Here’s a riddle for you: which came first, the all-male panel (affectionately referred to by many as “the manel”) or the conference requirements that shaped it? In 2020 the veil of bias—disguised as expertise—that permeated so much of our world, in the market research industry and beyond, has been lifted. We know for a fact that:
- Inequality starts at the very first opportunity for promotion and disproportionally impacts women and people of color;
- That companies with gender-balanced teams are more successful;
- And that diverse teams develop more innovative ideas.
So why, then, do the majority of the faces and voices of expertise in our industry continue to look and sound the same? Over 13 years ago I founded Women in Research (WIRe) as a support network for women in the market research industry with the hope that, through providing resources, mentoring, and global networking opportunities, we could encourage a new generation of female leaders. Our own findings suggest that the needle is being pushed, that there are more female leaders and C-track professionals than ever before. But a quick browse through some of the industry’s top publications, conference schedules, and opinion pieces can sometimes be devoid of the voices of women all together…and often for days at a time. So, then, we’re faced with another riddle: Are organizations not finding women to speak as experts or are women not finding themselves reflected in our definition of expertise?
Market research is and always has been an overwhelmingly female-forward industry: a study conducted by WIRe in 2017 suggests that 55% of the industry identifies as female. A gender-balanced conference stage or publication should, then, reflect the industry population itself…right? But conference speakers and published authors aren’t just industry professionals: they’re experts. When we attend industry events, read industry publications, and seek industry news, we do so seeking the voices and opinions of expertise. And when those voices are overwhelmingly male it begs the question: where are the female experts? Or, better yet, why aren’t there more women that are considered (or consider themselves) experts?
It’s important here to distinguish who defines expertise in our industry—by and large, market research is permeated with sizeable, overlapping associations and publications who work together through partnerships with leading companies to produce a clearer image of how the industry itself functions via the expertise and viewpoints of its members, the more salient of which are highlighted through publications and speaking opportunities at industry events. So, the chain of responsibility when it comes to who selects the experts that define our industry decidedly leads to the companies and organizations who define the industry at large. Many of these organizations are working toward a more gender-balanced stage or magazine. At WIRe, we work with many of the biggest research conference organizers to connect them with female speakers and thought leaders via our 50/50 conference initiative, which supports a database of over 300 qualified female speakers and counting. But a short trip through the #MRX hashtag on Twitter or the blogs of some of the leading industry publications would make it seem as though there are just a handful of female experts whose ideas are worth echoing. I’ve always said that if you’re hiring and all of your candidates are male, you don’t have a recruitment problem, you have a corporate-ethos problem. The same applies here: if you’re reading content that is from a singular perspective, it’s not that the authors are the only voices worth hearing, you’re just not getting the whole story. To our MRX organizations and companies: if you want to present yourself as the leading voice of expertise in our industry it is imperative that you feature a diverse set of voices and opinions that reflect the unique expertise of a diverse industry. Anything less is falling short on reflecting the true voice of the industry.
Antecedently, when we speak with the women in our organization about why they are not submitting speaker proposals or blog pieces, one constant thread emerges: they don’t think they fit the requirements or don’t consider themselves category experts. This too is rooted in bias: if you have never spoken at an event before you can’t submit proof of prior speaking experiences; if you’re not in a leadership capacity you often don’t feel comfortable asking your employer to cover travel expenses; if you don’t have a strong network of support, you may not have a mentor or coworker that can help refine your presentation and boost your confidence. And expertise in one area does not always translate to another. Someone who is a consistent contributor to industry trends on their LinkedIn page may not be able to fulfill the requirements of expertise laid out in a speaker proposal submission guideline. For this reason, it’s important that we envision and realize a new definition of expertise that is inclusive, holistic, and supportive of the unique backgrounds and experiences that define us all. One that isn’t predicated on solely what we’ve accomplished but what we’re capable of; one that allows for mistakes that, in turn, facilitate growth; one that creates structures of support for new voices.
The onus too is on women to step up and step out. There must be a concerted effort to inspire confidence in female expertise and here, I think, companies themselves have much work to do. Who posts to your blog? Whose opinions do you boost on your company’s social media platforms and in your newsletters? Whose ideas define the work that you, as an organization, produce? I think here of Annie Pettit and her push to inspire new conference speakers to dive headfirst into conference-speaking roles, but I think there is still more that can be done to cushion that first leap when it comes to the companies from which these new voices hail. By and large, when we holistically think of experts, we often look to executive-level players in their field as the best of the best. But, when women, people of color, and other marginalized communities have been systemically left out of the race to the top—those in leadership positions are not necessarily then the most expert or the longest in their field; they’re the ones who successfully made it past disproportionately-placed obstacles and bias to the top. The organizations who endeavor to truly represent the industry’s brightest and most innovative ideas must eliminate bias from their authoring or speaker submission model and elevate the voices of the many to encourage a more diverse dialogue that connects and inspires us all.
As the founder and managing partner of Scalehouse, Kristin Luck serves as an advisor and growth strategist to a number of cutting-edge marketing and analytics technology and services firms. She founded two marketing analytics companies that she led to successful exits: OTX and Forefront Consulting Group. Kristin is a licensed investment banker with Oberon Securities and a founder focused on helping fellow founders and executive teams scale and monetize their businesses.
Jessica Sage is the Marketing Director for Women in Research (WIRe), a non-profit serving 9,000+ market research professionals with the aim of inspiring a more diverse and inclusive industry. She holds a Masters in Critical Theory and Creative Research from the Pacific Northwest College of Art- serving as a thesis advisor for the college’s graduate-level and bachelors-level programs -and attended Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington for her undergraduate.