I was at an industry conference a few years ago, and soon after the conference a list of the video-recorded sessions came out. Of the dozen plus recorded sessions, only one was from a female speaker.

I thought, that’s funny ... that’s not the conference I attended. The conference I attended was full of great female speakers. How did things get so skewed at the session-recording level?

I asked about the criteria, and apparently the recorded sessions were the ones that the most people indicated they were going to attend based on a pre-conference survey.

Really? Male speakers were so disproportionately the most popular speakers? I supposed that was possible, but it was kind of depressing, in the same way that a recent study about higher education teaching evaluations favoring male teachers was depressing.

It actually turned out that it was a bit more complicated than that—there was only one film crew, so it was actually the most popular session in any given time block, and a number of speakers who had been filmed the previous year had not been selected for the current year. It wasn’t necessarily the result anyone would have planned for, but there was no sign that individual bias had been at work in the selection process.

It did raise a few interesting issues for me, though.

Was it bias?

The first issue was the disparity in speaking-proposal submissions. Apparently, in our field, more men propose conference submissions than women. I talked to Heidi Fisk, co-founder of The eLearning Guild, and she told me that frequently the gender breakdown of speaking proposals was approximately 65 percent male and 35 percent female, and that preconference workshop submissions were often closer to 75 percent male and 25 percent female. This is despite the fact that the Guild’s membership is pretty close to 50/50, and conference attendance is pretty equally distributed.

Are women less likely to put themselves out there? In studies a few years ago, investigators found that women were more likely to report imposter syndrome (the feeling that you are faking it in professional terms). Anecdotally, I’ve found that some women are more likely to feel like they have to be 100 percent confident in their own expertise before they’d consider talking publicly about their knowledge, which is a pretty impossible standard.

Is it the individual or is it the system?

The second issue is the visibility of disparities at the individual level vs. the system level. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.

A few weeks ago, a Wharton professor posted a video from a few of his students about how women should negotiate for salaries and raises. It’s really well done, but also a little troubling.

The video describes how failing to negotiate a higher starting salary is probably one of the major factors in the persistent wage gap between men and women, something that is well documented in The eLearning Guild’s Annual Salary Survey.

The video goes on to explain that women who do negotiate aggressively can suffer a social penalty that can dampen future career prospects. They can negate those by effects by jumping through hoops like displaying concern for organizational relationships and meeting an expectation of feminine behavior. The deck is stacked against it, though.

When we look at individual instances, they make sense, (she didn’t really negotiate well, or women just don’t submit proposals, or I like that candidate because we both came from the same small town) but when we look at the outcomes at a system level, small disparities turn into large ones.

All people (men and women) feel an affinity when they encounter people who are like themselves (“You went to Ada Lovelace High School? So did I!”), but when all those small inclinations are amplified across hundreds and thousands of hiring or promotion decisions, significant gaps can emerge.

Organizations need to take just this kind of system view if they are committed to being fair and equitable. If the negotiation model for determining employee compensation is inherently unfair, then it’s not just the individual but also the organization that needs to change.

Now what?

So what do we do about all this?

First, we need to initiate and promote more conversation. The Guild has been very supportive of this. This is the first in a series of articles on related topics that Learning Solutions Magazine will run on this topic. The article series grew out of a panel discussion that Guild VP of program development David Kelly helped me organize at DevLearn 2014. (Editor's Note: The live conversation that started at DevLearn 2014 will continue at Learning Solutions 2015 with Featured Session F1, "Bridging the Gender Gap" on Wednesday morning.)

When I talked to Guild president and CEO David Holcombe about this topic, he told me, “One of the primary roles of the Guild is to allow a place for people to have conversations and maybe find solutions. Supporting these kind of conversations is important for people’s career goals.”

Second, I believe we need to identify opportunities to redress disparities in positive ways. The general computer-science community has a much bigger gap, and people within that community are trying to make it better, with support for interested speakers and workshops to help people overcome issues like imposter syndrome. If you have been thinking about speaking, but have been reluctant, what would be helpful for you?

When we were talking, David Holcombe also reminded me, “The Guild has always endeavored to also include people who aren’t the ‘gurus’—our mission is to bring up new people and new voices. That’s why chose a guild as our model—to include the novices, journeymen, and masters, and to encourage people at all levels to step up and share.”

Heidi Fisk added, “Programming isn’t just speakers at events—it’s contributing to articles, the Guild Academy, the Online Learning Forums, and white papers. There’s a lot of ways to contribute.”

This is particularly meaningful to me, because I can remember the point in my career where I realized that nobody was going to come along and anoint me as ready to contribute back—to speak or write or present, and that my contribution, while highly imperfect (I have some of my own imposter syndrome) was still worth sharing, and that putting yourself out there and helping pays you back every single day.

So, we’d like to hear from you—what conversations do you think we should be having? If you have things to share, what help or support would make that work for you? What else should we be talking about in this series?