Getting more women to present at conferences – Product Camp 2019

Sarah Mitchell

By Natalie Yan-Chatonsky

Sarah Mitchell, the champion for Leading the Product (LTP) Melbourne conference, asked the ProductCamp Melbourne community how she can pave the way for more women to speak at the conference.

In curating the speakers, she’s found there’s no shortage of local and international men keen to snap up the opportunity but female speakers are much harder to come by. 

Sarah’s goal is to curate a diverse group of speakers to make it the best possible conference. Even after 5 years of LTP, it continues to be a challenge to get more female thought-leaders to agree to speak when invited, let alone respond to her call for applications to presenters.

She asked the group for their thoughts on how we can encourage more female product managers can step up and speak publicly. 

We had a robust conversation which clearly highlighted that many women in the product management community would love the opportunity to present but need some support in the months and years leading up to being able to speak at a conference with a big audience.

What is holding women back from talking? 

The discussion group shared their views on the challenges for women to be in a position to speak at a conference:

  • Imposter syndrome – people are worried about whether their topic is good enough and/or relevant to the audience.
  • Perfectionism – feel that they may not have the authority to talk so don’t even feel brave enough to initiate a conversation in a smaller forum. For as long as they don’t speak up even at work, then they will never be ready to advance to speak at a meetup or conference.
  • Anxiety and fear of public speaking – some expressed that they were unsure about how to conquer their fears to ‘go for it’. 
  • Lack of experience – without videos or a history of previous speaking engagements makes it harder to get their initial speaking opportunities.
  • Lack of awareness – that there’s an open call for speakers for many conferences – ideally they get advance notice and know that they will have plenty of support and opportunity to practice in a safe environment.
  • Prioritising other activities – not having enough time to hone the craft of public speaking.
  • Unaware what they need to do to improve their public speaking skills – if they don’t get feedback on why they didn’t get invited or their presentation proposal didn’t get accepted, they end up ruminating on all the possible reasons that could be wrong with them, which doesn’t encourage them to keep finding new opportunities to speak.
  • Can’t find a mentor – would like to find someone to learn from but don’t know how to get one that’s right for them or willing to invest time in helping them improve their public speaking.

Iva Biva, a service designer who has been designing a solution to get more women involved in sport saw the parallels between women’s participation in sport with participation as speakers at conferences. She said that it’s the anxiety that’s stopping women from participating – the self-doubt and feeling that they are not good enough.

Here are some of the suggestions that the group came up with on how to address the above challenges:

  • Small support groups – Create a safe and supportive spaces for women to present their ideas in front of a small audience, as well as the opportunity to video and watch themselves 
  • Model examples – Increase opportunities for women to see other women speak.
  • Co-present – to take the pressure off a novice speaker as they build up their confidence and ability.
  • More guidance – conference/meetup organisers need to provide more guidance on what they are looking for, how to come up with topics that would be appealing to their audiences and specific feedback to those who missed out on how they can improve and reapply next time.
  • Mentoring – make it easier for people to find suitable mentors that will help them improve and affirm that they are on the right track to presenting well in front of an audience. 
  • Gain experience outside work through volunteering and pro bono projects.

Opportunities to get practice

The following groups provide lots of speaking opportunities:

Continue the conversation on the channel that we’ve just started:

Product Anonymous Slack Channel ->  #gettalking

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