I’ve been privileged to share the stage with some amazing presenters. I wondered out loud with colleagues whether there were specific challenges pertinent to women delivering presentations. I’m really grateful to a friend who spoke immediately before me at Fix17 ; the inspiring Sara Gray. Another guest post.
When I am preparing a talk, I don’t spend a lot of time considering gender issues. Accordingly, I struggled at first with this post, because I would give the same general advice to a speaker regardless of gender:
1. know your content inside out
2. bring confidence and enthusiasm
3. wear something that won’t mess with the microphone
4. authenticity and honesty engage audiences
5. practice, practice, practice
But with further reflection, I realized that there may be some unique challenges for female presenters that are worth discussing.
Delivering the talk itself
Having researched and practiced and prepared, you arrive at a conference ready to take the stage. And then, as you peruse the program, you realize that you are the only woman talking that day. In fact, you are the only woman speaking at the whole damn conference. Sometimes this goes unmentioned (unnoticed?), but occasionally this can lead to the supreme awkwardness of being introduced as the “token woman” at a conference. I have had this sorry experience, and it’s teeth-grittingly awful. Smile graciously, ignore the slur, and crush the talk so that your foolish moderator can see the obvious value of inviting diversity to the stage.
The talk itself is generally straightforward, because if you are well prepared, you can deliver a great presentation no matter who is listening. Unless you are speaking about a gender issue, I rarely find my XX chromosomes relevant during my talk. Although there is the prickly issue of vocal register that arises during talks and podcasts. I’ve never been asked to lower my tone of voice to sound more masculine, although I know of female speakers who have received this feedback. I think this is absurd. I’m just going to use my own voice. And if you don’t like it, you don’t need to ask me back, no hard feelings. Now, I think we can agree that giggling like a school girl probably doesn’t go over huge on a professional stage. But we knew that already. Keep it polished, professional and you.
While the vast majority of audience members are really very respectful to speakers, you will run across the rare misogynist who hates you before you even start speaking. On the upside, you are the one with the microphone, and generally the audience won’t get to talk unless there is a question session after your presentation. If you are a woman, you have met these guys before and you probably already have an approach. My two cents? Keep any interaction professional and courteous and brief. Do not let them monopolize the mic.
There is also the uncomfortable (and thankfully uncommon) circumstance where an audience member approaches you after the talk to discover your marital status, or your phone number, or your room number. Most women have undoubtedly faced this before (more commonly in pubs and clubs). Do as you will. I try to stay mindful that the audience gets to fill out feedback forms about me, anytime they want, which usually restrains me from overt rudeness. I generally laugh and turn it into a joke (perhaps they really were joking?) and move on to the next person with a legitimate question.
Female presenters will get a lot of feedback about their talks. So will men. Overall, I love feedback about my narrative or design or presentation skills. This feedback is useful to help me reflect and improve.
But perhaps uniquely, women get feedback about their aesthetics. Both in person and through social media. Including comments about your shoes, clothes, make-up, hair and overall hotness (or lack thereof). Perhaps men also get similar feedback, but I’m not sure. Guys, do people ever come up to you and say “You look better with your hair up, you should have done that for the talk”?
I used to be offended by this focus on irrelevancies. While I appreciate the concepts of looking professional and making a good first impression, many of these comments veer much closer to trolling. These days I try to bring a growth mindset to this feedback. There is always something to learn – sometimes I learn from the feedback itself, more commonly it is an opportunity to reflect on how (or how not) to give effective feedback professionally.
Some conferences won’t ever invite a woman to speak, no matter how excellent you are. It’s usually the ones with all-male organizing committees. Don’t take it personally. You probably don’t want to hang out with the Neanderthals anyway. And in this day and age, more and more conferences are starting to gender-balance their faculty, which may increase opportunities for women to speak in the future, at certain venues.
And please don’t forget that asking to speak is perfectly legitimate. As is asking to chair or moderate a session. Network with the conference organizers, and pitch your ideas a year (or two) in advance. Give them a serious, considered offer. And then follow-up like you mean it. Men ask all the time, while many women sit on the sidelines waiting to be chosen. Stand up and ask, your ideas are worth it.
Voting with your feet (and also your money)
Considering a conference? Find out if they have a gender-balanced organizing committee or speaking faculty. Ensure that your diverse role models are up there on the stage, paving the way to a better future. Filling out a feedback form? Ask for the speakers you want to see next year, and make sure you see yourself reflected up on that stage. We all need role models.
Speaking of diversity, it is certainly worth noting that while female speakers experience a number of challenges, that these issues are equally relevant (if not more so) for other minority groups, whether the differences are based on skin tone, religion, sexual orientation, or physical ability.
It can feel awkward to be the minority speaker. Although it’s almost worse when it starts to feel normal; in medicine we rapidly become accustomed to a mostly male hierarchy as our cultural norm. I’m looking forward to the day when diversity on our stages feels normal. When we no longer have to think about it, and push for it and advocate for it.
Hopefully by the time my daughter reaches her podium, these issues will be behind us, and this post will be an amusing antique. Here’s looking at you, baby.