This Women’s Month, pay women speakers

This Women’s Month, pay women speakers

/ 04:20 AM March 04, 2024

Sometime last year, a brand approached She Talks Asia, the women empowerment platform that I run, seeking assistance in organizing a conference that would showcase various young female leaders from different fields. When we gave them the cost estimate, the brand team was in agreement with most of the budget except for one line item: the necessity of compensating the speakers. The brand manager questioned: Why do we need to pay the speakers? It should be free because it’s their advocacy.

Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is not uncommon. As soon as March approaches, She Talks Asia receives various inquiries asking for speaker recommendations for different Women’s Month celebrations. There are situations where unpaid speaking engagements are understandable, particularly for school-based or student-organized events, or when the engagements offer only a very minimal honorarium, such as in the case of small businesses or nonprofit organizations. However, we find it disheartening when big corporations ask for “free speakers” because they do not have the budget to pay for their time, not even offering a nominal fee.

Individuals are known to invest in what they value. By continually expecting women to contribute their time without compensation, we perpetuate the outdated notion that their time is less valuable. This feeds into the broader and more systemic issue known as the gender pay gap, a disparity where the roles and professions predominantly occupied by women tend to be financially undervalued in comparison to those held by men.

As we discuss the progress required in gender equality and inclusion during International Women’s Month, fair compensation for women must be a central aspect of these conversations. This includes the need to pay women for speaking engagements. While there has been more awareness among event organizers about avoiding “manels” or all-male panels, a study conducted in 2018 examining 60,000 event speakers across 23 countries over five years revealed that only 33 percent of paid speaking opportunities went to women. Data also indicates that women, within these paid opportunities, often receive lower payments than their male counterparts.


Some organizers rationalize their decision not to compensate speakers, even for events backed by major sponsors or where tickets are sold, by asserting that the featured women are being given a larger platform. While there is value in the social currency that speaking opportunities bring, it is crucial to remember the financial expenses incurred by speakers, such as transportation, not to mention the potential loss of a day’s earnings. The extensive preparation involved, from researching talking points to participating in speaker briefing meetings, represents significant time and effort that must also be recognized and compensated.

It should also go without saying that any event is only as good as the quality of its speakers. And if organizers are willing to spend on production costs to make an event look aesthetically pleasing, then they should also allot sufficient budget to ensure that the actual heart of the event—the expertise, stories, insights of the speakers they are tapping—are valued in the same way. Moreover, while speakers gain increased exposure, the event itself (and brands/organizations behind it) is enriched by the speakers’ credibility and the positive association they bring.

This is an industry-wide issue and I believe that those of us who are in a position that can educate others should speak up more. Part of She Talks Asia’s advocacy is to highlight more female speakers and experts of all fields and ages, specially those who are often overlooked because they do not have a large online presence or the marketing resources to promote themselves well. This includes helping negotiate a fair honorarium fee for these women, even if it means having difficult conversations with our clients and sponsors.

I remember how we lost a big project because the client wanted to put up a big women empowerment conference but paying the speakers meant it will go over their allocated budget. Instead of going with our recommendation to scale down the program, they opted to just cancel the plans altogether. When I apologized to my cofounders for losing the account, one of them quickly reassured me that our stance might at least encourage them to reconsider their approach to compensating female speakers in the future, and that in itself was a small win worth celebrating.


I felt compelled to write about this issue to also encourage women to request for remuneration. Many colleagues and friends have confided in me their hesitancy to discuss financial compensation, often agreeing to speak without a fee to avoid the uncomfortable conversation about money. Unfortunately, the problem will persist if women do not negotiate to be paid fairly. Admittedly, there are times when I still feel uncomfortable bringing up the subject. What emboldens me to ask is: 1) knowing that I am contributing to the issue if I do not bring it up; 2) imagining other male speakers confidently asking to be paid. I am happy to share that while there are some who really do not pay speaker fees, majority are actually willing to engage in a discussion on what is a reasonable amount.

As more women rise to leadership roles, my hope is that issues like this and other subtler forms of the gender pay gap would also be more visible and eventually addressed. At a recent event hosted by Starbucks Philippines, I took the opportunity to express my gratitude to their marketing team for not only paying their speakers fairly but also ensuring payment was made prior to the event. In response, one of them remarked without hesitation, “Of course. I wouldn’t do my job without compensation. Why should we expect these women to offer their expertise for free?”


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TAGS: Advocacy, opinion, Speaker, speakers, Women's Month

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