If you’re a woman with expertise to share, this is your time to step on stage. There’s more demand for your ideas and insights than ever.

While they’re far from having vanished, all-male speaker panels – or “manels” – are falling out of fashion, says Shawna Suckow, a Minneapolis-based speaker who spent 20 years as a meeting planner.

Not so long ago, panels with only men were the norm at conferences and association meetings. Audiences, Suckow says, “were used to older white men being the authorities on everything.”

But shifting social attitudes, the impact of the #metoo movement, social media pressure, and campaigns led by GenderAvenger, and other advocacy groups have fueled the demand for diversity.

“We’re starting to see it become an imperative,” says Samantha Whitehorn, who blogs about conferences for the American Society of Association Executives. At SPIN, the Senior Planners Industry Network, Whitehorn says, a frequent topic of discussion is the need to avoid “manels.”

Some speakers are even insisting on diversity as a requirement for their participation. Owen Barder, an economist in London and the Director for Europe at the Centre for Global Development, encourages male experts to take a “panel pledge” not to appear on all-male panels.

Nick Borelli, an Ohio-based marketing and sales speaker, includes a diversity “inclusion rider” in every speaking contract, stipulating that he won’t speak at an event without a certain level of diversity. His goal is not only to support women, but more diverse speakers of all kinds.

“I need to know that the producer of the event has done their due diligence to make diversity a priority …, ” Borelli wrote in his blog. “If making this line in the sand makes room for a voice that would not have otherwise had a chance to be heard while bumping me from the line-up, I believe it’s worth it.

Also under pressure is the practice of “pinkwashing” a panel. “You put a woman in as panel moderator to make it look more diverse,” says Kristin Arnold, a meeting facilitator and panel expert in Arizona. “She’s gratuitous.”

Another change in the meeting industry has been the decline in the use of the “call for proposals,” or speaker applications. In the past, most conference organizers have required would-be speakers to fill out a CFP with information on their topic and credentials to secure a speaker slot.

But too often, the CFP process has produced imbalanced lineups. “It may not be intentional that you’re going to get all men, but if only men are applying, that’s what you’re going to get,” says Whitehorn.

Now some meeting planners are discarding the CFPs, or supplementing them by reaching out directly to invite diverse participants. “It’s more of a give and take,” says Whitehorn.

Diversity on the podium not only creates better events by bringing together different perspectives. It’s also matters because speakers’ careers get a boost from the visibility and status conferred by being on stage. Women seeking professional advancement should be polishing their presentation skills and seeking out more speaking gigs.

“It’s a wonderful time to be a woman who speaks,” says Suckow. “You’re in demand.”


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