‘Hate something? Change something!’ On gender bias in conferences

I have a recurrent experience with car ads, which I think is their fault not mine: I can often, years later, remember every detail of the ad except which particular car it was advertising. I suspect this is a result of the mismatch between the grandiose claims made by marketeers and the tiny differences between actual cars. One ad, years back, ran under the slogan ‘hate something? change something!’ – as best I recall one manufacturer or another had improved their diesel engine slightly in some particular, and the marketing department decided to make this an example of world-transformation up there with the American Civil Rights movement or the ending of apartheid…

I love the slogan, though. For myself I translate it as ‘don’t moan; transform!’ There are a few things I care about enough to really not like; it would be easy to talk a lot about them; the challenge instead is to do something that will actually make some difference (which may involve some intentional talking, of course). One of the things I try occasionally to do something about is gender balance in those bits of the church I can get my hands on – mostly UK Baptist and evangelical life. So I became interested when Helen (@helen_a13, aka ‘the tweeter formerly known as @fragmentz’) and @God_Loves_Women started asking questions on Twitter about gender representation on UK Christian conference platforms (based on Rachel Held Evans twitter comments about the gender (im)balance at something called ‘The Nines’ in the USA, and an American journalist offering an analysis of the ‘biggest Christian conferences in the evangelical world’ – he used ‘world’ in that odd US English sense of ‘North America’; cf. ‘World Series Baseball’). I tweeted a few names and lists of conferences to include, and looked forward to seeing the results sometime next month…

…I should know GLW better than that. Her analysis went live the next morning, and makes sobering reading for anyone involved, as I have been, in organising and running conferences. It suffers the problems of any statistical analysis (you know the old one about a statistician being someone who can lie with her head in the freezer and her feet in the oven, and claim that on the whole, she is feeling completely normal?). But these stats are too skewed to enable any excuses, and I suspect that we all know that if we did the more granular stuff it would just look worse. There’s something here to moan about – or to transform. How might we do the latter?

First, there are already some brilliant blogs on the subject:

Hannah Swithinbank asks conference organisers to front up and be honest. If you failed to get a decent (which means representative, as well as skilled) speaking team, tell us – publicly – how hard you tried, and what you are going to do different to do better next time.

Martin Saunders talks about the effort the UK Youthwork Summit put in to achieve gender balance, and so gives a model for others to follow

Jenny Baker points helpfully to some of the underlying structural issues that need to be named and changed.

Jonny Baker is typically direct about how easy it should be.

Second – guess what? The church is not the only community that faces this particular problem. People have talked very practically about increasing female representation at science conferences; at game developer conferences; at conferences on writing JavaScript – and probably lots of other places. There are great ideas here we could happily borrow…

What else could we do? Here are some ideas, thrown out at random:

1. Picking up on Hannah’s points: if your gender ratio is rubbish, commit – publicly – to do something about it at the conference. Create one bursary for every excess male speaker, to be awarded to a gifted young woman; have your top speakers meet with them day by day through the conference to help and encourage them into using their gifts; next year, give them a slot on the programme; …

2. People say they can’t find female speakers – so is there space for a directory, listing great women, their particular gifts and expertise?

3. On twitter, Jenny Baker said she and others had tried the directory idea, and people had been reluctant to put themselves forward. So build a group through intentional mentoring, training sessions, and safe practice spaces; meet people, and encourage them to get involved; … (I know Jenny and Wendy Beech-Ward are doing this already; I wonder how much support they are getting from conference organisers who complain about their inability to find women to speak?)

4. Or, instead or as well as this, why not reverse the form of the directory so people do not put themselves forward, but are proposed? They would have to agree, of course, but would it be easier for someone to respond positively if the email said ‘three leaders we trust have told us they have heard you and you are great; can we list you in our directory’?

5. That’s all carrot; how about some stick? I have often wondered about saying ‘no’ to speaking invitations on grounds of gender equality. A couple of years back I decided that whenever I was invited to speak at a conference that was all male, I would go, but donate any speaking fee to an organisation promoting women’s ministry. That was then a compromise, and I knew it; I wanted those invitations & platforms (& there was one regular invitation from my own denomination, to which I feel a degree of loyalty and obligation…) – and I knew and know that I’m pretty dispensable in the minds of most Christian conference organisers (I’ve got letters to prove it…). But what if there were 20, 30, 50 of us, UK Christian conference speakers with some profile (ideally more than me), who together committed that we would not accept invitations to any conferences where the gender profile of speakers was inappropriate? Would that make a difference? (& – perhaps more importantly – even if it wouldn’t, would it be a properly gospel-shaped act of intentional solidarity?)


Would any of these work? Which is the best option to give priority and (admittedly scarce and precious) time and energy to? I don’t know – but I do know that I don’t want to hate/complain about the lack of women on the stages of Christian conferences; I want to change it. If anyone’s got better ideas, I’d love to hear them.


  1. Daniel Clark
    Nov 15, 2013

    I wonder also if by raising the question of gender, we should question also the very nature of some of these Christian conferences. Many seem to be based upon a model centred on “alpha males” (in some cases the male is quite explicit) who are able to attract a large audience. Perhaps rather than asking the question of why more women cannot break into the club, we should be wondering whether the club should exist in the first place.

    • steve
      Nov 16, 2013

      I suspect you’re right. I’ve been re-reading bits of Hélène Cixous recently because I have a student working on her; somewhere near the core of her thought is the suggestion that traditional forms of writing are ‘phallocentric,’ and that truly feminine forms need to be discovered – but pending their discovery woman have to write in, and subvert as best they can, the phallocentric forms that exist.
      So, yes, your idea that our current conference practice is gendered, and that true gender justice will involve not just changing the people on stage, but the way we do conferences (the existence of the stage, perhaps), is one I have some time for, but I think Cixous’s sober recognition that the route to this can only involve women first colonising, and then subverting, masculine practices, is a serious one.

  2. Brian LePort
    Nov 15, 2013

    Excellent and constructive thinking here. Thank you Steve (and those to whose ideas you’ve linked)!

  3. Helen Singleton
    Nov 15, 2013

    Earlier this year I wrote to major summer Christian event to say I would be stopping regular financial support because they were no women speakers in their publicity. My reply from the director said there were 2 ‘ladies’ speaking and were some planned for next year, they said there was no policy decision on this issue. Maybe it is important to express our concerns to organisers of such events? This issue would not stop us from attending the event again, but does feel important to me as a participant.

    • steve
      Nov 16, 2013

      Thanks, Helen. Yes. Noise matters!

  4. JD
    Nov 19, 2013

    Surely Christian conferences need to be thinking first and foremost about the sorts of themes/topics they want to cover at any given event every year and doing their best to find the best. If the best happens to be male, fine; female, fine; or a flippin’ baboon, great. I don’t give a d***! But please, please, please don’t have quotas to make sure there is a 50.50 split male/female. Conferences WILL suffer for that.

  5. Andrew Kleissner
    Apr 2, 2016

    When I originally saw the Baptist Union patting itself on the head for its better-than-most gender balance, I wrote to Project 3:28 and asked if they had ever been to the URC Assembly. I have been once, in 2012, and the number of female speakers was notable – and made me realise how unusual it was. in the Christian context But, then, the URC takes this sort of thing very seriously although knowing that it doesn’t always get it right!


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