Why women speakers on stage matters

by Mar 3, 2014

Why it's important for women speakers to be on stage

Why it’s important for women speakers to be on stage

Women speakers are role models

Gender discrimination in conference’s speaker panels recently reared its ugly head when the preeminent chemistry conference posted a list of two dozen confirmed speakers without including a single woman.  A group of female scientists promptly called for a boycott, but faced backlash from a prominent male colleague who dismissed their efforts as “trendy whining about supposed ‘gender inequality’”.  Similarly, the TEDxKids event on “Sustainable Future” that will soon take place in Brussels, has announced a number of prominent speakers, alas, nearly all of them being male.  It is important to  understand that having women speakers on stage really matters.

Male dominant

It is true that hard sciences and energy industry remain predominantly male, but smart and competent women also exist in those fields, and it is just a matter of homework to try to find them. The justification that “one would not want to decline a great male speaker just because he is male, or add a female speaker from the field just for the sake of balance” is often used, and is an argument that any competent woman in those fields does not like to hear. The truth is that the speakers are often invited, so there is no need to “decline” anyone, but finding competent women would just require a bit more effort.  Sadly, when feeling public pressure, the so-called gender balance is often created not by inviting women as speakers, but by having them as event facilitators or workshop leaders.  This assigns them to traditional female activities: coordinating and teaching, not high visibility leadership roles.

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Lack of women role models

Lack of role models has been identified as one of the main reasons for the lack of women in science and technology. As they say: “You can’t be what you can’t see”. Therefore, targeting girls and younger female students, and presenting them with examples of strong, inspiring and competent women is crucial, and often works on a subconscious level. It a real pity that events aimed at younger audience do not use the opportunity to make a difference here.

I actively participate at “Green light for Girls event”, a great initiative, taking place each year at the International School of Brussels. At this fantastic event, at which about 300 girls participate at various workshops related to science and technology, the world is turned upside down, at least for a day. The plenary talks are given by inspiring and charismatic women, and facilitators, armed with all the expertise and leadership qualities, are largely male.

And whether one likes to believe it or not, it does make a difference who is allowed to be on stage and who is not.

What do you think?

Tatjana Parac-Vogt Subscriber
Tatjana is Chemistry Professor at KU Leuven, the President of BeWiSe (Belgium Women in Science, a non-profit organization that supports position of women through various initiatives), and management committee member of GenderSTE, a European network of policy makers and experts committed to promoting a fairer representation of women.

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