The Woman Speaker Slot

Danbo on Stage!
Credit: Flickr / Glenn Lascuña

I read a lot about how important it is to get more women speakers (and PoC!) at tech conferences, and I agree it’s important. But one of the things I’ve found as a speaker, who is also a woman, is that I get invitations to fill what I refer to as “the woman speaker slot”.

The clues usually arise in the request:

  • It’s at an event for women.
  • They want me to talk about being a woman (often combined with being an event for women).
  • The lineup was announced already… and it’s a bunch of (white) dudes.
  • There is a section in the email that essentially says “if not you please help us find another woman” (optional extra: I am in no way qualified to speak on that topic).
  • They actually say, “I need to find a woman speaker” (optional extra: “because other speakers or sponsors are complaining”).

OK the first step to addressing a problem is to admit you have one. But it’s best not to admit it in your speaker invitation, or to leave it so late that you announced the problem on your conference website.

I give a lot of talks. I work incredibly hard at preparing them. I co-run a newsletter on public speaking in tech. The invitations I get that reflect those qualifications are much easier to accept.

I used to get offended by the request to come and be a token. But I’ve decided to reframe it.

First, I feel no obligation to say yes to these invitations. I will do it if it suits me, and I won’t if it doesn’t. If I have some goodwill towards the organiser, I may help them find someone else, or I may not.

Second, I use it as an opportunity to practise negotiation. Instead of saying “no”, I say “I only speak at events where my travel costs are covered, and depending on the event I also ask for a speaker fee. Let me know what you are open to and we will go from there.”

Third, if I do agree to do it, I remind myself that the audience has no idea I was invited because I’m a woman. As far as they are concerned, I’m qualified. So if I rock it, that will be the end of my tokenisation.

I’ve not been giving many token women talks lately, which I attribute mostly to the second strategy. It is frankly amazing how many organisers think I will be willing to come and be a token women at their event for the sake of “exposure”. It is appalling how many of them think that I will cover my own travel costs to do so. It is particularly jarring when these organisers are large, profitable, tech companies.

Women events, talks about being a women in tech, and thinly-disguised recruiting events, are particularly annoying. There’s plenty to be said on fixing the problem of poor representation of women in tech, but there is one thing I am relatively certain will not fix anything, and that is asking women to do extra unpaid work. So when I am asked to do extra, unpaid work, for the sake of “women in tech” or “the community” (is this the community that harasses and doxxes my friends?) I say no.

Finally, when asked to help find other women to help with things like this, or diversity consulting etc, I ask if they will be paid, and if not, I say that I will not help. If you did the same, together we might make a difference. After-all, the data shows women get less flack for asking for others, than we do asking for ourselves.


Of course, I have been guilty of many of these things too. But now, when I look back at my time in Corporate Feminism what I feel proud of are those times when I was able to get other women recognised or rewarded.

15 thoughts on “The Woman Speaker Slot

  1. This is very helpful advice. I’m in physics, not tech, but there’s a lot of extra, unpaid work of this kind form women in my field, too, which no one really acknowledges. It’s good to see someone discuss the topic from a logical perspective; I know I’ll review this post the next time I have to decide whether to participate in yet another women in physics event.

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    1. Thanks! I’m so glad you found it helpful. Let me know how you get on!

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  2. When you see an “opportunity to practise negotiation”, I can see leveraging your high demand elitist minority priviledge. It surely feels wonderful to be one of few (or only one) speaker who didn’t have to pay travel costs.

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