We asked Rebecca Watson about how she got started as a public speaker, why she only speaks at events with 35% women speakers and an anti-harassment policy, and what her dream speaking engagement would be.
Q. You are a popular speaker! Tell us a little about how you became a sought-after speaker and what sort of invitations you get.
That one continues to baffle me, actually. It’s not something I pursued – I would just deliver a talk whenever someone was nice enough to ask me, and I guess people liked them and invited me to give more. Having a popular blog and podcast helped, too. I enjoy speaking on a variety of topics, so I get invites from skeptic groups, science advocacy groups, atheist groups, and now feminist groups as well. Pretty much everywhere I go, I meet amazing people and have a blast. I’m a very lucky lady.
Q. Popular speakers usually have a list of requirements for speaking at an event (a.k.a. speaker rider). Yours includes two unusual requirements: an anti-harassment policy, and 35% women speakers. Why did you add these?
Anti-harassment policies just make sense. I’ve heard from many women who have told me they’d feel safer at a conference that has one; the only people I’ve heard who hate them are the people who harass me online, so it seemed like an easy call. I want to support conferences that are inclusive and welcoming to women and minorities, and that’s one very easy way they can do that.
I’ve also seen that the more women who speak on stage, the more women show up in the audience. People feel more at home when they see people like them in prominent positions. Because the conferences I attend are usually heavily male-dominated, having a minimum of 1/3 female speakers is another easy way that conference organizers can show they place a high value on diversity. 35% is actually ridiculously low considering women are 51% of the population, but then, I’ve always been pretty easy-going. Despite the rumors. Next year I may up it to 40% and add a “non-white” percentage for fun.
Q. What usually happens when the event inviting you doesn’t already have an anti-harassment policy or 35% women speakers?
So far, every conference organizer has leapt at the chance to institute these things. Often it’s something they were considering anyway, but maybe they needed a little push and a little help. I offer to help them (or find them someone more qualified to help them) if they need. I have a thick Rolodex (not actually a thing anymore) full of smart, funny, entertaining women who can sell tickets so it hasn’t been an issue.
Q. How has your speaking career changed since you added those riders? Do you think it has hurt or helped you professionally and/or personally?
It doesn’t appear to have changed at all, actually, except for that it’s a bit more satisfying to know for sure that I’m supporting the right organizations. Only one organization has not responded after I sent them my rider, and they ended up canceling their event, anyway. It’s possible I destroyed their event with my mind powers (but not likely).
I knew it was possible people would stop inviting me places because of it, but I figured then I’d have more time for video games.
Q. What is your dream speaking engagement?
I like speaking in pubs, because everyone is relaxed and there’s beer. So I suppose my dream speaking engagement would be on a panel with Hillary Clinton, Lucy Lawless, and Amy Poehler, in a pub full of sloths, and also we’re on a spaceship.
Q. What advice would you give to other pro-women folks who speak at events regularly?
If you’re speaking at the right events, then the organizers care about diversity and reaching out to new audiences. Don’t be shy about asking them to find a good representation of women and minorities, and offer to help if you can. If you’re a man, you could refuse to speak on a panel that doesn’t have a woman on it. The worst that can happen is that you get disinvited, at which point just imagine what your mom would say: “Why would you want to hang out with those jerks anyway?”
Like this interview? Read more of Rebecca Watson’s writing at the Skepchick blog.