Requests for Women speakers by financial services and insurance companies are on the rise as more female representatives are attending meetings. In the last 10 years, as more women have joined the previously all-male ranks of top-performing sales reps and field and senior management, financial services and insurance meeting planners, for the first time, are being asked to represent the interests of women by booking female keynoters for their conferences. It is exciting that what was previously an old boys' network of professional speakers is now slowly diversifying to include more women. However, this change, which is still in its infancy, has its challenges. One of the greatest challenges is that the professional male keynote speakers on the circuit far outnumber the women keynoters.
The Times They Are A-Changin'
In the past, requests for speakers were based simply on budget, topic, and theme. Of late, increasing numbers of senior executives are requesting more female speakers, based on changing audience demographics and evaluations from previous programs. Many times, when evaluations come back from female attendees, guess what type of speakers they ask to see on next year's program? So the job of calling a speakers bureau and asking for female speakers falls on the shoulders of planners, who are as uncomfortable making such a call as they would be if they had to request speakers of a specific race or religion.
The most difficult task for a meeting planner who is asked to secure a female speaker is to find a woman who can compare favorably with the male speakers that have been booked for the organization's events in the past. This is tricky, since the most popular speakers on the insurance and financial services circuit typically include well-known business authors, former CEOs, economists, adventurers, and sports celebrities — and most of them are men. For every 25 speakers in one of these categories, there is only one female speaker that is comparable. And because there are so few, top female speakers are booked six months to a year in advance. They are often not available for bookings from financial services and insurance meeting planners, who typically start their speaker search within three to six months of the date of the meeting.
An additional challenge is that the majority of women speakers on the circuit focus on “soft” themes such as life-balance issues, stress management, and relationship strategies, topics that have often been avoided in the past for fear of alienating male attendees.
Many financial services and insurance meeting planners find themselves having to explain and defend this reality to their senior management. I often approach the problem by suggesting a conference call between the planner, the planner's boss, and me so that we can walk through the issues of why so few women keynote speakers are available and what the options are.
The final result of a planner's search for a female speaker, after reviewing dozens of demo tapes of women whose programs and style can be top-notch but whose content is not in synch with the objectives of senior management, is, often, to book a male speaker. And, unfortunately, it looks as if this could be the case for many years to come, until more women speakers whose subject matter appeals to both men and women enter the professional speaking circuit.
Ruth Levine is founder of Speak Inc., a speakers bureau based in San Diego with offices in Chicago and Kansas City. Reach her at (858) 457-9880 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.