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Naomi Simson speaker

No one likes getting yelled at, but there might be a reason. What appears to be anger may in fact be frustration – on both sides.

The phone rang at 2.00pm on Friday afternoon and I note that it is Matt Barrie– this is only the second time he has ever called me personally, even though I have known him since 2011 as part of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year program. Every time we see each other we always have a great catch up. I stepped away from the people I was having lunch with to take the call.

But Matt was in no mood for small talk. His team from SydStart had brought to his attention that I had been promoting on Twitter an article from Women’s Agenda, which highlighted the lack of diversity in the line up for their upcoming meet up. The article went further to list 20 potential female tech founders who could potentially speak.

Matt had reason to be upset. I had been one of the first speakers that they had approached (whilst my assistant sent two emails and left two phone messages – they never connected). In fact, he said that SydStart had approached more than four times as many female speakers as men, and two had agreed, but one pulled out the day before the schedule was released.

He lamented, “What are we to do if we simply cannot get women to speak?” He continued, “I’m not prepared to put a lesser quality message or presentation just for the sake of tokenism – and I am sure you would agree, Naomi.”

There are many aspects to what at first seemed like a straight up issue.

Why did the women decline?

I am not sure of the exact reasons but let me speculate on some of the reasons:

Female founders I note are often busier than their male counterparts. Now whilst I’m sure this is a massive generalization, the fact remains that women are more likely to also be juggling family responsibilities. Preparing a presentation takes hours and hours of work to do it well; it takes practice and consideration… I know. Anyone who is beginning to get some traction in their business will have a massive fear of making a fool of herself on stage – isn’t one of the greatest fears public speaking? – as well as of the opportunity cost of the preparation time.

So how could the organizers (which is a team of both men and women) make it a ‘safer’ place for women to present? And how can they make it more time effective?

The first step is to find out why they declined – really not just the “I’m busy that day.” And I suggest one of the female team members asks this question.

Depending on the timing of the proposed session they could offer a nanny on site. When my kids were smaller I often took them with me to events; it was a bit of a risky approach, I was always fearful that they would be disruptive – which increased my anxiety.

To help the woman limit preparation time and to give a greater confidence on stage, then perhaps they could offer to have the female founder interviewed on stage by a well-regarded and ‘safe’ journalist. I’m sure Angela Priestley would put her hand up.

May I suggest that there are many messages needed for the startup community, not just messages from other founders, that could be delivered by a female speaker:

Amanda Gore on Balance, Nadine Champion on Courage, Marita ChengIta Buttroseon personal branding, or the wonderful Melinda Cruz, from Miracle Babies, about setting up systems an processes to scale. Startups need many skills and talents.

On the other side of it, if the organizer still does not have the diversity they want – I have not even mentioned diversity in age, disability or ethnicity – then they call it out at the time of release. Be authentic and transparent with your potential audience.

Promote it by saying: “we know this line up is not representative of our start up community – and we are still seeking the diversity of voice for our program. Please contact us if you have a recommendation or would like to nominate yourself. We will make sure we have time on our agenda for panels, break outs and work tables. We are committed to the diversity in the community.”

So Matt, thanks for the earful. It’s what we love about you. You are always prepared to call it out.

And I call it out too: women, we can only ever get a balanced voice if we are prepared to be in all media including on the stage – no matter how scary or inconvenient it is for us personally.

Just to reiterate the great work being done by the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia ‘Women for Media’ program, here is a list of women who are prepared to stand up.

Whilst this issue has been painful for many, having it out in the open is a good thing. Keep going, keep growing – and I will keep ‘dragging’ other women with me to the stage and holding those without a balanced voice to account. It might be hard Matt – but it cannot stay how it is.

If you have a suggestion for SydStart then please email them here. So whilst Matt might have had a head of steam, and it was not very pleasant, there was gold in what he had to say. I set aside my shock and took on board what he said. How often when someone goes off at you, do you go into defence mode rather than hearing the gold?

This photo from the CBA Women in Focus is of 150 female founders* far more representative of the opportunity.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn under the Influencer program and has since been syndicated to a number of other titles including Women’s Agenda and SmartCompany

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