Equality and Transparency at Conferences

Yesterday I received information that speakers at GiantConf were being unequally compensated. [Their response] I did not take the news well. I got angry and I reacted harshly rather than respond with mindfulness and compassion. Feeling deceived, I went to a negative place rather than attempt to make the situation positive.

I appreciate that the conference organizers have recognized their mistakes and I recognize mine. What is important now is for us to understand what happened and why, to try to be better in the future.

The fact remains that fewer women are being compensated than men — but until yesterday, we had no idea. Yesterday the conference organizers shared that only keynotes and workshop speakers are being paid. 1 out of 6 keynotes are female. 4 out of 12 workshop speakers are female. And given that of the 74 speakers listed on the website, 21 are female, you can see how the vast majority of female speakers (16 of 21 = 76%) were NOT put in speaking slots that would be compensated. Now it is also important to note that men were not compensated at almost the same rate (40 of 53 = 75%). That is why I do NOT believe that the discrimination was in any way intentional. However when you look at who is being paid to speak, 18 people are being compensated and only 5 of them are female. That’s 28% female, 72% male. That is my issue.

Even when it’s unintentional, gender discrimination in our industry is real. From all the figures I’ve seen, female speakers get paid 3-5x less than their male counterparts. You can say that’s because they aren’t as well known — and that’s the point. The less often we get paid, the less often we can afford to appear, the less exposure we receive as leaders in the field. It’s a vicious cycle.

While I do not believe that the organizers of GiantConf had any intention of hurting their female speakers, they didn’t help either. They didn’t recognize the imbalance or they didn’t think it was a problem. They weren’t transparent from Day 1 about who was being paid and who wasn’t, and ultimately that led to speakers talking behind closed doors and eventually leading to the perception that inequalities were at play, creating a lot of strong emotions in everyone.

I regret that I went to Twitter to vent before giving the conference organizers a chance to explain the situation. I wanted to express my frustration, but I did not want to bring them harm so I didn’t mention their names or the conference name. But people started making guesses and another speaker confirmed it, and I had inadvertently started a flame war.

I should have known better, on many counts.

When I was asked to speak at the conference, I waived my fee immediately in support of the organizers and their mission. From time to time, I waive my speaking fees to support a cause I believe in and this was one of those times. But I clearly indicated that I would not be able to pay out of pocket to appear and thus would need my expenses fully reimbursed. The organizers agreed and I was put on the lineup. Six months later, I received a generic email to all speakers that only $500 would be reimbursed for hotel and $500 for flight. When I went to book one of the conference hotels with the conference rate, the cost came to $850 plus tax. This was arriving the evening before I was due to speak and leaving the evening the conference ended.

I brought the discrepancy to the attention of the organizers who said they were trying to be fair to all speakers and the reimbursement limits were all they could afford. However, they said they would allow me to apply any underage on the flight to the overage on the hotel. I indicated that it still wouldn’t cover everything and they said they would make an exception for me so long as I didn’t say anything to the other speakers. I declined to receive special treatment, not wanting to be unfair to anyone else. They suggested I look for a cheaper Airbnb instead.

Despite my efforts, I don’t think they realized how these reimbursement policies were creating an unpleasant experience for their speakers.

Now two months later, yesterday I find out that some speakers are getting paid. I had explicitly been told that no one was being compensated. I had been told that the organizers were determined to make things fair and equal for all speakers. So when I started hearing otherwise, it was a blow. I had been promoting this conference to my network. I had waived my own fee to help their bottom line. I had to ask twice to have my travel expenses fully reimbursed.

It was a deception. Even if it were deception by omission, I felt manipulated. So I emailed the organizers and told them to call me immediately.

Then just before they called, I learned who was being paid and who wasn’t. The names I was given were several men and one woman. When I spoke to one of the organizers, what I was told was that some people demanded to be paid to appear. Those people were mostly men. That’s when I began to see the situation more clearly.

From what I know of the organizers, they are kind and caring people who love the user experience community. I do not believe they intended to pay men and not women. But their lack of transparency in how speakers were being compensated allowed an inequality to emerge. It didn’t give anyone a chance, male or female, to indicate an interest in a paying speaking slot. And while from the numbers you can see that the percentage of women compensated is almost equal to the percentage of men compensated, what ended up happening is that far more men are being compensated.

As a woman, I have been subject to pay discrimination my entire career. This is a very sensitive issue to me and to many other people. It affects my business and my family. It affects my self-esteem and self-worth.

The way I reacted to the information I received yesterday was rash and immature. I should have waited until I had ALL the facts before speaking publicly about it. I regret contributing to the problem and causing anyone any pain. I work hard to be a mindful and compassionate person, but I failed on both counts yesterday. I learned that I have a lot more work to do.

But I also learned that we as a community still have a lot of work to do to create opportunities for everyone to thrive. I learned that when some people aren’t made aware of potential compensation, they don’t ask. I learned that fewer women demand to be paid than men. I learned that many women hoped to be paid for this gig, some women asked gently, but too few women straight up demanded it. These are important lessons to learn for all of us.

If we know women get paid less and demand to be paid less, what can conference organizers do to help reverse this trend?

I appreciate you taking the time to read this, and I hope we can all be a part of the solution moving forward.

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  1. meghscase says

    I firmly believe gender inequality is a hugely important issue that should be discussed often. In this case, however, I think we’re talking about something else entirely. I’m confused by the expectation of knowing what business arrangements the organizers made with their speakers. It’s no more anybody’s business to know what another speaker makes or gets than it is to know what a fellow employee makes or gets. It’s up to the individual to negotiate what they think is fair for their time and expertise and it’s up to the organizers to associate a value with what is being provided — just like when we sell our services to our clients.

    • says

      You are right. I have no interest in *what* other people are being paid, whether it be my fellow conference speakers or my colleagues at work. However, it is important information to know *that* other people are getting paid, especially when you’ve been told no one is, and there’s no extra money for anyone. Big, big difference.

      • meghscase says

        Even then, you get to say, “That’s fine that no one else is getting paid. I expect to be and here’s my rate,” or to decide to do it anyway, which is what it sounds like you did. Perhaps when you were told that, no one had asked to be paid and they were being truthful at that point in time. Or maybe not. Regardless, I don’t feel they are obliged to share whether people are being paid. That may have been their mistake — to reveal anything about the arrangements with any other speakers.

        • Andreia Moniz says

          Lying is a way of manipulation. Even if you put the gender issue aside, it’s not right.

          • meghscase says

            We’re not sure they did lie. But, yes, instead they should have said they weren’t sharing what they’ve negotiated with other speakers.

  2. thomasyung says

    Sorry to hear about all this controversy. I was catching up on Twitter late yesterday evening and some people I was following were piling on this unnamed woman to get their facts straight. I was thinking “What facts?” Anyway, after reading your post and the conference’s post, I just now connected the dots. Seems like some of those people on Twitter also needed to hear your entire side of the story before passing judgment. I can only imagine how hurtful it must feel. I am glad everyone owned up to their mistakes, but it will take time for the healing.

  3. says

    These same issues come up when men and women negotiate salary and benefits during the hiring process. Men more frequently negotiate. Women are more inclined to take the first offer. I am not a take first offer girl and I have received some surprised responses from hiring companies (generally the HR folks rather than hiring manager). I don’t know that all conference speakers should be equally compensated but they should be compensated at a rate they feel is personally fair. So if someone expects a minimum rate to speak, that should be what is received unless there is good reason to take a lower rate (non profit, good cause, etc). I have been paid for some speaking engagements and for others received just the hotel and dinner. I haven’t been bothered by the thought of others getting more but I suppose that speaks to being paid what I think is fair. In Whit’s case, full expenses would be “fair” compensation. If the conference didn’t offer that due to cost issues, it is odd they offered higher compensation to others who insisted. It’s that part that bothered me about this issue. She asked for fair compensation and didn’t get it when others did.

  4. Sveta says

    I can understand your feelings as a woman – I’m a woman myself. However, in my personal experience, I have been discriminated more as a deaf person than as a woman in many areas of my life, and so have been many others like myself. There may be less female speakers than male speakers, but are there any deaf speakers? Not a single! I expressed my interest to GiantConf about speaking and they did not respond to me.

    Speaking of events in general, it’s hard enough for me to even just attend an event or a conference because of communication access barriers, to say nothing about speaking at them. I’m grateful for every opportunity I’m given to speak at events and for being provided with communication access services at events. We are disabled not because of our disabilities, but because of physical and attitudinal barriers put by society that could be easily removed to make environment fully inclusive for us. People with disabilities make the largest minority, but also is the most ignored and underrepresented. They are sadly even being oppressed by other minorities like deaf women being oppressed by hearing women – this has happened to me many times.

    Being a woman may be frustrating, but being deaf is even more frustrating in addition to being female. I have had constantly to fight for access since when I was young – in education, employment, and many other areas of life, – and have had to put twice or even thrice more efforts than people with normal hearing to prove myself as a deaf person. I look forward to days when society will make environment fully inclusive for us. I could go on and on about this topic – this is the shortest answer I tried to write. And it is a very sensitive topic to me, too, as a female AND deaf professional.

  5. brennanMKE says

    You admit that you waived any compensation to speak beyond expenses and later you are unhappy that you and other women are not being compensated. Do you not see that you are more to blame for not being paid more than anyone else? It is frustrating to read about this situation. When much less than 50% of women get into technology why do you expect that 50% of speakers are women at conferences? And if you waive your fee to speak how can you complain about equal pay? I see no fault on the behalf of the conference organizers. Compensation among speakers or employees is rarely transparent. It is up to each individual to negotiate their compensation. When you waived your fee you forfeited any negotiation.


  1. […] read Whitney Hess’ article, Equality and Transparency at Conferences, which made me think and want to share several points. I’ve been planning to write about […]

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