While Australian media has changed a lot in recent years, there’s no escaping the fact that women are still severely underrepresented. Middle-aged men continue to dominate airtime, while women account for just 20 percent of all news commentators.
It’s no surprise then, that this is mirrored in workplaces and conferences across the country as well. The gender gap in public speaking is glaring, with numerous events still moving ahead with few and sometimes no female representatives at all.
“The lack of women in the media and at professional forums is due to gender factors over many decades,” says former political journalist and public commentator Catherine McGrath.
“Women have a lot of catching up to do because, in general, workplaces have not made sufficient space for women and senior women in the past. This means that not only are women not equally represented in senior ranks, the women who are there are often less visible.”
Catherine believes many women are fed up with being cast aside in favour of their male counterparts and are rallying for change. “Women are sick of having to fight for the microphone. They want and deserve a chance to speak and be listened to,” she tells me.
She says much of the onus lies with event organisers and employers to fix the problem. While women may not be as forthcoming in raising their hands for speaking opportunities, it’s up to those running the gigs to ensure they have a diverse line-up.
“Women are sick of having to fight for the microphone. They want and deserve a chance to speak and be listened to.”
“They should also check that women speakers are given equal billing” she says. “Too often at conferences, women speakers are put on at less popular times such as after lunch. This has to stop. All speaking slots are not equal.”
Catherine believes event organisers would do well to compile lists of women speakers, give them feedback and share their names around.
“Women need to know that their employers, organisations and sectors will support them as speakers and support them on their speaking journey.”
Aside from this active commitment from employers and organisers, women should explore opportunities to attain professional training and speech-coaching. In the past, these services have been hard to come by, so many women have not had the chance to develop the skills they need. This leads many– senior women especially– turning down opportunities to speak publicly as they feel unprepared.
“The more senior we are, often we feel more is at stake,” says Catherine. “Unless we are 120% sure of our material, many of us choose to avoid taking on speaking roles.”
“Training is really important. Most of us have put no time at all into developing our speaking and presentation skills, despite spending significant time honing other leadership and business skills,” she says.
Through her own training company, WomenSpeaking Catherine has helped to counteract this phenomenon and build the confidence of countless Australian women.
“We need to start seeing communications and speaking skills as essential business tools” she says. “Women can break through the confidence barriers by starting to see their presentations, not as a personal judgement of themselves, but as a key part of their professional work. The first thing to do is to say ‘yes’ to a speaking opportunity, even if it is a small meeting, as this can be just as important to your career as a large conference.”
“We need to start seeing communications and speaking skills as essential business tools.”
By taking the focus off ourselves, Catherine says we can make sure we approach speaking opportunities in a strategic way.
“You should ask: what do I need to say to this group and how does that support the strategic goal of our business/community work or organisation? And then, what training and organisational support do I need to make this a success?”
In a modern workforce, it’s critical that women are given equal opportunities to speak up and be afforded the same opportunities as men. Events that move ahead with no female speakers ultimately don’t reflect the world we live in and the even better one that we’re continually working towards.
“The workplaces of Australia are changing. They are becoming more gender balanced and women are doing amazing jobs and achieving great results. Our professional lives are very different from the generation of women who came before us,” says Catherine.
“Our professional lives are very different from the generation of women who came before us.”
“But we need to see more of this in the public domain. We need to see more of these stories and hear more from senior women in mainstream media programs. We need to see more women speaking at conferences and events.
“If we are not visible, we will not be showcasing our and our organisation’s achievements.”
And then? Well, we’ll all lose out.