It started with a lone tweet.
Oakland, Calif.-based entrepreneur Sandi MacPherson was frustrated with the hand-wringing over women’s underrepresentation in technology, and specifically in the expert-speaker lineups at the industry’s many conferences and events. As the founder of Quibb, a professional network that functions like a minimalist LinkedIn, MacPherson knew firsthand that there were more than enough qualified women leaders in Silicon Valley. Why weren’t they being invited on stage?
“Events are the face of the industry,” she says. And more than that, “speakers get access to people and the press that they wouldn’t otherwise.” She looked at conference data and realized that men were more likely to reap those benefits, outnumbering women speakers by roughly three to one. Everyone seemed aware of the problem, but no one had arrived at a solution.
Enter MacPherson’s 140-character hypothesis. She tweeted out a link to a Google form, inviting women in technology to volunteer as speakers. Less than two months later, she has a growing list of 1,100 women leaders working at companies like Google, Facebook, PayPal, and Shopify.
Indeed, strength in numbers is now the animating force behind MacPherson’s project. Armed with her database of names, she is now hoping to prod event organizers to commit to her “50-50 pledge,” and equalize their numbers of male and female speakers.
“There are a lot of women out there who are so great at what they do, these people do exist. It’s just that you might not know them,” MacPherson says. Her goal is to partner with organizers and provide them with suggested speakers “focused on the right topic and in the right role.”
Merci Victoria Grace, product management lead for Slack, was one of the first women to raise her hand. “When I saw the initiative I immediately felt that I should volunteer,” she says. “Having more women on stage is a signal that benefits the greater good.”
For Grace, the idea that women should be not token, but rather equal, is central to her participation. “I think that’s what so important about the 50-50 initiative,” she says. “It’s not one woman on a panel. What Sandi is saying is that half of the people up there can and should be women.” A lone woman is more likely to face abuse at the hands of trolls and skeptics, Grace says, pointing to recent problems at Reddit and elsewhere.
MacPherson already has one committed customer: Nir Eyal, an author and behavioral design expert. At his third annual Habit Summit, scheduled for March 2016 at Stanford University, he has pledged 50-50 male-female speaker representation.
“The first year we actually had gender parity, the second year we didn’t. I was really disappointed about that,” Eyal says. “The missing piece here is not that there aren’t qualified speakers; the missing piece is that they’re hard to find.” Too often, he says, event organizers simply look to speaker lists at other events, relying on the social proof of those established names. “We have to break this cycle that perpetuates male speakers.”
As for those who would question MacPherson’s parity goal as too ambitious–she dismisses that objection. “The number of people speaking at these events is actually really small,” she says. “It’s not that hard to find 20 individual people. But the potential ripple effect is really big.”