I am going to make two controversial claims that will probably upset the sensibilities of both genders:
1.) Behind every successful man is a woman. (Groucho Marx’s version was: “Behind every successful man is a woman, behind her is a wife.”)
2.) Men are better at giving powerpoint presentations than women.
Right now I have my feet in two different roles. First I am directing the day to day of an organization – or, at least, an organization within an organization. Second, I am traveling around and giving lots of powerpoint presentations at conferences.
I have come to realize, however, that these two roles are generally split, and they are generally split by gender. The men travel around and give the presentations at conferences; the women meet on skype calls and in offices and talk out all the issues in order to make an organization stable and successful. It is the 21st century version of man in the office, woman in the kitchen.
For example, at Interdependence Day in Brussels at least 90% of the speakers were male. (The stereotypical exception was the poetry reading.) Organizing every detail of Interdependence Day, on the other hand, were three extraordinary women: Elizabeth Dameron, Abi Mihel, and Holly Lane. Unlike the men who were off having drinks at the end of every day, those three went back to their office to print out documents, scribble on whiteboards, and send out emails.
The list of speakers at Ars Electronica is also overwhelmingly male. Again, making sure that everything went off without a hitch were Ingrid and Cornelia. My guess is that neither got any sleep during the event.
In a few weeks I’ll be attending Pop!Tech. The organizers of the conference are very cognizant about the importance of diversity in its presenters, but as you can see, the list is still overwhelmingly male (and, yes, white). Andrew, the curator of Pop!Tech, is a well-known and amazing presenter. But the person who is in charge of all the necessary details to make sure that the event is a success is someone you will never hear about: Leetha Filderman.
Of course, not everyone agrees that men are better presenters than women. Tara Hunt argues that women can not afford the cost of presenting – either in terms of money or time:
We’ve talked alot about “why women don’t speak” on the BlogHer Women in Technology listserv. One of the number one reasons that women give is the COST of speaking. Many of the very talented women I know are also independent contractors, but they are also juggling family lives. They would have to arrange for childcare and getting time to do client work is precious enough, let alone trying to work 40 hours on a presentation. And these women on the list are pretty affluent. I can’t imagine women and men from lower income families or students working on cool projects…
Making a similar argument on O’Reilly’s Women in Technology blog, Tara says that journalists and conference organizers tend to overlook women that they should be writing about and inviting to speak. Jen Bekman, after criticizing the organizers of the Creativity Now Conference for not including a single female speaker, put together a list of talented women speakers to be invited to conferences.
This past week I was in Johannesburg where I was able to call the offices of iCommons my own for a day. I had lunch with the fiercely intelligent and eloquent Rebecca Kahn. (Excellent music-shopping partner as well.) Rebecca has a lot of experience working in organizations and non-profits and has found that there are “idea people” and “procedural people”. The idea people sketch out their great vision and the procedural people then take charge to 1.) make the idea more realistic and 2.) make it a reality.
It is tempting here to assume that the men come up with the ideas and the women come up with the procedures, but I think it’s more complicated than that. From my experience, both men and women come up with the ideas, but the women are more likely to bring up their ideas during meetings and via email whereas men are more likely to incorporate their own ideas (and appropriate the ideas of others) into polished presentations and books. Similarly, both men and women come up with smart procedures, but women tend act on those procedures and share them with others so that they are put into place. Men, like myself, are more likely to write blog posts about why they are great procedures to follow.
Creative Commons is typical of the “woman organizes, man presents” dynamic. When you think of Creative Commons, you think of the following individuals: Lawrence Lessig, James Boyle, Joi Ito, Yochai Benkler, Paul Miller. In fact, if you go to a technology or creativity conference, you’re very likely to see those five gentlemen (the good ol’ boys of the networked era) on a panel together.
One of the fascinating things about visiting the iCommons office was that I was the only guy there. That’s right: iCommons is all women. Listening in on one of their meetings, their conversations were not about the future of copyright and creativity. No, they were hammering out the details of how to educate about flexible licensing, where to launch Wikipedia Academies, how to best use Second Life as an educational resource in South Africa. Applying procedures. Getting things done.
Even though iCommons is run by women, even though they did all the organizing to pull of iSummit, they invited mostly men to speak. This is one of the reasons I believe that men are better presenters than women – otherwise, why wouldn’t the women who organize conferences invite more women to speak at them?
I know that it is immensely unpopular to say that men are better at anything than women (and slightly less unpopular to say the opposite), but I think it’s important to recognize it in order to reverse it. Why are men better presenters? That I do not know. It could go back thousands of years when our ancestors all circled around the bonfire at night. Perhaps for millennia men have been practicing their speaking gigs and it has become genetic. Or maybe it’s just a matter of cultural legacy – we see more men speaking at conferences and so more men in the audience get it into their heads that they too would like to present.
Let’s not fool ourselves – some people are naturally better presenters than others. They are good at telling stories, they have expressive faces, their voices are appealing, they know when to tell a good joke, they don’t get nervous. But for most of us good presentations come with lots of practice. Starting in junior high or high school we should reach out to young women and teach them public speaking and powerpoint presentation skills. Presentation Zen, for example, is a great resource, but judging from the comments it seems as though only men read it. (Why doesn’t someone start a Presentation Zen-like blog specifically targeted toward women?) On the other hand, we should be reaching out to young men and teaching them better listening skills, how to take minutes at meetings, and how to better broker ideas between conflicting groups and individuals. These are important skills that many grown men lack.
This year’s Pop!Tech has a new social innovation fellowship program which will teach 16 up-and-coming social entrepreneurs some of the necessary skills to make their projects successful and sustainable – basically, everything we should have been taught during our formal education, but were not. (I’m honored to be working with Gideon D’Arcangelo on the digital storytelling workshop.) Andrew Zolli, the amazing presenter I mentioned earlier, will be giving a workshop on how to put together a compelling powerpoint presentation. It is one of those important skills that every leader should know, but which we’re never actually taught. I’m looking forward to seeing what the fellows get out of Zolli’s workshop and what they come up with for themselves.