Raising Shakespeare’s Sister (Or Why We Need to Talk about Female Speakers in Search)

Raising Shakespeare’s Sister (Or Why We Need to Talk about Female Speakers in Search)

14th February 2013

The lack of female speakers at search conferences (and indeed in other fields, not to mention wider calls for diversity generally) is something which I think about a lot.

I’m not convinced I have *the answer* or even an answer I’m completely happy with, but nevertheless I feel it’s time I woman-up and throw my hat into the ring. For the purposes of today I’ll be limiting the topic to female speakers at search conferences, not because I don’t think broader calls for diversity aren’t without merit (of course they are), but simply because I want to stick to a topic I feel I can legitimately write about.

We run conferences at Distilled and as one of the individuals who works on speaker selection, I feel that there’s a particular issue which isn’t being discussed publicly right now. Many have spoken about problems in finding women who are happy to speak, or problems with fewer women pitching. I will be talking a little about this here, however there’s another issue I’m more interested in:

  • Why are female speakers typically rated lower (in terms of audience feedback surveys) than their male counterparts?

I’m not sure why this isn’t talked about more. Possibly because not everyone is aware of it. Possibly because it makes us uncomfortable.

I’ll then look at the following questions:

  • Do these lower ratings ‘feed the beast’ – i.e. are there fewer females speakers because of these lower ratings?
  • What should we do about it?

1) Why are female speakers typically rated lower (in terms of audience feedback surveys) than their male counterparts?


As I mentioned above, females being rated lower than males might not be something which you’re aware of.

At Distilled we ask our conference attendees to rate our speakers’ content and performance on a scale of 1 to 5 and also offer the opportunity for delegates to offer free-form written feedback. Now we don’t have a 50 /50 split of male to female speakers, but even proportionally the women seem to do worse than the men.

We’re not alone in seeing this phenomenon. I know that others who run conferences (both in search and other sectors) also see the same.

If we trust the data, we’d conclude that it’s a simple case of female speakers not being as good as male speakers.

Troubling isn’t it? Do you think that’s the case?

I find that very difficult to accept. SEOs tend to trust data, many of us are advocates of data-driven decision making, however in this instance I’m going to come straight out and say: I don’t trust this data.

Here are my issues:

a) Methodology

Not everyone completes the speaker feedback forms so we don’t actually get a complete data set – we don’t know what everyone at the conference thought, we only know what those who responded think.

To take this a step further – who out of this self-selecting audience responds? Those who hated stuff and those who loved stuff. As such we’re collecting only polarised data.

Plus of course, we’re often asking for speaker feedback post the event – and these events are hectic. Who can remember every session? We can’t, we can only remember those we felt most strongly about – those we loved and those we hated.

Now you might at this point be questioning what this has to do with female speaker scores – surely these flaws in our methodology are gender neutral, right?

Actually I’m not so sure.

b) Objectivity is nigh on impossible

It’s very difficult to rate a speaker objectively – naturally our responses are coloured by a number of things:

  • How were we feeling at the time – hungry, tired, caffeine or nicotine deprived
  • How useful was that speaker’s session to us personally
  • How much do we like or respect the speaker

Now objectivity ought to be gender neutral, right? I’m happy to go with the assumption that scheduling (i.e. when a speaker is on and whether or not the audience is hungry, tired etc) is a gender neutral issue, but what about the other two? Let’s deal with them in turn.

How useful was that speaker’s session to us personally?

I’d postulate that we might be seeing gender biases here.

I think that females have a tendency to be more compliant than males. I’m aware this sounds like a giant leap, so I’m going to give you a little evidence of this. This is a direct quote from a TED talk that Sheryl Sandberg gave:

“I’m about to tell a story which is truly embarrassing for me, but I think important. I gave this talk at Facebook not so long ago to about 100 employees, and of couple hours later, there was a young woman who works there sitting outside my little desk, and she wanted to talk to me.I said, okay, and she sat down, and we talked. And she said, “I learned something today. I learned that I need to keep my hand up.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Well, you’re giving this talk, and you said you were going to take two more questions. And I had my hand up with lots of other people, and you took two more questions. And I put my hand down, and I noticed all the women put their hand down, and then you took more questions,only from the men.”

In this situation women put their hands down because they’d been told to. Men didn’t.

Let’s bring this back to conference speaking.

I’d suggest that if women are asked to speak on a particular topic they’ll often do so; even if they think an alternative topic will be more interesting (or indeed useful) to the audience. I know I’ve done this myself. I’ve pitched to speak about link building, but been asked to speak about something else instead. I’ve complied even though I know audiences are more interested in link building than the topic I was asked to speak about. Like the women at Facebook putting their hands down, I played by the rules and complied. As a result I spoke about a topic which was less relevant and/or interesting to the audience.

Conversely I think males are less likely to comply. Again, I’ve seen firsthand male speakers stand their ground, refuse to comply and as a result speak about the topics which are more exciting and relevant to a bigger percentage of the audience.

Is this always the case? No, I couldn’t say categorically that this is always the case. But could this be a factor? It seems plausible to me.

OK, maybe you buy that, maybe you don’t.

What about how much we like or respect the speaker?

That ought to be gender-neutral, right? Let’s deal with ‘like’ first.

I want to share something else from Sheryl Sandberg’s talk about inherent gender biases when it comes to likeability:

“There’s a famous Harvard Business School study on a woman named Heidi Roizen. And she’s an operator in a company in Silicon Valley, and she uses her contacts to become a very successful venture capitalist. In 2002 — not so long ago — a professor who was then at Columbia University took that case and made it Howard Roizen. And he gave the case out, both of them, to two groups of students. He changed exactly one word: “Heidi” to “Howard.” But that one word made a really big difference. He then surveyed the students, and the good news was the students, both men and women, thought Heidi and Howard were equally competent, and that’s good.The bad news was that everyone liked Howard. He’s a great guy. You want to work for him.You want to spend the day fishing with him. But Heidi? Not so sure. She’s a little out for herself. She’s a little political. You’re not sure you’d want to work for her.”

What does this mean?

Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.

This means that men who are successful are also considered likeable. However, women who are successful are not considered likeable.

Wait, what?

Essentially if women want to be liked, they’d better not be too successful. Trouble is, speaking at a conference probably means they’re successful. Unhappily this makes them less likeable, not more. Conversely, if you’re male and speaking at a conference (and ergo successful) this makes you more likeable.

Embarrassingly this is equally perpetuated by both males and females.

By this I mean, it’s not just men who aren’t so sure about successful women – women too judge successful women to be less ‘like-able’ than successful men.

Let’s move on to ‘respect’. Here’s another space where we have something of a gender bias. There are many females in the search industry who are well respected; however there are far more well-respected males.

Coupled with the fact that ‘respected’ again likely means successful and success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women – we’re back around to where we started.

Perhaps female speakers are less respected (or liked – it’s difficult to differentiate between the two) and therefore score less well than their male counterparts. Perhaps this is perpetuated further by the way in which we collect speaker feedback (i.e. after the event, not everyone responds, more often than not you’re capturing polarised views).

2) Do these lower ratings ‘feed the beast’ – i.e. are there fewer females speakers because of these lower ratings?


There’s lots of talk about a desire to select speakers based on meritocracy – i.e. conference organisers ought to select the ‘best’ speakers based on merit. I’m all for this.

But how do we judge merit?

If we rely on speaker feedback scores (and we acknowledge that female speakers are typically rated lower than male speakers) then there’s a danger that the number of female speakers are negatively impacted, as they’ll not be invited back due to low ratings. This is particularly troubling if (like me) you’re concerned about the validity of the data being collected.

But is this the whole picture? No.

I mentioned previously that it’s often highlighted that many women don’t pitch to speak. But why is this? Is it a confidence thing? Again I’ll fall back to Sheryl Sandberg:

“…women systematically underestimate their own abilities. If you test men and women, and you ask them questions on totally objective criteria like GPAs, men get it wrong slightly high, and women get it wrong slightly low.”

I could well believe that this tendency for females to underestimate their own abilities may mean that many lack the confidence to pitch.

What about those who do speak? Do some of them speak once, get bad feedback and never speak again?

Having been on the receiving end of low speaker ratings and some pretty ugly feedback I’ve been sorely tempted just not to speak again. Why? I felt like I had failed. But again, surely that’s without gender bias, right? Low speaker ratings are equally hard for both men and women to take.

Maybe, but maybe not.

There have been a few interesting studies on how women and men attribute success and failure, one such study highlighted:

“…women may attribute success to luck and failure to ability, while men attribute success to ability and failure to luck.”

That seems to indicate that women tend to take failure personally – I got poor speaker feedback because I’m a poor speaker. Whereas men might tend to feel – It’s just bad luck that I got poor speaker feedback.

Alternatively it’s been suggested to me that perhaps men are likely to feel – I got poor speaker feedback because I gave a poor talk; the crucial difference being giving a poor talk is not the same as being a poor speaker.

Finally there are well-documented examples of inappropriate behaviour at search conferences which makes me wonder – are women scared of something else? This is totally unacceptable and needs to stop.

3) What should we do about it?

Try to find better ways of measuring ‘merit’

I believe whole-heartedly in meritocracy – trouble is, as I’ve highlighted above, I don’t think the current methodology of seeking feedback is an effective way of judging merit.

For Distilled’s conferences, in addition to continuing to solicit delegate feedback, we’re also going to appoint a Feedback team comprised of trusted peers. This team will be asked to rate all sessions (male and female speakers alike). They will also be encouraged to provide written feedback and to do so as soon as possible – i.e. ideally directly after each session has finished.

Hopefully this will help in two ways – one we’ll have a more complete data set, and two because we’ll be asking for ‘instant’ feedback we’ll be less reliant on people remembering how they felt about each speaker.

Additionally, the crucial difference is that their feedback will not be anonymous.

If we have questions about their ratings or comments then we’ll be able to go back to the individual in question and ask for further clarification. While the members of this team will potentially suffer the same gender bias as our audiences in general we’ll be able to highlight when / if we think that a gender bias has come into play and indeed encourage this feedback team to closely examine how and why they’ve rated the speakers as such.

In addition to seeking more trustworthy data we’re also seeking more actionable feedback for all speakers – not just women.

The need for more trustworthy data is pretty self-explanatory. The problem of a lack of actionable feedback? Well it’s one of the things that has most frustrated me as a speaker. For example, at one conference I spoke at I received the following comment:

“People who work for Distilled who aren’t Tom or Will Critchlow shouldn’t be allowed to speak.”

So the takeaway for me is – be Tom or Will? That’s going to be tricky. Or maybe they simply meant I just shouldn’t speak. That’s actionable I guess, but not particularly helpful.

We’re hoping this feedback team will be able to offer helpful, actionable feedback which will help all of our speakers (not just women) improve.

I’d be really keen to hear your thoughts on this – is this a good idea? Bad idea? Do you have a better idea?

Stamp out the inappropriate behaviour.

Seriously. It’s 2013.

Carry on speaking (or start)

In the meantime, I’d urge female speakers to keep on keeping on. Continue to seek to improve and continue to speak. Actively solicit feedback from your peers. Ask open questions like – is there anything I could have done differently to improve my content / performance? Listen to those who you respect the most.

I’d also urge females who aren’t speaking right now to actively seek opportunities to do so.

What’s with the reference to Shakespeare’s sister?

For me this is why this issue is important, why we should continue to talk about it and why we should try to change things.

While writing this post, echoes of ‘A Room of One’s Own‘ kept running through my mind. For those who are unfamiliar, A Room of One’s Own is an extended essay which was based on a series of lectures Virginia Woolf delivered in 1928. It was first published in 1929  and it’s a summation of Woolf’s argument for a space for women writers within the traditional patriarchal world of literature. I think it’s relevant still today. In search and elsewhere. I think it nicely summarises why this is important.

84 years ago Woolf wrote:

For my belief is that if we live another century or so…  

if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think…

the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born…

I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.

I’m saddened that 84 years on, we’ve not progressed further. But continuing to work towards increased diversity is worthwhile; both for women in the industry right now and the women who will come after.

We’ve come a long way, Virginia Woolf. Perhaps not far enough.

But in another sixteen years? Who knows, maybe we’ll raise Shakespeare’s sister up.

A final quote from Sheryl:

“I want my daughter to have the choice to not just succeed, but to be liked for her accomplishments.”

Post Script

I’m aware that within this post I’ve spoken a lot about the differences between men and women. Wherever possible I’ve attempted to use studies to back up what I’m saying, rather than blindly making general statements. I understand that those generalisations can be offensive to both men and women alike. For example, regardless of what any study says, clearly not ALL  women attribute success to luck and failure to ability, and neither do ALL men attribute success to ability and failure to luck. Nevertheless I think that these studies provide interesting insight which is pertinent to the subject matter.

Finally, for the sake of clarity I want to highlight that I don’t think these issues exist in our industry or any other because every male is inherently a chauvinist, or because all men are harbouring some kind of vaguely repressed hatred for women. There are people who behave inappropriately and they don’t help the situation. However, they aren’t the whole story and I hope I’ve demonstrated this issue is far more complex than that.

And so, dear reader – over to you. I’d love to hear from you. Hit up those comments. That’s what they’re for.

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Written By
Hannah Smith is an SEO Consultant working for Distilled in their London office. She manages technical, link building and content campaigns for clients across a range verticals in addition to managing one of the internal SEO teams at Distilled.
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