History will side with the ‘disrupters’

In my time, I have curated and organised my fair share of events. Events with exhibition halls, conferences in foreign countries, small roundtables and webcasts. I know what it is like to piece together a wish list of favoured speakers and have to balance that with the spokespeople from sponsors that bought their way onto the stage. I have had speakers cancel at 6:00 pm the night before and one who didn’t even bother to show up on the day. I want to say it is like a jigsaw puzzle putting together an event that is informative, interesting and, most importantly, makes money. But those of us who have been in my shoes know, it is more like a Jenga tower – you are keeping a close eye on the assembled pieces, conscious of the holes and praying it doesn’t all fall over – at least not until the last warm glass of white wine is poured at the evening networking reception.

Knowing this, I am going to tell you a story about a lesson I learned, about a mistake I made, when putting together an event. It is a story I have told several times on stage, but never written down. The event was in Barcelona and the topic was mobile banking.

At my old job we worked with a members organisation to put together their first public event. Their previous gatherings were members-only. I set about, in consultation with the organisation, to put together an agenda with keynotes, presentations and moderated panels – your basic event template. We needed speakers to talk about mobile technology, new payments applications and regulations hitting Europe and the UK. Speakers would come from the major banks, the card schemes, telecoms giants and big consulting firms. All would have to be convinced to travel to Barcelona, at their own expense, to speak at our conference.

I succeeded getting a large number of people, whose knowledge and experience in mobile and banking, meant that they offered interesting debate and discussion when on stage. I was confident that, in a short amount of time, I had put the best people I could find, and who were available, on stage that day in Barcelona many years ago.

I sent out a Tweet during the lunch with a picture. One of my followers made a comment in the replies – ‘Wow, that is a sea of men in dark suits!’. I felt annoyed. ‘Yes,’ I thought ‘this is banking and technology in Europe, there are a lot of men!‘ I worked very hard on this event – it was basically put together in about two months. The company I worked for was small – I didn’t have teams of people helping me corral the speakers, setting out the agenda and making sure everyone was prepared to go on stage.

As with any event, inevitably a couple of speakers had dropped out. One woman from Citi, who had been planned for the opening panel, had to cancel because of visa issues, which was frustrating. As the event came to a close I was happy. The event had been successful. People had lots to say and debate. One of the sponsors met with a contact that would lead to a lucrative deal and next year’s event was already being talked about.

That tweet still got on my nerves.

I grabbed a glass of rioja and looked out at the sea of ‘men in dark suits’ chatting and nibbling on hors d’oeuvres. That was when it hit me, square in the stomach. I felt sick. I thought back on the day, with our great speakers, our successful sponsors and I realised something.

If you didn’t count myself, acting as compère, there were no women on stage all day.

None at all.

And no one commented on it. (No one outside of my tweeter).

I had worked my ass off to get that event organised. I had picked, spoken to and prepared every single speaker. You could not fault any of them (even the ones on stage because of sponsorship). All of them deserved to be there. Yet, no women from a bank, from a startup, from a telecoms company sat on that stage to talk about mobile banking that day. The reasons for that were not because of the industry or society or the very real fact that women are outnumbered in finance and technology, especially in leadership positions. 100% of the fault laid with me.

I didn’t think. I just went out and picked ‘the best speakers I could find’. I went with what was ‘normal’, I kept to the status quo. And the status quo is overwhelmingly male. That is what ‘normal’ looks like – hence why the ‘all men, all day’ conference garnered no comments (back then, it was a few years ago – I predict that if the same thing were to happen today, there would be hell to pay – and rightly so).

From then on I decided to ‘think’ a bit more – actually put in a bit of effort. I sought out female leaders and interesting thinkers. I made sure that I had women on my preferred speaker lists – and more than one. Once you start thinking about it – it is actually not hard to do. I mean, for fuck’s sake, there is a ‘Women in Tech/FinTech/IoT/Blockchain etc…’ list published every week it seems. A 30 minute Google search and a few asks for referrals will bring up quite a high quality list of speakers who don’t have a penis.

And that is it. Today, when it is pointed out that ‘Wow, there are quite a lot of men speaking at your event!‘ it is rare that you are met with a response from the event organiser with a ‘Yes, we fucked up. But we have plans to fix things next time‘. What you usually get is an ‘annoyed’ defensiveness. ‘These were the people I could find!‘ ‘There are a lot more men available‘ ‘Look, we have a woman, speaking!’

And then, of course, the granddaddy of all condescending defensive retorts – ‘We can’t lower the quality of the event for the sake of diversity!‘ *cue, Twitter storm avalaunch now.

What is it about widening the pool of ‘quality’ people to include those from groups that are not ‘male, pale and stale’ that frightens some men, so much? Let me give ya’ll a few home truths. Diversity and inclusiveness heighten the bar – it doesn’t lower it. When you have to compete with a group of people from a wider set of environments, and not just your own tribe, you got to up your game, buddy.

Also, if you put together an event that is over 90% male or have a all-male management team or all-male board, and defend that by saying ‘we just get the best people, regardless‘ what you are actually saying is ‘the best’ is only available from men. And that, is fucking bullshit.

Visibility also matters. Remember, seven years ago in Barcelona, no one made any mention of the sausage party that was my first mobile banking conference – because what they saw on stage looked normal. We react and respond to what we see – and what we see is what we think of as normal. The same type of men who cry on social media about ‘having to lower the bar for the sake of diversity‘ and how it is really all about ‘diversity of thought‘ and ‘we should really just get the best people, regardless of gender’ tend to be the same people who claim ‘there are no female startup founders’ and ‘we can’t find woman to join our team‘. Not realising that when women look out and see a room full of ‘men in dark suits’ or boys in hackathon t-shirts they see an industry that says ‘you are not welcome here‘. Is it any wonder we have a dearth of women in our industry?

A few months ago, I judged a startup competition at an event in Abu Dhabi. I was the only woman in the group of judges. We needed to pick two winners. The first winner was obvious, but we debated the second one. It was very close, but after our back room discussions, we decided on two worthy startups. I stood on stage as the organisers announced the winners. The team at the second startup, the one we deliberated over, came running up on stage. In the team was a woman. She ran up to me and gave me a enthusiastic hug. “I saw you were one of the judges,” she yelled. “And I thought, ‘a woman!’ maybe we have a chance, thank you!”

Now, I didn’t even know she was one of the co-founders until she ran up on stage. (her male co-founder did the pitch) So, it can’t be argued I picked her company as the winner ‘for the sake of diversity’. (I was one of the judges who prefer this team, over the other, that we had debated).

But she, this entrepreneur, has seen me.

My very presence, on stage, had given her hope. My inclusion as one of the judges, said to her ‘I do belong here.’ That is one of the many many reasons why diversity and inclusion matters. Not just for the sake of it.

We all work in an industry that is trying to reinvent itself. The ghosts of the financial crises still loom, advancements in technology, and changing customer behaviour have the banking industry striving for transformation. People who promote innovation and disruption lamant and sneer at the old guard inside incumbent organisations who cling to legacy processes and old ways of doing business. ‘This is how it has always been done‘ is the enemy of any true innovator.

The way things have always been done, in banking and technology is to present and highlight and promote wave after wave of men. For women, our voice, our very presence in FinTech is ‘disruptive’.

I, for one, feel that history will side with the disrupters.

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