“I just can’t find high calibre female speakers.” That was the response Inspiring Rare Birds executive director Lucy Perry and Inspiring Rare Birds founder Jo Burston got when they asked why so many speaker panels were male dominated.
It’s also the response that led them to launch Rare Birds Speak, a full-service, female-only speaker agency based in Sydney. An experienced international speaker herself, Perry says she doesn’t necessarily believe that high calibre females are really that hard to find.
“When we went to set up this agency we found 200 amazing [female] speakers within a couple of weeks,” she says. “I had a chat with someone recently in the event industry and she said the audiences really want female speakers. So the need is there, the talent is there, we just need to help the curators of these events find that high calibre talent. They want the best, they want the CEOs, they want the experts in their field, and we’ll find those for them.”
A common theme Perry has noticed at conferences is that often the expert speakers are all men, while women are chosen for MC roles or to perform the Welcome to Country. She says it creates the perception that “women can be the entertainers and the glue between the experts but not so often the experts”.
But according to Perry, that perception can easily be changed. “We just find women that are experts, if you need a mathematician we have one, if you’re looking for a rocket scientists we have, if you only want speakers who are CEOs,” she says. “We’ll just bridge that gap and help conference organisers find them quickly.”
Another issue Rare Birds Speak is addressing is the gender pay gap, as Perry has seen female speakers settle for less than they’re worth.
“Just before we launched we booked our first speaker for a series of events and she was paid four times what she was used to asking for, just because she had someone to pitch her and negotiate the fee,” she says.
Perry shares another example of a woman who had been invited to speak at an event in Copenhagen. While the organiser covered her travel expenses, she wasn’t paid for her role as a speaker, yet her male colleague was paid more than $25,000 for the gig.
“I think women aren’t asking for the fees they deserve, while men are,” says Perry. “I’m not sure that event organisers are trying to get women for cheap at all, I think all event organisers are trying to run a really tight budget but women just need stronger representation. So that’s where we come in, to make sure our talent is paid well.”
Rare Birds Speak has sourced a number of high calibre speakers to join the agency, some of which have signed on exclusively. Journalist Sandra Sully, confidence expert Kemi Nekvapil, Muslim ex-soldier and hostage survivor Rabia Siddique, disability advocate Carly Findlay, Australia China expert Andrea Myles, and climate change pioneer Parrys Raine are among the line-up.
Perry says Rare Birds Speak offers diversity among its speakers as well. “I don’t want all our speakers to be all blonde, pretty skinny chicks – we need younger women, older women, women of every colour and every persuasion,” she says.
“As far as criteria goes, I’m always looking for speakers who have a remarkable story but that story has to be relatable on a corporate level. I also look for speakers that are flexible and can create content to suit the gig. Speakers who are experts in their field that also tie into the future are really successful speakers too.”
While a number of experience speakers have joined the agency, Rare Birds Speak is also looking to unearth new talent.
“They don’t have to be the best speaker in the world, we can help mould them into a great communicator but they have to have a great story to tell,” says Perry.