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Why we need to pay women speakers

Written By: Jillian Climie.

At The Thoughtful Co., we’re often asked to speak on the topics we’re experts in: compensation negotiation and gender equity. We offer workshops on these topics, and we’ve now done these across the globe, at organizations including Oxford University, Nokia, CFA Society, Stantec, Rotman, Wealthsimple, Tech Ladies, and Ledcor. 

Still, we often get asked to speak for free, and those asking are sometimes frustrated when we won’t. This comes from a good place - a lot of the organizations asking us to speak are supporting women in leadership in their respective fields - so why wouldn’t we share our expertise to help further their positive cause?

Prior to The Thoughtful Co., my Co-Founder Sophie was Co-Chair of Women in Consulting Engineering (WCE) Vancouver. At the time, she sometimes felt surprised when receiving speaker’s fees. Don’t they want to support a non-profit that’s elevating women? In hindsight, she now realizes she was expecting women to donate their expertise and time for no compensation - which was in conflict with WCE’s mission.

So many women entrepreneurs we speak to share that they’ve had similar experiences. To help combat this as a whole, I’ve outlined why we need to pay women speaker’s fees.

  1. We need to pay women for the value they’re delivering. Speaking engagements take a lot of work. This can include researching the topic, preparing key points, putting together a presentation, practicing, cutting or adding time, logistics communication, preparation of key takeaways, travel, and prep meetings. And beyond that, you’re asking someone to speak on a topic that they are an expert in. A good gut check is: would you ask someone else who might present as a more senior “traditional leader” to speak for free with the same credentials? We need to pay women for their time, effort, and expertise. If you’re an organization with a limited budget, sharing pre-set fee expectations up front can be helpful to ensure no misalignment of expectations, or asking if the individual might offer a non-profit rate.

  2. The suggestion that women may get clients from a speaking engagement is not a reason to ask them to speak for free. In some cases this might happen, in other cases it won’t. This is not a reason to not be paying women for the expertise they are sharing on a topic. If they were seeking public relations, sales opportunities or marketing, they would be clear about that up front.

  3. Women face bias that means their skills can be devalued. There are many biases that impact women. A couple notable ones include the similarity bias and the likability bias. The likability bias is where we expect women to be nice and agreeable, so when they are assertive we’re more likely to see them as aggressive or bossy. This can impact women sharing their speaking rates when we didn’t expect them to have any fees; we might automatically feel they are aggressive. The similarity bias is where we’re more likely to see future potential in those who are similar to us. This can impact how we pay speakers who may have a different background, education, ethnicity, experience, sexual orientation, or gender than the people who are hiring them. We need to actively consider these biases, and work to combat them, when we’re inviting people to speak.

  4. We need women speakers to succeed. If we continue asking women to speak for free, we’re reducing their ability to lead profitable businesses. Women started 47% of new businesses in the US in 2022 (Gusto). Additionally, the Government of Canada has projected that by advancing gender equality and women's participation in the economy, Canada could add up to $150B in GDP. By paying women for their time, you’re helping contribute to them building a successful company or career (as well as the broader economy!).

  5. It’s the right thing to do. So often organizations are working to do the right thing for their causes and they don’t intentionally mean to devalue the work. It’s just a re-frame in how we all should think about speaking engagements.

If you’re a speaker who identifies as a woman, and need help setting your speaker rates or communicating them, reach out to us at The Thoughtful Co. here. We support women entrepreneurs in setting market-appropriate rates and charging what they deserve.


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