Why is it still so common to see a panel predominantly made up of middle-aged white male lawyers on the dais at a legal conference or CPD session? I noted this again at a legal conference I attended last week. Of course, there were exceptions – the panel of women in corporate counsel positions and the Aboriginal law panel, for example – but shouldn’t a gender balanced, diverse panel of speakers now be the rule, rather than the exception?
These questions have been roiling about my mind since last fall, when I read the numerous, thoughtful comments to my Slaw post, Where are all the women in the future of law? In that post, I wondered aloud why I was hearing and seeing so few women engaged in the ongoing conversations about what the future of legal practice will look like. The response was quick and often pointed. For example, Alison Monahan commented that:
I think there are plenty of women speaking up, they’re just not being recognized by the powers that be. When the usual suspects throw conferences on the “future of law,” and 90%+ of the speakers are male, that’s inexcusable.
Lesley Midzain picked up on Monahan’s comment and proposed:
…perhaps it’s not about joining those conversations, but starting some of our own.
And Betsy Munnell responded:
I agree that women in practice and beyond need to express themselves as loudly as career survival permits. However, Lesley and Alison make crucial points with which I whole-heartedly agree. Every future-law organization committed to change loses credibility, and should forfeit our support, if it fails to assure a full and equal voice to women in the profession.
Threaded through many of the comments to that post is the perception that women lawyers remain excluded from public discussions on the future of legal practice, whether taking place online or in conference settings.
Sometime shortly afterward, I had a thought-provoking conversation with a male lawyer, well known on legal speaking circuits, following up on these comments. We spoke about how he, as an in-demand speaker, and others like him, might better support the selection of more diverse, gender-balanced speaker panels, both at the events he is invited to and more generally. We tossed around a broad range of possibilities, considering everything from encouragement and mentorship of potential speakers to developing a “speakers bureau” for CPD event planners draw upon, to making diversity and gender balance on the dais a condition of acceptance of invitations. At the end of our conversation, it was clear no one solution would effect the change we both agreed was necessary.
Last week, I came across Sarah Milstein’s HBR Blog post, Putting an end to conferences dominated by white men. Milstein provides a number of suggestions to increase the representation of people of diverse backgrounds and women on conference agendas. She suggests that in selecting speakers, planners tend to rely too heavily upon their own networks, and that this typically contributes to a bias in favour of those who are already over-represented. Her proposed solutions to address the bias are multi-faceted, concrete and should not be hard to implement, but doing so will require that an intentional and coordinated effort be made.
Milstein notes that in applying the suggested techniques to speaker selection in conferences she has organized, the results have been positive. She suggests, too, that making the changes has resulted in boosted attendance:
Since 2012, I’ve co-hosted The Lean Startup Conference with Eric Ries. Eric ran the event with another host for two years before that, and the speakers they drew, though good presenters, were almost all white men. When I began co-hosting, we put an emphasis on finding high-quality speakers who better represented the business world. In 2012 and 2013, not only did our speaker rosters comprise more than 50% women and people of color, but the number of conference attendees doubled each year.
While Milstein is not speaking specifically to the legal profession, she notes that these solutions apply “…to almost any gated decision with a pipeline of applicants, including hiring, venture capital funding, school admissions, and awards.”
It seems to me that for most in the legal profession, the rationale for promoting diversity and gender balance is by now accepted; but we struggle, still, with turning what we know into what we do. Unless we turn our knowledge into action, over and over again, the full and equal voice of women and persons of diverse backgrounds in our profession will remain unheard.
Milstein has drawn us a helpful map. This seems like a good place to start.