Next week One Day University, an adult education program “starring the country’s best professors,” is coming to my part of the world – Westchester County, NY.

I’m a big fan of One Day University. Who wouldn’t want to go back to college for a few hours to hear “the nation’s greatest professors” deliver their most thought-provoking lectures?

But are these professors really the best?

In an article last June, Tanya Deveni called out One Day University for presenting significantly more male speakers than females. She wrote:

Imagine a university with no tests, no grades, no homework… and no women professors. It sounds completely impractical, not to mention totally unrepresentative, right? Well, that is exactly what you could be in for if you attend One Day University’s upcoming events… “

When it comes to men and women at the podium, on the stage, on panels and at other speaking forums, having a good balance is a worthy goal. Audiences should benefit from the talents, insights and ideas of all experts, not just half the population.

But that hasn’t been so easy to achieve – not just at One Day University but at other professional events with lopsided representation all over the world. At too many forums, men predominate as speakers.

In her article, Deveni tallied the gender of all the professors on One Day University’s website. She found a significant gap: of 61 professors overall, 16 were women. In other words, 74% of the professors were men and 26% were women.

I also did an informal count based on the website. Of 213 half and whole-day programs through next April, 151 appearances are by male speakers, and 62 are by female speakers. That’s two-and-a-half times more appearances by men than by women.

Sometimes it takes different approaches to solve a problem. I have wondered whether there are steps that women can take – using our abundant smarts and skills – to help tackle this head on.

So I reached out to One Day University Founder and Director Steven Schragis, a former magazine and book publisher in New York City. He explained to me how he and his team find speakers. Here’s what they do:

·      Research RateMyProfessors,com, a national website on which students all over the country rate their teachers, with comments.

·      Search rating systems on internal campus websites.

·      Research teaching awards and prizes.

·      Make random visits to campuses, where they informally stop and ask students (male and female) “Who are the best teachers on campus?”

Schragis said he’s aware of the tilt towards men in his programming, but achieving a balance has been challenging. All the ratings, awards and interviews indicate that male professors are far more popular.

“If we stop a hundred kids and ask, ‘Who’s a fantastic speaker?’ and then if we simply try to hire the people that the students recommend, we’d have close to 100 percent men,” he said. “The fact is, a significantly disproportionate number of people are more enthusiastic about learning from male professors than female professors.”

Unfortunately, studies suggest he’s right. In our culture there seems to be a strong preference for male instructors, or put another way – bias against female instructors.

A forthcoming article in the Journal of the European Economic Association, based on data from nearly 20,000 student evaluations of instructors from 2009 to 2013, shows that in blind studies, both male and female students gave worse ratings to instructors identified as women. On a scale of zero to 100, the evaluations placed female instructors an average 37 points below males.

As the Economist notes, “both male and female students gave worse ratings to female instructors, though the men were more prejudiced.”

As for the student ratings that Scragis and his team rely on, including RateMyProfessors and internal ratings, there’s growing scientific literature that shows they’re compromised by gender bias – see hereherehere, and here. And that directly affects the distribution of prizes and awards, many of which are based on student evaluations and ratings.

Given that female instructors and professors – indeed female speakers in all fields – still face such steep obstacles, are we doing enough to create a level playing field?

Schragis is very clear about what he’s looking for. It’s not erudition, scholarship, or bona fides. He’s academic lite – he wants teachers who can dazzle an audience.

But that too seems to put women at a disadvantage. We know there’s a widespread perception in our culture that women aren’t funny or even entertaining. This bias affects women in every walk of life.

In her new book Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change, Ellen Pao says her boss at her former employer, the venture capital fund Kleiner Perkins, suggested she take a course in stand-up comedy so she could learn to be funny like her male colleagues.

Distressingly, it’s not just men who think this way. Many women don’t even see themselves as entertaining. Annie Pettit, a market and social research methodologist in Toronto, recently surveyed about 550 male and female computer and data scientists and market researchers on how they view themselves, as speakers.

She found men were more likely to choose positive attributes to describe themselves – “intelligent,” “comfortable” and “entertaining” – while women were more likely to choose negative attributes such as “nervous,” “awkward,” and “terrified.”

Why do these perceptions exist? Who sets the standards for public speaking? Who says what an effective female speaker looks and sounds like? Could it be male speakers sometimes win accolades for the drama they create – not the quality of the knowledge they share?

Most importantly, how we can change things?

Let’s start by being pragmatic. In theory we may want every event to be 50/50 male/female, but that doesn’t always make sense. Sometimes an event is going to have more men or more women. We can’t blame an organization when an event isn’t perfectly balanced.

But with women facing such strong headwinds, perhaps event organizers like Schragis should think harder about the values he’s selecting for. Perhaps it’s time to recalibrate the criteria for who gets invited to the lectern.

At the same time, even if the odds are stacked against women, there is a clear way we can push back: we can become better speakers.

Studies show many women lack confidence in their own opinions, which affects how they put ourselves out into the world. Men don’t seem to experience that.

So women speakers – let’s face down our internal critics. Let’s use our brains, smarts, and insights. Let’s become master storytellers. Let’s engage and entertain.

Let’s work on the bias, yes. And let’s work on ourselves.


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