Where are the women keynote speakers?

This post was collaboratively written by:
Jessica Johnson
Melissa Emler
Heidi Hutchison
Iram Khan
Kaye Henrickson
Tia Henriksen
Image from Pixabay

In a recent discussion in our Women in Leadership voxer group, we came to the realization that opportunities for us to hear female education leaders speak as keynote presenters at conferences are a rare find. We can list numerous outstanding male keynote speakers we have heard at conferences and would be happy to listen to again:

  • Todd Whitaker
  • Eric Sheninger
  • Peter DeWitt
  • Andy Hargreaves
  • Michael Fullan
  • Joe Sanfellippo
  • Tony Sinanis
  • Jimmy Casas
  • Jeff Zeoul
  • Daniel Pink
  • Sir Ken Robinson
  • Kevin Honeycutt
  • Baruti Kafele
  • Josh Stumpenhorst
  • George Couros
  • Dean Shareski

The list could go on and on…

Yet, when we tried to list women keynote speakers…our conversation came to a halt. Within our group we could actually only identify six keynote speakers that we’ve heard:

  • Pernille Ripp
  • Marcia Tate
  • Becky DuFour
  • Heidi Hayes Jacobs
  • Angela Maiers
  • Kristen Swanson

All six are dynamic speakers who we want to promote and would love to hear again.  One interesting piece of these women keynote speakers is that they are all pedagogical goddesses and relentless advocates for student learning.  Liz Wiseman, another woman keynoter who was remembered later in the conversation, is the only woman that was hired to keynote on the specific topic of leadership and the impact leadership has on student learning.  We are connected to many great female education leaders; we’ve read their blogs/books, we’ve connected in social media to continue learning from them, and we’ve heard them speak on smaller scales (conference sessions, not keynotes). So why aren’t they being asked to be keynote speakers at state, provincial, and national level conferences? Why is the pool of keynote speakers so dominated by our male colleagues?  More importantly, why are we, the women leaders in education, not making a bigger stink about it?

This has been a difficult question to discuss as it has brought up some uncomfortable reflections, especially in the areas of how we support women colleagues. Some of the reasons that we discussed included:

  • Women can be our own worst enemies. Sometimes we compete with each other as though there is only one space at the top, when as we can see with the number of men who are keynote speakers, this is not true.   
  • Some women leaders feel isolated and don’t have a support group.
  • Speaking in front of others can be scary, causing us to question whether we really are an expert to present to others about it. It’s the own voices in our head that prevent us from stepping up. Many refer to this as the “Impostor Syndrome” which is common among high achieving women where, “Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved” (wikipedia).  According to researcher, Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, women who are in male-dominated professions are particularly vulnerable to this syndrome (Goudreau, ForbesWomen, Oct. 19, 2011).
  • Sometimes, we rely on “duty calls” and stay back to complete the work. Again, our own worst enemy by not prioritizing sharing our story (and the story of our teacher leaders) with others.
  • The reality of mom guilt; we already feel guilty about the many hours that take us away from our children and worry about the additional time spent away from our families.

According to Tiffani Lennon, the author and lead researcher of the report, Benchmarking Women’s Leadership in the United States, women hold 75% of all teaching positions across the U.S., but hold only 30% of leadership positions. Education is a field that is predominantly women, but we hold less than a third of the leadership positions. In looking at this report, education has the largest gap between number of women working and number of women in leadership. We have work to do.

What can we, the women in school leadership roles, do to help even out the influential voices in our space?  These are our suggestions:

  • Demand that the organizations we belong to recognize the imbalance and work hard to elevate our voices. We pay membership fees too.
  • Recommend women in leadership that we know would be excellent on the stage.
  • Submit proposals to speak at conferences on topics we are passionate about.
  • Encourage women colleagues to get out there and share their passions.
  • Recognize and promote the female speakers that we want to hear.
  • Continue to share our learning/reflections with others online (Twitter, Blogs, Voxer, etc.).
  • Read, reflect and discuss great books on women in leadership, such as Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg or Daring Greatly by Brene Brown.
  • Reflect upon our own self-doubt and bravely put it out there so that others can learn from it, support you and help you move onto reaching your leadership potential.
  • Learn more about the Impostor Syndrome and what that is and looks like for you. Get help from others, as you feel necessary.
  • Learn about some of the many successful people who have also identified themselves as “impostors”, as described in the article,  High achievers suffering from imposter syndrome News.com Dec 10 2013.
  • Get to know women leaders, so when the time comes to recommend speakers you have a list of good, potential candidates.

We believe women in leadership is a diversity issue and doing this important work is the responsibility of all educators. It is important for girls to see women in leadership roles so that they can imagine and dream their own possibilities. It is also important for girls to see women being celebrated as speakers whose opinions are honoured and valued. It is just as important for boys to see women in this role and on the stage.  This issue is not just about girls and boys though; it is also about women and men.  If most of our teachers are women, they deserve to learn from women and aspire to be like them.  If they only see men, some of the best and brightest may never choose to elevate their position.  On the flip side, there are certainly some amazing men in our classrooms who may feel forced to enter leadership positions because it is seemingly expected.  The field of education needs all of us to be in roles that fit our strengths.   Furthermore, we need to challenge our own thinking, and have courageous conversations that move us forward. It is important for everyone to acknowledge and value the importance of our voices as women to the educational conversations, including as Keynote Speakers at major conferences, both locally, nationally, and internationally.  In doing so, we are doing the work of creating a brighter future for all of us.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. KK Owen

    Just completed our national conference on best practices, What’s Right in Education, and our keynotes were presented by four women and two men: Dr. Janet Pilcher (creator of Studer Education and co-author of the new educational leadership book, “Maximize Performance”), Dr. JoAnn Sternke (Baldrige award recipient and superintendent of Pewaukee School District), Dr. Pat Greco (superintendent of “Best Place to Work” school district, Menomonee Falls), and Liz Jazwiec (national speaker and author of best sellers on service excellence and employee engagement). Our two men were Dr. Terry Holliday (Commissioner of Education in Kentucky, author, Baldrige winner) and Quint Studer (founder of Studer Group and best selling author). Glad to know that our conference bucked the trend! It was a great conference!

  2. Amy Heavin

    Thank you so much for writing this post. It truly resonates with me, and I am reading it over and over again. I have started to “break from my shell” and present at area conferences, sharing ideas and my voice. I know to lead effectively & walk the walk of leadership, I need to share and be a voice for my students, teachers, and school. I have found wonderful leaders through my PLN, and my connectedness has pulled me from isolation and into a wonderful realm of sharing. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to further our reach and our voices! There are amazing women in leadership today! Let’s hear their voices!

  3. thesundayprinciple

    Well said! I agree with all your points and will make a more intention effort in supporting fellow females leaders in sharing all their talents with us. It takes a village, but the outcomes will out way the costs!

  4. Erin Simpson

    Great piece! There is so much truth in this … The percentages were eye opening. I look forward to sharing this with women leaders I work with.

  5. Lyn Hilt

    This is such a tricky thing, there have been many posts written, Where are all the women leaders? Where are all the women principals? etc. I mean… we’re here. This is education. Women comprise the majority of educational administrators (although not evenly distributed among elem-middle-high). So… where are the voices? This isn’t going to sound politically correct, but it’s going to be honest, from my perspective. If a woman has chosen to have a family, the decision to travel, spend time on consulting work, and present at conferences consistently throughout the year WHILE maintaining a job in edu (most of the time) AND raising children/maintaining a household is pretty much the toughest decision ever. We already feel pulled in 1,000 directions. (Do men feel similarly? Probably. Is it the exact same? For the most part, no.) Choices have to be made. For me, leaving administration was a no brainer after my son was born. I know myself and my strengths and where my heart was, and it wasn’t with the principalship at that time. I went from receiving offers for consulting and speaking pretty regularly to basically dropping off the map in a year or so. Most of that was due to my reduced time online, sharing and promoting my work. (My choice!) I don’t think most men have to make those kinds of decisions. And of course, I generalize. Every person, every family, every scenario is unique. I think it’s important to bring this kind of conversation to the forefront, but I also think it’s important to acknowledge that not every female (or male) educational leader wants that kind of additional workload. And that doesn’t make them any less of an educational leader. In addition, I think hiring women for keynoting jobs for the sake of hiring women does no one any favors. I’ve seen some terrible speakers hired because a quota needed filled. I’ve seen women’s educational conferences organized and their accompanying activities included fashion shows and other stereotypical nonsense. It was embarrassing to receive that flyer as a woman. I agree the competition among women can appear intense at times, but I guarantee you men feel that competitive edge as well. And this game is about who you know as much as what you know (as is pretty much everything in life). I think it’s commendable you are reaching out and forging networks of strong female educational leaders. The loudest voices will continue to dominate. Let’s continue sharing and promoting the great work we’re doing. The keynotes will come. 🙂

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