The Dreaded All-Women Panel

Our disdain for the DREADED ALL-MALE PANEL is well known, but there’s another trend we find equally distasteful… the dreaded ALL-WOMEN panel. Yes, you read that correctly, all women.

In the scramble to right a wrong, some attempts can make the situation worse. When some conferences make an effort to include women speakers, they swing too hard in the other direction. These conferences create special programming for women and invite celebrated, successful women from the industry to speak. Often the topics are gender-related and bias-centric, because those issues are top of mind.

But when a woman is speaking JUST about bias in funding, being a woman entrepreneur or the semi-infamous work/life balance, she is NOT being invited to speak on topics related to her expertise, her industry knowledge or even her own company. She isn’t invited to join the general conversation. She’s been consigned to the woman “bucket”.

 An all-women panel. Photo credit: Randstad Canda [ CC BY 2.0 ],  via Flickr  (cropped)

An all-women panel. Photo credit: Randstad Canda [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr (cropped)

Bettina Hein, an Innovation Woman speaker, was offered a fabulous speaking opportunity on an industry CEO panel, only to be told that it was a “mix-up.” She was supposed to be offered a place on the women founders’ panel. Oops.

Oops, indeed. Our heroine goes from a panel of peers (mostly male) talking about the most important industry issues to one focused on her gender and guaranteed to appeal to less than half the audience. Some women won’t even attend these special breakouts, preferring to stick with the mixed crowd. Hein’s business credentials and success more than adequately qualified her for the general business panel, but she was sidelined by her gender.

Hein spoke up, pointing out that inviting her to one panel shouldn’t preclude her from participating on the other — they were two different topics. (Right on, sister! Amen to that!) Why not have her do both?

The hosting organization started with good intentions; they were trying to do the right thing and get more women in the game, but by focusing exclusively on creating a specific women-oriented experience, they missed the big picture. They were not creating an overall diverse event. They not only fielded an all-male panel, but they created a second “not diverse” event, an all-women panel. If they had created mixed panels, they would have produced far more interesting sessions, offering a better overall experience for all their attendees.

If the goal is more diversity, those at the conference helm need to realize the problem can’t be fixed by simply tacking on a discrete event for women. You need diversity across the board.

  • Start with a goal of 50 percent women participating at every level

  • Find and develop the resources to source appropriate diverse talent. (Innovation Women, anyone?)

  • And, maybe it’s time to consider ditching the all-women panel for good.


This article was originally written in 2016 by Betsy Dupre. Updated and amended by Bobbie Carlton. Many thanks to Bettina Hein for allowing us to share her experience. Book her and other awesome female founders, subject matter experts and speakers at Innovation Women.