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On May 7, I was honored to be invited to present at the Online Influence conference in Cardiff, UK.
I presented a keynote in the morning on “from Social Media to Social Business;” the talk was well received, according to tweets and feedback at the event. I was also invited to take part on a panel as the last item of the day, in front of 300 or so people. This second panel consisted of William Conner, from PWC, Jeremy Waite from Salesforce (a good friend of mine), Michael Page, from Synthesio, Luke Moore, from Crimson Hexagon, and Mike Bevans from Yahoo.
But when I took my seat on stage, I very quickly realized that the panel consisted of five middle-aged men (six, including William as Chair), clearly not a fair representation of the digital, social or even real world.
What I had learned just before the panel started was the fact that two female panelists had been invited (thus balancing the mix better), however both had been unable to attend. One was apparently involved in voting on the general election being held in the UK on the same day.
Some way into the panel, a young woman asked the obvious question—where are the women? I am not sure if William knew about the two female panelists dropping out, so no mention of it was made, making the five of us look quite stupid on stage.
We were asked to respond to the issue of gender diversity, and I mentioned that I fully support women on boards, as well as an active campaign by the UK Government, headed by Lord Davies, that would ensure 25% female representation on boards by the end of 2015. In Australia this goal is 30% by 2017.
I did mention that there was a real opportunity for people of either gender to prove their digital literacy–thus helping to inject strong digital skills on Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 boards—and this is a topic for an upcoming blog post. (You can watch a replay of my presentation at the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce in Belfast earlier this month, during which I outlined the urgent need for digital literacy on boards in the UK and beyond.)
However as I was talking about digital diversity I realized I was not addressing the very real issue of gender diversity on the very panel that I was sitting on.
Hacking the panel format
What happened next changed the whole dynamic of the panel, and the discussion.
I offered to give up my seat on the panel, and invited the young woman who asked the question, Miranda Bishop, onto the stage. As I heard discussed after the panel, there was some encouragement from those sitting around Miranda, and she came forward to sit on the panel for the rest of the session. In fact as Miranda tells it on her blog post about the experience:
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…
After the event, I heard that the organizers literally were looking through their hands at this point, wondering what this crazy Australian had done, and fearful of what might happen next.
As it was, Miranda brought an amazing perspective to the panel as a 26-year-old small business owner. She explained that when she left school she found it hard to get a job so she started her own social media training agency, “Talking Social Media.”
The response to our new panelist was extremely positive, however, as I had expected.
I’m sure that I am not the first male panelist to give up his seat and try to inject some gender diversity into a conference panel, but we still have a long way to go. In fact, for more information on the problem, there is an excellent Tumblr called “congrats you have an all male panel” that calls out the many, many conferences that neglect a female voice and perspective.
Miranda rightly asked the question that many were asking at the conference, and she also had the confidence to come forward when I asked her to join the panel. And I am so glad she did.
So next time you are at a conference where there is an all-male panel, be the one who says “this is not right” and do something about it—in real time.