Addressing diversity by understanding the fear of speaking

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After speaking at numerous conferences in the marketing research industry, I noticed a certain trend and decided to test it with data. I tracked the rates of men and women who took the stage (see data for 2017, 2016, 2015) and discovered that yes, indeed, women took the stage far less often than men.

The perennial problem remains, though.


Why do men and women have different rates of speaking at conferences? Feeling nervous, awkward, terrified, or forgetful as a speaker are certainly reasons that would prevent someone from taking the stage (see Men Are Entertaining and Women Are Awkward: An Analysis of Speaker Perceptions for more details). But what causes that fear? What causes someone to feel so anxious or awkward or terrified that they don’t take the stage? And where do the gender differences arise?

In preparing a survey for 500 data scientists and researchers, I developed a list of worries based on my own fears, my colleagues’ fears, and supplemented it with worries gathered from social media. The list of fifteen items contained mundane as well highly intrinsic and emotional items. But all were genuine worries that speakers and nonspeakers regularly have about the speaking experience.

Two things quickly became apparent from the survey results. First, people who have not spoken at a conference worry more about speaking than people who have. Second, women worry more than men.

Naturally, it’s common and normal for people to worry about speaking – 47% of people in this study worried about forgetting something important, 45% worried about losing their train of thought, and 45% worried about disappointing themselves. But the most intriguing result was how different men and women were when it came to naming specific reasons for their fears.

In particular, women who had never been on stage were about twice as likely as men to worry about taking audience questions, being discovered that they weren’t an expert, and disappointing themselves. On the other hand, men who had never taken the stage were more likely than women to name their biggest worries as falling on the stairs, looking stupid, and being generally anxious. The nature of these fears is quite interesting. The fears women named were internal – they worried about their personal worth. The fears named by men were external – they worried about perceptions of others.

Among speakers, most worries were less pervasive, but still very much still of concern. Interestingly though, in some cases the worries were not proportionately lower among people who had speaking experience. Whereas women continued to worry about taking questions even as they gained speaking experience, men were much less worried about audience questions as they gained experience. This trend was similar for worries about losing their train of thought, and looking stupid. Men gained more confidence in these areas compared to women. (Strangely, though, the fear of falling on the stairs remained prevalent.)

What are we to conclude from these data? Addressing insufficient diversity on conference stages cannot be handled by treating all nonspeakers the same way. Women have a set of worries and fears that need to be addressed in one way, and men have a set of worries and fears that need to be addressed in another. If your goal is to encourage more women to take the stage, then those interventions must respond to the types of fears that women have.

What can we do with this knowledge? First, we must continue to encourage women to submit speaking proposals, agree to speak when they are asked, and follow-through on the promise. Second, we must acknowledge their fears of taking audience questions, of failing to be perceived as an expert, of disappointing themselves. If we can help women work through these issues, encouraging them to take the stage could be an easier battle. And naturally, if it feels like this article is all about you, then promise me you’ll submit to speak at a conference this year.

If you’d like to learn more about gender and career advancement in the marketing research industry, WIRe (Women in Research) is an excellent organization that provides support and has conducted extensive research on this topic.

This non-probability survey was conducted in August 2017 with 297 male and 252 female residents of the USA whose ages ranged from 25 to 49, and whose careers included data science, market research, computer science, and university teaching. This sample included 30 women and 60 men with conference speaking experience. The data were weighted such that men and women mirrored each other on age, tenure, and household size. All sample surveys and polls are subject to multiple sources of error, including, but not limited to sampling error, coverage error, and measurement error. Many thanks to madai and Andew Middleton for providing programming and sample.