Where Are the Women Keynote Speakers?

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

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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, Forbes Women, 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.