Despite rising numbers of women taking on leadership roles in trade and trade finance, the industry’s professional events still demonstrate a worrying lack of gender diversity. GTR takes a closer look at why ‘manferences’ featuring manels – or all-male panels – continue to be the norm.

A cursory glance at the stage during most, if not all, industry conferences is enough to see that panellists tend to have one thing in common: XY chromosomes. At the recent Sibos event, held in London in September, just over 200 speakers out of a total of 663 were female. And while all-male panels barely raise an eyebrow, all-female panels at big business conferences, least of all in the financial world, are so rare as to be almost mythical.

The issue isn’t limited, of course, to trade. In a report titled Gender Diversity and Inclusion in Events, event software provider Bizzabo analysed the gender diversity of more than 60,000 event speakers over a five-year period, from 2013 to 2018. It found that 69% of all speakers at a range of conferences across 23 countries were male, while just 31% were female.

This does not just pose a problem of representation, but a problem for the future of the industry as a whole. Diverse panels improve the quality of discussions, while a majority of male speakers provides a limited perspective and deprives audiences of a broader range of views. Essentially, if the industry continues to seek the same input from the same type of people, it’s unlikely to be able to keep up with the world as it changes around it.

“While the industry is still male dominated, that is changing. Just because it lags doesn’t mean that conferences can’t highlight a different group of people with a broader set of experiences,” says Alisa DiCaprio, global head of research and trade at R3 and trade conference regular. “We’re the future, and it behoves all of us to understand the learnings we bring to the table as they increasingly shape the world that is to come.”

Indeed, women are already at the top in trade in some of the largest banks in the business, from HSBC to Deutsche Bank, so the fact that this isn’t yet reflected in industry get-togethers is all the more concerning.

Put a woman forward

The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) has taken steps to address this. In October last year, it came out with a commitment towards greater female representation at conferences. Speaking at the time, José Godinho, member of the ICC’s World Business Women initiative, said: “Speakers at ICC conferences and ICC speakers at external events are often male yet this does not reflect what our staff and global network look like. ICC has more women staff members than men yet this is not reflected in the speakers chosen to represent the organisation externally.”

An ICC spokesperson tells GTR that leaders in the organisation, including ICC secretary general John Denton, have signed a gender balance pledge as a result. “The pledge doesn’t go as far as refusing to sit on all-male panels but does ensure that questions are asked and that every effort has been made to avoid a manel. John is also very vocal on this issue and is quick to highlight imbalances during his public speaking engagements,” the spokesperson says.

“Networks are slow to change. It takes time to find candidates outside of the regular circuit. But let’s be clear, very few organisations don’t have women on their team, and at senior levels. Ask them for help; ask them to stand in for you when you receive an invitation; suggest to event planners that a woman you respect be considered. The pool is deeper than people realise,” says DiCaprio.

While commitments made by male speakers to increase opportunities for their female counterparts’ voices to be heard are on the rise, conference organisers say they are still facing challenges.

“It’s an improved area – the conference industry is more alert to it as an issue – but it’s also something we could and should still be collectively much better at,” says Jeff Ando, director of conference production at GTR. “We organise events across all parts of the globe, so what is really interesting is seeing which markets are either working harder to address the issue or are starting from a stronger position in having women in senior positions. Markets in Asia like Singapore and China are better, but also markets like Russia, Scandinavia, Turkey, Lebanon and Brazil are also notable in this regard. What can be quite interesting is that certain markets make quite a big deal of how important onstage gender diversity is but then when liaising with the relevant stakeholders and sponsors those same institutions find it hard to put forward female candidates.”

He adds that lack of diversity is a frequent source of frustration as a conference organiser. “Previous arguments we heard were always that ‘the events are merely a mirror of the market itself’ or that ‘women aren’t as keen on speaking’, but I don’t think you can get away with that anymore – if you want to portray yourselves as facilitators and builders of a network for all then that network needs to adhere to core principles and values of diversity and inclusion,” says Ando.

Designed by men, for men

Much has been made of late about the way women are overlooked in design, manufacturing and safety processes – often to their detriment. From crash test dummies based on the male form leading to car safety features not accounting for women’s measurements, to all-female space walks postponed due to a lack of correctly sized spacesuits, seemingly small decisions made on the basis of the male as the default human can have wide-ranging impacts.

While trade finance events cannot be compared to vehicle safety or space exploration in any serious manner, they, too, overlook certain details that act as an unwelcome reminder to women that conferences are not designed with them in mind.

“Where does a mic clip to on a dress? Where do you tuck the transmitter box if you don’t have pockets? Have you ever had an antenna sticking out of your hair like a 1980s TV? I have. More than once,” says DiCaprio.

“Perching on what can only be described as a bar stool behind a podium is all well and good if you are wearing a shirt and trousers,” adds Rebecca Harding, trade economist and CEO of Coriolis Technologies, who has spoken at recent conferences including Sibos, GTR Asia and the ICC Banking Commission Annual Meeting. “But as a woman wearing a perfectly standard shift dress suit, it’s a very uncomfortable experience.”

Not a numbers game

Simply increasing the numbers of women on stage isn’t the whole answer, either. “Moderators are not panellists,” points out DiCaprio. “Where panels do include women – perhaps because they’re often the less known – they’re often the moderator. In that role, we’re expected to solicit others’ opinions rather than share our own. The fact is that our voices can enhance the quality and depth of the conversation, benefiting not just a particular event, but the industry more broadly.”

Conference organisers say that they’re working to address the issue by bringing in more women in higher-profile roles. “While there is still more to be done, Sibos is playing its part in an industry that is changing. Some of the most notable speakers at Sibos this year were Dame Minouche Shafik, director of the London School of Economics, who delivered the opening plenary, and Rachel Botsman, who held a fascinating session on trust in the modern world during the closing plenary,” says Chantal Van Es, head of Sibos. “This year, we also introduced a scholarship programme designed to empower professional women as future leaders in the financial industry. The programme brought 30 women from some of the largest financial organisations across 17 countries to Sibos to benefit from the learning and networking opportunities on offer. With this initiative, we are driving positive change for the long term.”

“We are actively seeking more female speakers to approach directly but also when working with partners, sponsors and other stakeholders,” says Ando, adding: “Not just female speakers in fact, but also more female involvement in the consultation stages when formulating ideas and working on topics, so that you have the broadest possible starting point when you start the process of both shaping the content and attracting and inviting speakers.”

When audiences are exclusively exposed to male role models, the absence of women is easily perpetuated. Progress is being made, but getting to the point where an exclusively male group onstage is actively discouraged is still some way away. However, with the industry at a crossroads when it comes to recruiting young talent and competing with other industries, making sure it is as representative as it can possibly be when it’s at its most visible is key to future-proofing trade and trade finance.