The importance of having women on professional stages

Fortune 500 female CEOs: Growing in number, but still rare
Fortune 500 female CEOs: Growing in number, but still rare

People call them "manels" -- an all-male panel seen at conferences or work events, discussing everything from technology to health care to (ironically) gender equality.

The "manel" isn't unique to any one industry. The 2018 Consumer Electronics Show initially announced a series of male keynote speakers (the show has since added female speakers to the lineup). At the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference, attendees will hear from more male presenters named Michael than they will hear from female CEOs (22 Michaels to 20 female CEOs). Even at the Golden Globes, presenter Natalie Portman quipped, "Here are the all-male nominees" while presenting the award for Best Director.

Related: The gender wage gap doesn't close -- even at the very, very top

A female presence at these events isn't just symbolic, says Radhika Parameswaren, professor at the Indiana University Media School -- it also sends an important message to the audience.

"At these events, there are people who are called upon to speak, to take up space, to say 'here are the experiences that got me here,'" she says. "It's about who shows up and who speaks and who is able to project authority."

Shelley Zalis, CEO of The Female Quotient, says too many organizers focus on speakers' titles rather than on their topic expertise. In doing so, they exclude people who have historically been limited to the bottom of the ranks.

"We all know there's less than 19% of women in the C-suite," Zalis says. "So if you're looking for title, you'll come up short."

Related: The link between the gender wage gap and sexual harassment

Last October, Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab at New America, launched a new initiative, Mission Visible, aimed at providing resources to help conference organizers and others to better surface diverse panel speakers and lecturers.

Schulte points out that diverse representation on panels, at conferences and other work functions is crucial to everyone's career development -- for both men and women.

"If you have only people in positions of authority who are to all the world perceived as experts, and if they are all men, what does that tell you? That men are the experts, that men know everything, and women are somehow on the sidelines, somehow less important," she says. "And frankly that just reinforces some unconscious bias that is clearly already there."

Zalis says she fights this by showcasing "the power of the pack" -- that is, bringing women together to heighten their visibility.

Every year at CES, Zalis organizes a "floor tour" of show attendees from The Girls Lounge, a pop-up conference she organizes at different industry events.

Zalis says the purpose of her all-female floor tour isn't to gawk at all the new technologies on display. She wants to put the "power of the pack" on display for all to see.

"Six years ago, we had 50 women, and all the guys' heads turned, like, 'Where'd all you women come from?' No one saw us when we were one here, one there," she says. "Now we have a few hundred women walking the floor, to make the statement like, 'We're all here.'"

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