How to not be dominated by men at a conference full of women

Hush, hush; keep it down now ...

Last spring, I attended a two-day conference put on by the Ministry of Education for members of Parent Involvement Committees, of which I am my board’s chair. Who are the school volunteers? Mainly women. Who attended the conference? Mainly women. Who had to interrupt every session with pithy observations, colour commentary and stupid one-liners? Always a man. Every time. When, exasperated after probably the fifth time this happened in a single session, I leaned over to the woman next to me and whispered, “It’s always a man; they can’t shut up.” She looked at me in horror. Later, she ran up to me in the hallway, and with a conspiratorial edge in her voice, said, “I started noticing it. It’s always a man. Every session.”

It’s always a man. Every session.

Which, of course, it isn’t. It isn’t always a man, and it isn’t every session. But it feels like it is.

The conferences that I attend are populated mainly by women. Social media, education, writing: these seem to be the areas where women gather to play and learn. That’s not to say that there are no men in attendance, but one has only to look as far as the lineups for the washroom in between sessions to know that the numbers skew heavily towards the female of the species.

The conferences I attend, the women-dominated conferences, have all served me well. For the most part, the atmosphere is supportive and friendly; the content interesting and informative; the interactions with other people respectful and considerate.

And yet …

And yet, time and time again, there are always men at these conferences that cannot seem to let an opportunity to dominate a conversation, interrupt a speaker or patronize a woman, pass them by.

Am I generalizing? Yes. But has it happened at every single conference I have ever attended? Yes.

This past weekend, I attended the Social Capital conference in Ottawa. It was my first time attending, and I had a wonderful day. The morning keynote speaker, Trefor Munn-Venn delivered what I think is possibly the best opening line in the history of opening lines, and for much of the day, my conference experience remained buoyed by the early momentum. My own session, on transitioning to professional writing on-line, went very well, and was thankfully early in the day so I could then relax and attend other sessions free of preoccupying thoughts.

And then a male speaker dismissed the entire group present with a flick of the wrist and a declaration that, “Oh right, you’re all mommybloggers.”

And then the roundtable session I was moderating, on The Art of the Pitch (intended for writers as a breakout from my earlier presentation), was completely hijacked by a male attendant, who neither wrote, nor pitched to magazines.

I was criticized heavily for all aspects regarding my approach to pitching, and the session turned into a lecture on selling PR campaigns the right way.

Here’s the thing: I enjoy debate. I enjoy a critical discussion about the state of the (my) industry. I enjoy a dissenting viewpoint clearly stated.

But what I – what we – got, was total domination. And how did I react? At first, with all the diplomacy I could muster. And then, after that failed, with silence.

I was silenced. The other people around the table were silenced.

After the session, I apologized to several of the people who had attended for wasting their time. Mercifully, the obviousness with which we had been hijacked was clear, and my efforts in trying to shut it down, acknowledged. As one attendant later put it, it was like meeting the human embodiment of “manspaining.”

But the feeling that I had failed the group, myself, and women in general by not having the tools to deflect the onslaught of patronization, has left me feeling defeated. I am no shrinking violet, but this was not my house. In order to remain respectful to the group, my hosts, and yes, even to the person dominating the discussion, I suppressed the urge to yell, shut the – well, I’m sure you can imagine what I would have liked to have yelled – and tried to focus on being professional.

But being silenced isn’t being professional. And suggesting that all men at all conferences should be silenced isn’t fair. There must be some middle ground.

There must be a way for men not to be domineering at a conference full of women, and women not to be victimized by the domineering men.

Because a conference, a microcosm of a larger professional world, is not the place to be quiet, or quieted. But words should always be measured for their effect on others. There is a way to share important messages without risking that their weight drown out others. Voices, after all, do carry.



  1. I completely agree. Conference organizers should establish and share Rules of Conduct for all attendees so that audience members feel empowered to also speak out to anyone who is being disruptive. I think the solution for sessions is to have mic wranglers or room moderators who control/manage the back and forth and have the power to eject disruptive attendees--male or female. Attendees pay a lot of money and time to be at a conference and we should feel comfortable getting our return on investment by curbing negative behaviors.

  2. I think a lot of the condescension/patronizing behaviour is so subtle - a dismissive comment, a roll of the eye - that it's easy to miss. Unless you are the target.

  3. I have little patience for this behaviour, from anyone. Thank you for the well written description of your experience. I will ensure I am prepped with canned responses for such behaviour at Blissdom.

  4. I'm extremely disappointed that this was your experience with Social Capital, Karen. We have worked hard to cultivate a community that nurtures learning, different ideas, and respectful discourse. To my knowledge, this kind of thing has not happened before and it is not something that we would ever want for any of our presenters and I am sorry this happened to you.

    I'm glad that despite this negative side to the day you still feel it was a wonderful day. I heard such great things about your session and your roundtable as well (apart from this) - it was a pleasure to have you join us for our last year of the conference. Lara and I truly appreciate you taking the time to come to Ottawa and share your expertise. Your contribution was very valuable to us and to the people who wanted to learn from you.

    1. This truly didn't dampen my experience of SoCap at all - it just solidified my experience/thoughts on the conduct of certain men at conferences. Unfortunately, the behaviour seems to be an evergreen occurrence and not at all a reflection on the quality, opportunities or genuine enjoyment I had at SoCap, I promise.


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