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.
What I am learning about this whole ordeal is that more men demand to be paid than women do. I will make sure that doesn’t happen again.
— Whitney Hess (@whitneyhess) May 1, 2014
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.