8 Ways to Create Gender-Balanced Panels

By Stephanie Goodell

Twitter: @itsgoodell

I’ve been responsible for planning global events for women for Fortune 50 companies, elite institutions of higher education, and have worked with the top organizations that support women business owners and entrepreneurs. I’ve booked enough speakers to know that there are plenty of incredible experts on every subject who are women.

If you are ready to make the commitment to have fair representation of women speakers and panelists at your upcoming conference, here are some tips to help you succeed.

1: Ask yourself if you are truly committed. Women’s under-representation at conferences is yet one more example of the achievement gap between men and women (and related pay gap). And by women, I don’t mean cis heterosexual white women only.

Are you committed:

  • to making sure your event is at least representative of your industry and/or clients?
  • to making sure your event is even more diverse than your industry and/or clients?

A few years ago, I went to an XConomy tech event that featured an all-female line-up but was never advertised as such, on purpose. Even the panelists didn’t know it was 100% women until they received the agenda, and it was only on the panel prep calls that they realized their panels were all women. And this was in the event description:

“You’ll hear some of the smartest people in tech break down the biggest trends and pressing problems for our country’s most innovative industries, from commerce and robotics to media, education, investing, and more.”

And one participant didn’t even realize it until his mom spelled it out for him. Just brilliant.

  1. Make sure all of the activities at the event are welcoming. We’ve seen so many instances of sexist behavior at conferences that it could be a blog post of its own. Enough said.
  2. Integrate women and people of color into the entire program, not just a panel “of their own”. This is nothing short of condescending.
  3. Avoid “the usual suspects.” There are more than 10 qualified women to speak in the world, so if Marissa Mayer isn’t available, you can’t cop the excuse that “there aren’t enough women” to ask. Make sure you have a deep enough list that allows you to make many asks and receive nearly as many regrets.
  4. Just ask. And know that it may take longer for a woman to answer than a man. Why? There are 2 obvious reasons women hesitate: 1) many still carry the burden of responsibility for the family at home. Not all — but many—and 2) Imposter’s Syndrome. It’s real, and if you don’t believe it, know that my palms are sweating as I type thinking about who might read this article and criticize me for not being The Top Expert in my industry.  

Here are some ideas for dealing with this:

  • If someone is slow to respond, be curious and straightforward. Use the personal touch and call the invited speaker. Let her know how eager the conference planners are to have her on the program and ask if she has hesitations. IF her hesitation is around family obligations, such as being away from children, come up with some creative solutions. When I asked global entrepreneur and investor Heidi Messer to speak on a panel in Shanghai for Bloomberg Link, she requested an additional ticket for her mother so that she could care for her toddler. We were happy to oblige, and we made sure she traveled business class as she was nearly eight months pregnant!
  • Offer to pay them. Time is money, and time away from work can be money as well. Covering travel expenses should be expected, and the offer of an honorarium can seal the deal.
  • Find out if hesitation means that the invited speaker simply doesn’t feel prepared. Assure her that you will plan a panelist prep call with the moderator so topics and questions can be discussed in advance. Remember that public speaking is one of the top fears for people.


  1. Don’t stop at “no”. When someone says no, find out if it means “not now.” I invited the amazing and popular scholar and storyteller Brené Brown to speak at the 2014 Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network in Istanbul, Turkey. Although she said no at the time, she eagerly said yes the following year when the same event was in Austin, Texas- a very short plane ride away from her family and work.

If you do receive a firm no, ask the invited speaker to recommend 3 other women who can replace her at a similar level. Make sure your list is long, because…

  1. Anticipate that someone may drop out.  It happens. It’s probably the worst part of event planning, but it happens. Both male and female speakers have unanticipated circumstances that cause them to make difficult last-minute decisions. Again, ask who would be the best replacement and ask for an introduction to her. And if you were dedicated to #4, you have a number of other speakers you can ask!
  2. Make it worth their while. Help women leverage conference participation to elevate their personal brand or business by offering them interviews with top tier media in attendance. Make sure they are invited to the private networking events. Help them maximize their experience.

If you consider yourself a male ally who doesn’t plan conferences, consider taking the Gender Avenger Pledge that you will not be a part of all-male panels. Make this provision when you accept a speaking invitation and set a clear expectation that the organizers find female experts and be willing to offer a few ideas of your own.