Talking Equity: Women, Speaking and Representation

Last month the Harvard design school and business schools hosted HarvardxDesign, their annual conference focused on the intersection of design and business. They had 23 male speakers and only 2 female speakers. That’s a pretty abysmal ratio–especially from a design school that brought us the Denise Scott Brown Pritzker Prize petition that changed the conversation on gender in architecture only a few years ago, and a business school that has implemented an extensive gender equity program.

Getting Women Onstage: The External Front
People often “fail to look beyond their immediate networks and the usual white male speakers that make the conference rounds” according to Fast Company article on the topic. There are a few efforts underway to kick this bad habit. The Art Directors Club founded their Let’s Make the Industry 50/50 Initiative which is a campaign to get the creative industries to commit to gender equality in award show juries, speaking engagements and boards of directors. The initiative hosts a directory of top women  in their field to make sourcing non-male voices easier. The directory actually explicitly lists some of the criteria that can help one qualify, for example winning at least one international award, or owning a company worth more than $500,000 or having led a creative team. This is a really interesting approach to making explicit some of the unwritten rules that determine leadership in a field, and play into cronyism.

Other efforts include FRESH Speakers, cofounded by a former boss of mine, a speakers bureau focused on diverse voices–most of their speakers are under 40, are not white males, and have careers in social impact. Another recent, more local effort is Innovation Women, a speakers bureau and platform for entrepreneurial and technical women, which is just getting off the ground with a kickstarter campaign. Not that there seems to be a paucity of women doing interesting things in design and business that Harvard students have intellectual access to, but those HarvardxDesign conference organizers maybe just needed some help from directories and bureaus like these.

In the talk series I organize, the Creative Somerville Series, issues of equity and representation were part of the first set of discussions around who to invite. It’s not just that we want to guard ourselves against unconscious bias (we all have it.) The point of this series is to highlight the interesting creatives and entrepreneurs working in Somerville and the Boston area. Getting diversity in this set can only make our talk series better.

Speaking & Confidence: The Internal Front
I tend to be interested in how these questions come down to an individual level. How does the average women learn to be a better speaker on stage, in a meeting, in a job interview? How do we cross the confidence gap and arm women to use speaking to compellingly advocate for what they want and what they believe in?

Speaking and presentation skills are one of the key components of the Build Yourself+ workshop I teach to women designers. We focus on speaking strategy–for example, really putting yourself in your audience’s shoes, strategies for body language, and the secret weapon: preparation. We also talk about just doing it. Doing it again and again and learning from your experiences. That’s the lesson that underscores all of my workshop: Show up. Show up and challenge yourself.


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