The topic of gender diversity of conference speakers has gained attention over the past few years. Search Marketing Expo (SMX) has always considered diversity important, but for the first time, we’ve analyzed speaker selection data to quantify how we’re doing. Here’s the rundown from our last SMX Advanced event.
Selecting The Best Speakers
Before getting further into the numbers, some background on the speaker selection process. Our number one rule in selecting speakers is to find the best ones. Period.
Our second rule is to have a good diversity of speakers. Often, there are a number of coequal “best” speakers who could be on a panel or speak in solo presentations. In such cases, striving for diversity is helpful.
“Diversity” includes more than just gender and racial diversity. For SMX events, we’re also looking things like brand and agency diversity, or enterprise versus SMB diversity, among speakers.
The Importance Of Diversity (It’s More Than Gender)
If a panel is full of agency speakers, some brand owners in the audience may feel like the lack of a brand speaker means the content isn’t as good, even if the agency speaker is providing excellent information. Brand attendees like to hear from their peers. Similarly, it’s common that B2B attendees respond better to other B2B speakers, even if the tactics covered by a B2C speaker are completely applicable to B2C businesses.
When we assemble a panel for SMX, we’re often balancing whether we have a brand speaker as well as an agency speaker, plus whether we have a diversity of gender and most of all, if we have the right people overall to bring expertise to a topic.
To improve our quality, we’ve done more outreach over the years. Great brand speakers don’t always pitch. Great agency speakers don’t always pitch. Great male speakers don’t always pitch. Great female speakers don’t always pitch. The reasons range from being simply candidates being too busy to think about pitching to some not feeling they should have to. Outreach is more effort for our already hard-working session coordinators, but it makes for better content when they do.
Reflecting The Audience & The Industry
I don’t know the gender diversity of attendance at our shows, much less the gender makeup of the search marketing space overall. In the future, we may ask attendees if they’re willing to self-report on gender and racial diversity, so we have a better measure. But there is a significant numbers of women attendees, so having sessions with a good representation of women feels like a proper reflection of our attendees and the space overall.
That reflection is important. As said about brand and B2B speakers, it helps our conference with its educational goal when panels are made up of people that those attending can identify with. That doesn’t mean that a woman can’t learn from an all-male panel, ncor a man from an all-female panel. But if you have a huge majority of speakers and panels of only one gender overall, it just feels like something’s wrong.
The SMX Programming Team
Finally, before getting into the figures, here’s some further background on the group that programs SMX. This varies from event-to-event. Chris Sherman, our vice president of programming, assembles a team of session coordinators for each show. This usually involves a number of our Search Engine Land editors and writers, as well as some third-party search marketing experts.
This team creates the overall agenda, drawn from their suggestions and from session ideas that are submitted to us from others. Each coordinator is assigned one or more solo sessions and panels to oversee. That’s why we call them “coordinators.” Their job is to coordinate who speaks on their assigned panels, which involves reviewing pitches and doing outreach to find potential speakers. Usually, though not always, a session coordinator also ends up serving as the session moderator at the event itself.
This is how all our “editorial sessions” are filled. By editorial sessions, we mean sessions where speakers are solely selected based on merit. There is no way anyone can buy a speaking spot in these sessions, which make up the vast majority of SMX programming. We do have a small number of separate sponsored sessions which are clearly identified to attendees and which our programming team does not oversee. Some attendees like these optional sessions; they’re never part of the main programming. They’re also not included in the statistics below, as we don’t program them.
The Summary Chart
Here’s a chart of all the figures that are discussed further below:
Solo Talks: 27% By Women
SMX events have solo talks and panels with two or more speakers. We looked at stats for each type of session.
We had 15 solo talks at SMX Advanced. Only 27% of these were by women, the other 73% by men. That’s a stat we’d especially like to see improve for our future shows.
Speaking Pitches: 29% From Women
We received just over 200 pitches for SMX Advanced. Of these, 71% of these came from men, 29% from women. The stats were the same in terms of individuals who pitched versus number of pitches (IE, one person pitching multiple times).
As you’ll see, the gender diversity of our panels sessions was greater than that of pitches, which is a good sign. But one of the best things anyone can do to improve the gender diversity of speakers at any type of conference is to encourage women to pitch. It’s a great starting place.
Programming Team: 29% Women
As explained above, SMX panels are organized by session coordinators, who usually also serve as the session moderator.
We had seven individuals coordinating panels for SMX Advanced; two or 29% were women and five or 71% were men. As you’ll see in the stats below, despite this particular show being heavy on male coordinators, that didn’t mean that the speaking slots then skewed toward men.
Coordinator diversity can vary widely from show to show, depending on who is available to work on a particular show and the exact topics that need to be developed.
Sessions Programmed: 31% By Women
Remember earlier, how 29% of our programming team coordinators were women? That reflects individuals, not the number of panels that were coordinated overall. Some coordinators were responsible for more than one panel.
Of the 16 panels we had, 31% of those were coordinated by women, the other 69% by men. We couldn’t easily determine how many solo spots were coordinated by women versus men, for this report. That’s difficult because often solo spots come out of the initial pitches we receive, which the programming teams reviews and collectively decides upon during the agenda development process.
Speaking Time: 32% By Women
We calculated how much speaking time went to women versus men. For example, on a panel with three people, each will typically get 20 minutes to present. While a panel might be mixed in gender overall, the amount of speaking time might not be equally mixed.
The show had 24.25 hours of speaking time. Women had 7.7 hours of this, or 32%. Men had 16.6 hours, or 68%.
Speakers: 34% Women
The show had 64 individuals who spoke. Of these, 34% were women (22 women) and 66% were men (42 men). That’s a ratio we’d like to see improve.
By the way, session moderators are not counted as speakers, nor included in the speaking time or panel statistics. Moderators do make important contributions to panels, but speakers have the main role on stage.
Given this, it seemed better not to include moderators among the speaker-specific stats. Instead, the various stats about the programming team that are provided give better sense of the important behind-the-scenes role moderators have.
Speaking Spots: 34% By Women
Some speakers participate in more than one panel. That’s why we also counted stats for all speaking spots overall, for panels, solo sessions and the two keynotes.
The show had 67 total speaking spots. Of these, 34% were filled by women (23 spots) and 66% were men (44 spots). Yes, these is the same percentage breakdown as for individual speakers.
Keynotes are unique, not counted in the solo or panel statistics. This is because both keynotes at SMX Advanced were hybrid sessions: not quite solo, not quite panel. They were conversations between the keynoter and one or more Search Engine Land editors.
We counted the two keynote speakers (both men) into the speaker, speaking spot and speaking time statistics. That also means by one measure, our keynote speaking count was 0%. If you include the editors doing interviews, that statistic rises to 20% (the first day conversation was between two men; the second day was between two men and a woman).
Because the editors were actively involved in asking questions and follow-ups independent of the audience, we counted some of their time into the overall speaking time statistics.
Panels: 56% Mixed
Our best statistic in terms of diversity is for panels. As mentioned, these are sessions that involve two or more speakers, as opposed to solo talks.
We had 16 panels in all. Of these, 56% were mixed in gender — men and women were both on the panels. Some might have had more men than women; some more women than men. Some were equally mixed. But more than half the time, people saw a panel where some diversity of gender was reflected.
Of the other panels, 13% (or 2) were all-female, while 31% (or 5) were all-male. Four of the five coordinators who organized the all-male panels were men; the other was a woman. That could lead some to assume that male coordinators are more likely to lead to all-male panels. Not necessarily. The all-female panels were both organized by male coordinators.
We haven’t addressed racial diversity in this report. Those are stats that are difficult to come by, because it’s not immediately obvious what racial group or groups a particular speaker might identify with. Going forward, we might ask speakers to self-identify by race and gender, as a means of better assessing how we’re doing. At the moment, our shows are definitely heavy on White speakers, with Asian speakers probably the second-most represented group.
In terms of gender diversity, there is room for improvement. Compiling stats is a step forward. These have been shared with our coordinating team working on our future events. It’s already been very much top-of-mind for our coordinators to be aware of gender diversity when compiling panels. This makes it more so.
What should we be at, in terms of gender diversity? We’d like to see SMX working so that either gender has at least 40% representation in our speaking spots. That means at least 40% of the spots going to either women or men, with neither gender under that mark.
We had some internal debate over this percentage. Does putting it out there suggest that we have a ratio-driven agenda process, where 40% of the spots go to women or men regardless of quality? Does it suggest that getting to 40% — in particular for women — would be seen as “good enough,” so that we don’t maintain our efforts on diversity?
No to both questions. We think having a figure to aim toward is important. You can’t have an effort to improve diversity without a goal. But we think the 40% figure also represents a common-sense approach. It explicitly means you’re not trying to force a 50/50 mix, which means potentially you’re excluding either good men or women just because of their gender. But when you’re at or above the 40% mark for either gender, this seems to represent a good sign that you’re not skewing too much to one gender.
We’ll conclude the report with two last things. First, sometimes people ask if SMX has a code against harassment. Yes, we do. Our SMX Code Of Conduct that was formally put in place last year.
Second, SMX Advanced saw the one-year anniversary of Janes Of Digital, an event that we partner with Bing on. It’s a wonderful event open to women and men where women’s issues in the workplace are discussed. While it might not happen at our upcoming SMX East event, because of the Search Engine Land Awards, it’s likely to return to our SMX West show after that, as well as SMX Advanced next year. Watch for news and if you’re in the area, be sure to attend.