehere) May 7, 2015
@Miranda_Bishop well done you! Said what we were ALL thinking! #oi15 — Ceri Lynaghan (@CeriLynaghan) May 7, 2015