Tips for more diverse panels, conferences and similar events

The scene is still all too common: at panels, conferences and anywhere on stage, men are usually the ones with a microphone in hand. A survey of students at the Berlin School of Business and Innovation (BSBI) in 2019 also supports this observation. According to the survey, only 29 per cent of the speakers at German tech events in 2019 were women.1 At tech events outside of Germany, that number dropped even further, to 22 per cent.2 Individual events like re:publica stood out by booking nearly 50 per cent female speakers,3 but numbers like that are still a major exception.

When asked why the percentage of non-male discussion participants is so low, event organisers often respond that they could not find any suitable female experts. But not to worry: they are out there. And by inviting these women to speak, organisers can create more diverse discussions, panels and similar events – and make these events more interesting as a result. To succeed in this area, it helps to keep a couple of things in mind when approaching potential female speakers and professionals from other diverse groups:

  1. Assuage doubts: Research has shown that women tend to underestimate their own professional abilities. A study conducted by the Zenger Folkman consulting group in 2019 came to the conclusion that women in leadership roles scored significantly higher in leadership skills such as resilience, self-improvement and a focus on results than their male colleagues did. However, in their self-assessments, they rated themselves as much worse; this was particularly true among women under 25. Women’s confidence in their own abilities begins to increase around the age of 40.4 For panel discussions and similar events, this means some women – particularly younger women – tend to be unsure how to respond when offered a speaking engagement. They often wonder if they are the right person for the job, and when in doubt, they will generally decline the offer. But if an organiser has done their research, they can assuage these doubts by providing examples and encouraging these women to accept speaking engagements. And after a successful speaking engagement, women may become more confident that they are the right person to speak at such events again in future.
  2. Do not invite women or professionals from other diverse groups as speakers just to fulfil a quota: One thing we know for certain is that no one wants to be invited to participate in a discussion panel just because of their gender. Their expertise is what matters. And although many organisers’ efforts to ensure equal representation on their panels may be commendable, gender parity is not always possible, simply because there are many fields with fewer women than men. However, if an organiser gives the impression that they are only inviting women and non-binary people to speak in order to fulfil a quota, they are unlikely to receive a positive response. In such cases, the probability that the potential speakers will agree to appear is practically zero.
  3. Give people below C-level the opportunity to speak: Naturally, high-calibre names from the world of leadership tend to be the main attraction for event attendees.5 But if organisers only book top-level management, they will have a difficult time assembling a diverse panel; in Germany, there are still too few women in leadership roles or running their own companies. According to a study by Germany’s Federal Employment Agency, approximately 28 per cent of the top managers and employees with supervisory functions in 2022 were women. The German Startup Monitor 2023 revealed that there are only about 20.7 percent female founders in Germany.6 In that sense, if organisers want to assemble a diverse, exciting panel, they should also offer people below C-level management the opportunity to speak. One benefit is the fact that many of these people work in operational areas of companies, so they can provide more detailed insight into their field. Event organisers should not let this opportunity pass them by.
  4. Use networks: A good panel thrives on diverse participants. If event organisers are unable to find suitable candidates in their own networks, they shouldn’t hesitate to draw upon other networks. These might include colleagues’ networks or professional platforms such as Digital Media Women, WOMEN SPEAKER FOUNDATION, speakerinnen.org, Generation CEO, EDITION F, #InnovativeFrauen or Big Speak for the LGBTQ+ community.7 Sending an enquiry to specialised events such as STICKS & STONES, an LGBT+ jobs and careers fair, can also help organisers find the right speakers. Additionally, organisers can tap into the networks of female speakers and non-binary professionals who have already confirmed that they will take part in an event. Organisers can simply ask them for additional contacts, recommendations, panel ideas and connections.
  5. The fundamental concept has to be sound: In addition to an appropriate topic and a well-researched enquiry, event organisers should demonstrate that diversity on the panel is more than just a means to an end; it has to be part of the fundamental concept of the event. Consequently, they should ask themselves the following questions: Would it be possible to appoint female moderators for the event, or moderators from other diverse groups? Is the person responsible for sending enquiries on behalf of the event organiser female? Can I name other women and diverse participants who have already confirmed their involvement? If someone cancels, for example, would I be willing to ask for recommendations of other female colleagues who would make good speakers for the event? All these factors make a positive impression on the people being asked to speak at the event, and they can result in everyone working together to create a truly diverse panel.

There are also things that companies themselves can do to improve diversity on panels, at conferences and on stage.

  1. Public perception: It may be wise, for example, for a company to internally examine the way in which it presents itself to the outside world and who usually represents it. At large international companies, in particular, enquiries tend not to be directed to the potential speakers themselves, but rather to the press office or a similar department. It can be helpful here to once again raise awareness of the importance of diversity among the portfolio of speakers.
  2. Help speakers prepare: Companies can also place greater emphasis on encouraging employees who usually take a back seat to participate in lectures or panels. Professional media training, for example, might help potential speakers overcome any stage fright they may experience. Another option might be to include training on public speaking as part of the company’s internal development programmes in order to provide targeted assistance to employees and help them foster the skills they need at an early stage so that they can enjoy presenting and communicating.

Finally, there are things that women and non-binary speakers themselves can contribute8 to the process of improving visibility:

  1. Have conversations with other women about their experiences, and recommend each other for speaking engagements. Ideally, everyone should be able to name five women from their network that they could recommend as speakers.
  2. Build up a strong professional network and a reputation as an expert in your field to increase your chances of being asked to speak.
  3. Actively apply to participate in panels and similar events at conferences, such when there is a call for papers, and create a profile on platforms like speakerinnen.org. Start with smaller events, or join discussion panels instead of making a solo presentation.
  4. Consider doing a presentation alongside someone you trust to slowly build confidence.
  5. Stand up for your right to equal speaking time on panels and specialised issues. Why should women always be expected to answer questions on ‘soft’ subjects? Ideally, go through the list of questions with the moderator before the panel and request edits as needed.

As you can see, just a few simple tips can help increase the number of female speakers and professionals from diverse groups on stage, on panels and at similar events. And women who want to participate in discussions can play an active role in ensuring that they have the opportunity to share their knowledge and expertise with the audience. The more diverse the participants on stage, the more diverse the audience will be, as well.