Innovation Women founder strives to close gender gap at conferences

Innovation Women founder Bobbie Carlton discusses the all-male, all-pale panels that overwhelm tech conferences and that moved her to change the number of female speakers.

Cybersecurity conferences have been male-dominated for a long time, and some have recently faced criticism for their lack of diversity and inclusion.

But cybersecurity is not alone in its representation problems; technology in general -- and many other industries -- struggles to produce diverse speaker lineups at conferences and events. From seeing the same faces across keynote lineups, to the all-male, all-pale panels at the events, diversity has not been a priority for event organizers.

Bobbie Carlton, the founder of Innovation Women, set out to change that. Innovation Women, based in Lexington, Mass., connects event managers with passionate women who want to increase their visibility and close the gender gap in speaking engagements.

In part two of this Q&A, Carlton discusses how security events like the RSA Conference need to prioritize diverse speaker lineups and the economics of speaking.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Could you give me a little background about you, your career and what lead you to start Innovation Women?

Bobbie Carlton: My background has been heavily public relations. I started off working for a number of different agencies in the high-tech arena.

I headed off to Cognos where I was the head of global PR from 1993 to 2000. After that, I went to PTC in the same role as head of global PR. [Then I] went back to another agency -- this is all in the high-tech community. My clients ranged from the IBM laser printer and typewriter division to FTP software back when that was a big thing, and I really got pretty deep with a number of startups.

Bobbie Carlton, founder of Innovation WomenBobbie Carlton

I started doing consulting [after working with a startup]. My background at that point was heavily PR and a lot of digital marketing. I had gotten involved in websites and content creation, online marketing stuff, and I started something called Mass Innovation Nights, which is a monthly product launch party and networking event.

At that time, it was my way to experiment with social media and not experiment on clients -- they kind of frown on that. Mass Innovation Nights has been running now for nine and a half years, and we've launched over 1,000 new products in the Boston market that have gotten over $2 billion in funding, and we drive around 3 million views a month all using social media.

I get invited to a lot of events and I've spent a lot of time sitting in the audience and watching the all-male, all-pale panels at the front of the room. I started doing some manual connections between event managers and great women speakers and realized pretty quickly that this could be a full-time job. I crowdfunded $23,000 in November and December of 2014 and launched Innovation Women in May 2015.

What is Innovation Women? What does it do?

Carlton: The way that Innovation Women works is that it's a self-service online platform that allows event managers to connect directly with women speakers.

A traditional speakers bureau works only when the speakers are getting paid, and most industry conferences are not paying for speakers; the speakers are getting an opportunity to tell their message to an audience filled with potential partners, customers, investors. It's really a very different economic way of working.

We work both with speakers who get paid and with speakers who get paid by getting visibility, whereas a professional speaker's bureau will only work with speakers who get paid -- and often speakers who get paid a lot. That really only makes sense if you're taking a percentage of the speaker fee to work with people who make a lot of money for speaking engagements.

We market the database and online platform to event managers of all stripes -- conferences and events, corporations, and even Meetups.

People don't realize there are half a million Meetups that happen every single month, and some of those are sizeable. If you look at Boston's big data Meetup, it's got 3,000 or 4,000 members and regularly holds events with 400 to 500 attendees. If you've got a big data product, you want to totally get in front of that audience.

This platform works by connecting speakers with event managers directly. Speakers pay $100 per year for membership and event managers can use the platform for free.

What we're doing with that $100 a year is that's what funds the operations, what funds the marketing. It also keeps out people who are not serious about getting speaking engagements. We want people who are going to respond to the event managers and who really want to speak. We make them jump through a couple hoops there.

Why is Innovation Women necessary?

Carlton: There's a great bingo card out there that says all the different excuses for why there was an all-male panel. They range from 'only 20% of the people in the industry are women to begin with' to 'we asked two women to speak and they both said no.'

The reality is, there are some real reasons why more women will say no than men. Those reasons range from women are more likely to work with a smaller company, which makes it harder for somebody to be out of the office. [Women are] more likely to work part time and they're more likely still to be the ones involved and responsible for kids and home and family. It's very hard to do a keynote address for a breakfast meeting if you have to drop a kid off at 8 a.m. and they can't skip school.

Those are some real reasons women are more likely to say no to a speaking opportunity. It may take a little extra work to get gender balance on a panel at a conference event or for any event.

They need to put more women on stage even if they need to work a little bit harder to do that.

In some industries, there are fewer women, so my belief is that event managers need to be the leaders because this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not having these women on stage means they don't get considered for CEO positions or board positions or new jobs. And [women] not being -- if they're an entrepreneur -- successful with connecting with customers and partners and investors.

My feeling is that conferences and events set themselves up as the arbiters of who is a mover and shaker; they set themselves up as, 'these are the important people in our industry because we should all be listening to them.' They need to put more women on stage even if they need to work a little bit harder to do that.

Do you have any competitors in the space? Is there anyone else doing what you're doing?

Carlton: It's funny. There are a lot of people who had the same reaction I did. They sit in the audience; they look on stage; they see the all-male, all-pale panel; they get pissed off; and they go 'I'm going to fix this.' I'm not the first person to do this. I'm the first person to try to turn it into a sustainable business.

There are a lot of people who put together websites or Google [Keep] lists and they go 'Here's a list of 100 women who could have been in that panel or at that event. Pick any one of them.'

Well, number one, as an event manager, you don't know if those 100 women signed up for this or somebody just put their name forward. Number two, that list, as soon it's put up there, is obsolete. Somebody's going to move, somebody's going to have a different email address, somebody's going to go to another company or that company's going to shut down. Those lists get obsolete pretty quickly.

What you need is a way to sustain them and to market them. Because, as an event manager, you might remember that there's this list out there one year or one time, but you might not remember it every single time. You need to be marketed to all the time. You need to see fresh names, you need to see people who are in the news this week.

My feeling is that those lists are awesome, but they are not created as a sustainable push forward. There's nobody out there driving them on a daily basis.

Do you screen the resumes or backgrounds of those who sign up for Innovation Women?

Carlton: We're leaving it to the event managers, but what's happening is the speakers are creating a profile for themselves on our platform. They're putting up a video of themselves speaking, they're putting up a summary or a biography, and they're giving examples of talks they've given in the past and abstracts and headlines.

We also ask them for information I don't think others ask for. For example, one of the questions that we have them fill out on their profile is their passion.

It's not unusual for a speaker on our platform to get asked to speak about something that is their passion. Maybe it's girls in STEM or maybe it is saving puppies, but it is not unusual for that passion to drive a speaking engagement, especially if it is somehow related to their work.

Do you think there's a particular reason why technology specifically has an imbalance in female representation at conferences?

Carlton: As an event manager, one of the things that happens is you're always looking for great speakers. And you go to other people's conferences and events and you see a speaker on stage and you say, 'I would love to have that person speaking at my conference.' And so that person gets on the circuit. Speaking begets speaking. The more speaking that they do, the more speaking opportunities they will get.

It's the same people who get speaking opportunities over and over again. The more you speak, the more you get to speak. It's the perpetuation of the same voices, and those same voices have been speaking for years. I think it's just a continuation of the problem.

I think technology conferences are always looking for, you know, 'we need to fill seats and that person is a proven speaker, so we're going to ask them again.'

It's hard to break into the circuit. It's hard to be a new voice. And, in some of these cases, the women are the newer voices, so it's hard for them to break in -- just like it's hard for anybody to break into these situations.

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