Where are the Women Keynote Speakers?

Where are the Women Keynote Speakers?

This post was collaboratively written by:

Jessica Johnson
Melissa Emler
Heidi Hutchison
Iram Khan
Kaye Henrickson              
Tia Henriksen                             

Image by PIxabay
Image by PIxabay

In a recent discussion in our Women in Leadership oxer 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 who 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, ForbesWomen, 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.

Published by Tia M. Dawson

There are many things that define who I am as a person. First of all, I am a mother of 3 wonderful children! I can not express how fortunate we are to have our children in our life! Secondly, I am an elementary educator who recently returned to the classroom after 12+ years as an elementary school administrator. Lastly, I am passionate about helping others, learning about abuse, helping others in abusive relationships, and helping others understand their worth.

9 thoughts on “Where are the Women Keynote Speakers?

  1. Thank you for this much needed post! Shelley Wright is a name that comes to mind when I think of inspirational women-also Rafranz Davis.

    Sadly, I echo and feel so many of the thoughts you share about how sometimes women are detrimentally competitive toward each other, the isolation and absolutely the mommy guilt…so much mommy guilt.

    Another thought to add to the mix is when women speak up they are labelled as bossy, aggressive or pushy. When a man speaks up, they are labelled in much more positive terms like assertive and goal oriented. It’s time we stop listening and caring about the labels people try to stick to us-but better yet, we need to stop labelling and just start supporting each other.

    Trying to balance home and work (mommy guilt) and the less than supportive comments I get from female colleagues has me questioning why I even bother to do this work. It’s so much easier to be an “un-connected educator” and to just focus on my own two children and the students in my class. The only thing that keeps me going is hoping that one day I will feel the way I did when you were so supportive and encouraging to me as my administrator. Finding that feeling of quiet confidence on my own has been a struggle, but with more discussion like this blog post, I hope we can find it gets easier together.

    Thanks for being the strong, inspirational and courageous leader you are. (Note I didn’t say woman) Keep blogging, we all need you.

    Hugs and love to you,

  2. Hi Diana,

    First of all, you are an amazing mom and inspirational educator. I would love any (or all) of my own children to be fortunate enough to have you as their teacher.

    There were many women who came to mind as being inspirational, but we were thinking specifically of women we saw as keynote speakers at education conferences. That was difficult! There are so many more men, but we all know so many women who are such incredibly inspiring educators and leaders in education. We need to see more of them out there!

    I hear what you are saying about how men and women are often labelled quite differently for exactly the same behaviour. There have been some research studies conducted about this issue which are quite intriguing. Not sure what we can do about that, other than bringing it to the forefront and pointing it out. I don’t know.

    You are making a huge difference for kids by being a connected educator, Diana. You have truly impacted many students in ways they have never been impacted or pushed to think differently about so many things, including life and their positive influence on others. It is hard “going it alone” though, even though you have a ton of support of others in the district, province, and further abroad. It is important to have someone in your school who “understands” and can push you and support you. Together.

    I only wish we’d have the opportunity to work together again!

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I miss you!

  3. *perhaps only women named Diana will leave comments for you… 😉

    I’ve keynoted on several occasions and continue to – Rafranz (http://rafranzdavis.com/) has been hitting the stage as well. Sylvia Martinez (http://sylviamartinez.com/), has been a keynoter… Audrey Watters (http://audreywatters.com/). Larissa Pahomov (http://larissapahomov.com/) and Meenoo Rami (http://meenoorami.org/) (both former SLA colleagues) have been emerging in the space as well. The issue is that the list of women is harder to conjure and that is because there isn’t the repetition of their voice at the rate of the men who are keynoting. I will also for the sake of clarity say, that there is nothing wrong with the male keynoters, what is at issue is balance of voices, more representative of community and I would be remiss if I fail to note there is just as compelling a conversation about inclusion of voices and people of color in leadership/keynote roles as well.

    I recommend other women for keynotes ALL the time and call into question the gender balances with organizers for keynotes as well. It’s up to all of us to question how decisions get made for choosing keynotes. One of those is ‘draw’. One organizer, in a very matter of fact tone, told me that they are interested in selling out the conference and that men draw larger crowds. While economics definitely plays a part, ‘we’ are the audience and need to do a better job of elevating voices so that choosing to have a woman as a keynoter is not then choosing to struggle with attendance. This isn’t something that all organizers will openly talk about, but it is real. Caveat … I have helped run a conference for the better part of a decade that doesn’t have a traditional keynote, but chooses a panel of diverse and new voices every single year, no repeats. It achieves a different outcome and leaves the content and structure of the conference to be the draw…Something to consider if you are in a position of organizing a conference.

    Think hard about how to both elevate the compelling voices and leaders – you have some nice suggestions above, I would offer that on a daily basis how are you choosing to shine light on a diverse set of voices, not just retweeting the same kind of voices. How are you helping other women thrive in this environment? I’ve had several conversations with women breaking out into this world about money, contracts, etc. If you are fortunate enough to be on a stage, how are you helping the other amazing leaders and voices around you also move into that space as well.

    There is a facebook group around some of these issues – https://www.facebook.com/groups/InclusiveVoicesEdTech/ – although I am unsure if it has much momentum at this time… but could use some new voices to get some ideas flowing.

    The issue isn’t good or bad – it is balance and representation. These are important conversations to have until they are no longer necessary because balance and representation exist as the norm.

    1. Hi Diana,

      Those are many other wonderful women leaders in education as well! When we wrote the piece we just brainstormed women we had watched on stage, it definitely wasn’t an exhaustive list.

      As you mentioned, the women we all mentioned aren’t out there as much or as often as the male speakers. We agree, the male keynoters are great and we love listening to them! We would just like to see more women key noting as well.

      There are also many amazing women of colour who are doing amazing things in education. It was not our intension to leave this issue unaddressed, we wanted to be inclusive and focus the post on all women. There are so many issues that surround the issues of diversity. This post could have been much longer, indeed.

      It is very sad to me that conference organizers would say that male speakers sell more tickets. Very sad, indeed. This is what we need to change – throughout education. It isn’t that there is anything wrong with the men – they are great – what about the women? There are great women in education as well! We all need to do a better job of supporting one another. I will check out the Facebook page. We agree, this is a topic that needs to be raised and a conversation that needs to continue until more balance and representation is reached.

      Thanks for your comments, suggestions, and recommendations! I appreciate the time it took for you to read and respond so thoughtfully.


  4. Thank you for sharing this much-needed post, Tia. There definitely needs to be more women giving keynotes in the field of education especially considering the high percentage of teachers who are women. by the way, I’m pretty sure Jill Gough (@jgough) and Shelly Sanchez (@shellterrell) also have given keynotes at conferences.

    1. Hi Philip,

      Thanks for the additional names you have provided as wonderful women keynoters. We knew that our list was not going to be complete because we just listed women whom we had the opportunity to see present as keynoters. We are glad more people are providing us with additional names of inspiring educators.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Philip!


  5. Hello, Diana,
    It feels funny to “toot my own horn” but I’ve given keynotes in about eighteen states, Singapore, Japan, New Zealand and Australia over the last dozen years or so. I’m in Early Childhood Education, so I mostly address Head Start and Association for the Education of Young Children conferences, at state levels. My last keynote was just outside of Portland, Oregon, to 250 early educators, and the evaluations were very pleasurable to read…people got my major points and liked my interactive style. (Even when I keynoted the Orange Bowl I interacted with many of the people seated close to the stage, and that seemed to make people far away feel more included

    Thanks for caring, and thanks for letting me be heard. Despite my first name, I’m female, and I have things to say that people who teach find interesting. sydney@ecetoeacher,org http://www.eceteacher.org

  6. Perhaps because so many of the great women in education are doing vital work every day and are too busy to do the “self promotion” required to get on the podium!?

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