You made it, girl.

You are on stage at a time when many business events feature an overwhelming majority of male voices.

This past week, INBOUND 2018 made waves for progressive diversity stats in their speaker lineup. 57% men / 43% women keynoters, 67% of whom were women of color, to boot. Read how they did it.

It was a beautifully diverse island of exception in vast sea of “stale, male, and pale” business speaker lineups.

Thank you GenderAvenger for tracking diversity ratios around the world, and for providing tools to help attendees take action when confronted with too many “manels,” a “Him-posium,” or a “manference.”

But, back to you, woman with a microphone. You have overcome a lot to be here.

You’ve leaped bravely over the terrible excuses conference organizers make for booking only male speakers:

  1. We don’t know enough women to speak
  2. We didn’t even notice we had all men
  3. Last year we had women so we’re good right?
  4. Women are a minority in the workforce
  5. We have a women’s panel! (gag)

Woman with a microphone, you’ve somehow made it through that obstacle course of bad alibis.

After all, you know the REAL culprits are similar to what holds women back from C-level roles (women make up only 5% of S&P 500 CEOs) and from receiving VC funding (2% of VC funding last year went to female founders). Those culprits have been hypothesized to be largely based in pattern recognition: investors (majority of whom are male) fund, support, and hire people who look like them. There is comfort in the familiar. Some have admitted it outright. Others agree it doesn’t work.

These entrepreneurs and managers become investors and executives, continuing this shameful cycle of prejudiced nonsense.

So, woman with a microphone, you’ve defeated those enemies. But, you’ve also overcome a very real personal hurdle.

I’m proud of you! You’ve beat imposter syndrome: that sense that you’re not qualified to be here, you’re not ready to humiliate yourself on stage in front of your peers, and after all you’ve just got nothing of value to say to the world, right?

You know better.

You’ve probably read those studies that show women are less self-assured than men: we don’t put our names into the hat as often, just as we don’t apply for jobs as readily.

You know confidence is a skill, and to succeed, confidence matters as much as competence.

The point is — you’ve made it here.

Fist bump. Nice work.

Woman with a microphone, you may, from time to time, find yourself speaking to a room full of women.

Perhaps it’s a “women in business” breakfast, or that token women’s panel at a technology event. Perhaps it’s a conference from a group like Women in Digital founded to create a response to the “boys club” of business. It could be a woman-focused pop-up like the Female Quotient within major events.

If you’re on stage — listen. Your visibility comes with some responsibility.

If you’re booking a women’s panel — your event carries some additional obligations.

My plea, for both of you:

1. Don’t put the burden of fixing discrimination only on other women.

There’s a misconception that the problems facing women in the workplace can only be solved by women working a bit harder. Our experience at work is defined by our dynamic with men, and there’s no avoiding that truth.

But, a recent panel I attended reminded me of this oft-ignored phenomenon where women’s events seem scared to address the elephant in the room: men!

More specifically, they avoid bringing up men, scared to implicate our counterparts in any way of having a role in creating or perpetuating unequal dynamics at work. As if, somehow, they have nothing to do with it. As if they’d be offended by the suggestion.

As if, somehow, women can simply lean in a bit harder and fix a two-sided problem from one side of the table.

Let’s call a spade a spade.

This most recent panel, in particular, did not at any point bring up men. And there were even some in attendance!

What a missed opportunity to discuss what our male peers could do to help their organizations overcome issues like pay inequality, representation of women on the C-suite, or, god forbid, sexual harassment (where men play a PRETTY SIGNIFICANT ROLE.)

McKinsey found that:

“Many men don’t fully grasp the barriers that hold women back at work. As a result, they are less committed to gender diversity, and we can’t get there without them.”

Bottom line: Men play a role in the fixing the problems facing women at work. Call them allies, or, like me, call them decent. Don’t be scared to bring them up at your next women’s event — talk about them, and identify the specific ways they can help turn the tide.

2. Don’t sugarcoat the issues women face. Don’t patronize female CEOs.

The truth is, we can’t fix problems we don’t see or understand clearly.

So why do so many women’s panels sugarcoat the real issues?

At the panel event that inspired this post, the conversation rarely strayed beyond topics like “finding your superpower” and juggling job and kids. There were some great nuggets of insight, don’t get me wrong. But I found the cutesy line of questioning a bit nauseating.

Men aren’t subjected to these cute inquiries.

At Dreamforce three years ago, the well meaning organizers had a women’s innovation panel. The well meaning moderator, Gayle King, interviewed YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki. Susan at the time was the only female CEO within the Alphabet umbrella, overseeing YouTube’s multi-billion dollar business with a net worth of more than $300 million.

Bad. Ass.

The Next Web wrote:

“Susan, you know something about babies,” King said during the panel. “This is what I love about Susan: she has five children.”

Wojcicki smiled, and confirmed King’s statement. When pressed, Wojcicki said that her eldest is turning 16, while her youngest is 8 months.

“By the same husband?” King inquired.

15 minutes into the panel, and Gayle King had asked one of the most powerful women in Silicon Valley if all of her children have the same father.

This happened on the same stage where Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella demonstrated his company’s products and at the same conference where Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick merited the values of maintaining a philanthropic arm to multi-billion dollar businesses…

Wojcicki fielded questions about maternity leave, how she remains in her family’s life, and whether anyone could invent a stylish shoe that doesn’t hurt your feet at the end of the day.”

……..

Pause for eye roll.

Go ahead, that deserves two.

I’ll be honest. I’m starting to really dislike women’s panels.

I have been part of a few, and love the chance to speak to a room of young women, as I do with any audience who I believe could benefit from my experiences.

Recently, I’ve actually turned a speaking request down for a women’s panel when I realized the organizers had filled the lineup (for an event in my field of expertise) with mostly male speakers.

In those cases, women should be part of the main agenda, not be relegated to the women’s-only panel to talk about, who knows, tampons?

Let’s shoot for 50% women on stage talking about their areas of expertise, rather than a panel of them talking about women issues.

But back to you, woman with a microphone (or the organizer who brought her there).

When you are given the chance to teach / inspire a group of women — it can be this great opportunity to create an environment that challenges the locker room conversations women will never be part of.

Take that responsibility seriously. It’s a safe space to GET REAL and talk about things like:

  • Pay negotiation — how to get a freaking raise. At another event I recently attended,Katie Donovan (equal pay negotiation expert) shared advice on how to negotiate a 50% raise so women are asking for the same amount that the “white guy going for the same job” is going to ask for, overcoming the 20% less they’re currently making. That was some real talk.
  • Rights under equal pay laws — MA has a brand new law requiring equal pay for equal work, (thanks in part to the hard work of people like Katie!)
  • Sexual harassment — What to do about creepy bosses. (Reminder that one in three women report that they’ve been sexually harassed in the workplace!)
  • Mansplaining — What to do when it happens to you, and how to deal with it professionally.

Those are just some ideas.

Inspiration is important. Platitudes like “know your worth” have their place, but the women I know are hungry for actionable advice to advance their careers.

3. Speak for those without a voice

Perhaps most infuriating at this most recent panel was one executive who was asked by a young woman in the audience for advice on how to handle situations of discrimination at work.

I remember the girl who asked the question. She looked hopeful, holding the microphone given to the audience for Q&A in her hand, eagerly asking for advice.

The power had momentarily been transferred from stage to audience.

Clearly something had occurred in this woman’s work experience, and she likely lacked a strong female leader at work to approach. This was such a great chance to help.

The response from this C-level female executive was:

“I dunno. It never happened to me. I don’t use discrimination as an excuse. I’ve worked hard to be here.”

I remember the audience member who asked the question looking disheartened. Her eyes dropped, she sat down.

I sat there, mouth agape. I couldn’t stop thinking about this exchange. This dismissal.

I get it. Some women believe “feminism” is a dirty word. They don’t want to be associated with the ridiculous stereotypes. They likely don’t want to be a victim. They want to feel empowered.

Related: You are not equal.

They want to be recognized for their contributions and their skills — which, incidentally, is what the women’s rights movement is striving for.

PS: To this particular executive, I completely agree that women should not use discrimination as a way of excusing their failures. If you’re terrible at your job you should be fired. That’s not discrimination, it’s reality.

But, it’s a disservice to those who don’t have a voice to sit in front of a room of young women and claim discrimination must not be real because it didn’t happen to you.

You have a responsibility as that rare, visible woman in business, when you get called up on stage, just as you do in your organization, to cultivate young women. They look up to you to be well-versed in their potential barriers to success in order to truly help things change for their generation.

If it didn’t happen to you, consider yourself lucky. But you are not absolved from the responsibility to listen and learn from their experiences.

If you won’t — who will?

And if you’re one of four white women on a panel — educate yourself on the realities of women of color, or LGBT women, who face the greatest obstacles and receive the least support, who make less than white women in the struggle for pay equality, and who are often left behind in feminism.

It’s they who need the strength of your voice more than ever.

4. Recognize your role in creating change

At this particular panel, the moderator asked each panelist what they want for the next generation. All of them said a different version of the same thing:

“We wish we could stop having this conversation.”

Each woman wanted the conversation to change — but seemed to lose sight of the fact that for that to happen, each of us has to play a role in changing the dynamics at work.

As I said, woman with the microphone, I know you want to be recognized for your talent, contributions, hard work. But you can’t operate within our current business dynamic, and wish it was different, without recognizing your role in changing things.

If you want things to change, you’ve got to be part of the change — not complaining about the fact that we are all talking about it.

Dear all women with a microphone — that is a powerful tool, use it wisely.

Because nothing changes unless we start getting real.

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Thank you to Innovation Women, a speakers bureau for women, for inviting me to speak at INBOUND& this year, where a very raw version of this original rant had its world premiere.

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