Keynote and plenary speakers at professional conferences serve as highly visible role models for early-career scientists and provide recognition of scientific excellence. This recognition may be particularly important for women, who are underrepresented in senior positions in the biological sciences. To evaluate whether conferences fulfill this potential, we examined distinguished speakers at North American ecology conferences between 2000 and 2015 and compared these data with the percentage of women ecologists at diverse career stages. We found that 15%-35% (Symbol= 28%, n = 809) of the distinguished speakers were women, which is significantly lower than the percentage of female ecology graduate students (Symbol= 55%, n = 26,802) but consistent with the percentage of women in assistant- and associate-faculty positions. We recommend that conference organizers institute policies to enhance speaker gender balance, to provide support for speakers with family responsibilities, and to actively monitor gender-related trends in their societies to achieve the equitable representation of women in distinguished speaking roles.