Should men boycott all-male panels at conferences?

manelA conversation on twitter this weekend triggered (yet another) ethical dilemma. Gosh it’s exhausting trying to be a do-gooder. Claire Melamed started it by sending round a link to an article arguing that men should sign a pledge stating publicly that they will refuse to take part in all-male panels at tech conferences (which are regularly men-only affairs, apparently). As a regular token NGO speaker at various talkshops, would I make a similar pledge, she asked? Owen Barder is already signed up, she added. They may not be as extreme as geeky tech events, but lots of development gabfests do indeed feature men on the panel talking to women (and men) in the audience. That violates basic fairness, inhibits the profile and (possibly) career development of half of the potential talent pool, and is likely to distort the agenda and resulting discussion (less focus on care economy, women’s rights etc). So obviously, the answer is yes to a boycott, right? Except….. Most people who contact me don’t know the final panel line-up yet. They are in the process of contacting a range of potential speakers, both men and women. Prominent women in the development debate (like Claire and her outgoing boss at ODI Alison Evans) are in huge demand, so presumably have to say no quite a lot of the time. Should I say ‘provisionally yes, but if you end up with a male-only line-up, I’ll withdraw at the last minute’? That seems to me to cross the line from principled to prima donna – pretty unfair on already stressed-out conference organisers who may be trying ever so hard to ensure a balanced line up. Or should I say ‘are you committed to inviting a decent number of women speakers to ensure a gender balance on your panels?’ – everyone is going to say yes, but how do you measure how serious they are? Then of course there’s the organisational profile thing. In fantasy mode, suppose I get a call saying ‘Barack Obama, David Cameron and Jim Kim are speaking on development, and need a token NGO person, could you do it? Christine Lagarde is busy that day, sorry.’ Am I really going to say no? And what about a panel with all male speakers and a woman chair (a pretty common occurrence)? And why privilege gender over eg ethnicity – what about all-white panels on development (which are even more common than all-male ones)? Oh dear. The torments of the self-obsessed liberal. Tell me what you think, and depending on the response, I may well set up another online poll to help solve my dilemma. Meanwhile, the interns poll is still getting votes (see right), and the agnostics (NGOs should decide for themselves whether to pay interns) has overtaken the ‘pay all interns’ lobby and is drawing away. Unexpected result – love it.]]>

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39 Responses to “Should men boycott all-male panels at conferences?”
  1. Boycott pledge could work. Another is to ask who else is on the panel, suggest names (including instead of you) to make panel more interesting and thoughtful, including by diversifying speakers. Turn down panels where you think organizers are not doing this seriously, or just interested in token/decorative inclusion of female/brown/youth/etc faces.
    Then, if panel were still to turn out to be a) all male, b) all white, c) all 40+ year olds, d) all boring/going over time and/or e) using powerpoints with more than 5 lines per slide, most effective remedy may be a tax on the organizers. 25% of cost of organizing panel (including staff time) for violation of each one of the 5 sins above, paid for girls to attend secondary school.

  2. Catherine Dom

    Not a fan of quota-type measures… Better to get women in the organising committee (though perhaps even less realistic)? Who would believe they should go the extra-length to try and make sure that the panel include women yes, but ‘not for token’ and who will have something to add to the debate, and if need be help prepare this with them (self-confident women is unfortunately not yet a common breed in some environment)?

  3. Here’s another reason not to sit on an all [fill in the blank] panel: it changes audience participation. I remember seeing research about two decades ago showing that far more female law students participated in class discussions when the professor was also female. I watched and counted. Can’t explain it, but it played out per research.
    I’ve seen the same in many MSF conferences and panel discussions, often quite pronounced. Contributions from the floor averaging 1.6 or so testicles per person, when the panel averages 2.0 and the room is 50-50.

  4. Charlie

    Full disclosure: I am a former event organiser for a development organisation (and am female)
    A mix of genders is clearly best practice and should be promoted as such, and if an organisation consistently put on all-male events then I would consider that grounds for not participating in their programme until they sort it out. However I think a blanket policy of never participating in an event without female speakers puts unfair blame on event organisers. There are simply not as many women in the kind of high-profile roles that will attract people to your event (academics, NGO bosses, etc) as there are male. The reasons behind this are many and complex, but I don’t think it’s the fault of seminar organisers! I used to always try my best to get a good balance of men and women on a panel – aiming for 50/50, so that if one woman drops out at the last minute you are still not left with an all-male panel – but despite my best efforts I will admit to having put on all male events in my time.

  5. Jake

    In the context of NGO-tokenism and global leaders being male dominated, I think the larger context isn’t that Christine Lagarde was busy. Rather, that the heads of state and financial institutions (representing the other three chairs) are male dominated.
    There might be some alternate techniques for directing *locked* panel discussion into discussing, recognizing, and learning from the viewpoints not being “token”-ized or chosen/elected in the context of larger systemic issues.

  6. As I think I said in the twitter flurry, my own practice is to tell people that I am strongly disinclined to speak on an all male panel, not that I flat out won’t. That puts the ball back in the organiser’s court, and assures me that they are at least trying to think about it. On two occasions recently that has had good results, and in one the panel was definitely a lot better than it would otherwise have been (the other hasn’t happened yet).
    practically the size of panel counts for something with me. If there are three or fewer on the stage, lack of inclusion less of a showstopper. If five or six more heinous.But this is one of the resons why I stick with expressing reservations rather than an all out pledge to refuse.
    Suggesting a woman is to go the extra yard. If someone comes to mind, then fine, but choosing the panel is really the organisers’ job (a hard one, I know). I think you do good with the strong disinclination even if you don’t go so far as to make a suggestion.

  7. Annie

    To be honest, I’m having trouble moving beyond your statement “Prominent women in the development debate (like Claire and her outgoing boss at ODI Alison Evans) are in huge demand.”
    Of course prominent women in the development in the debate are in huge demand – just like men are. The problem is how many women are recognized as prominent. Even in presenting the fictitious scenario about being asked to participate in a panel as the NGO rep because one woman, Christine Lagarde, is unable – you suggest that after checking with one woman the organizers would be forced to go to the men!

  8. Lauren Phillips

    As I was suggesting in a twitter reply, I infrequently hear men on all male panels starting out by saying: “It’s disappointing that there are no women on this panel today” before giving their talk. But naming and shaming systemically could certainly force organizers to think more carefully, and audience members to consider the bias that the panel’s composition creates. This is true in all fields, not just development.

  9. Robin

    This one of a few areas where jokes make me cringe. I have spent most of my career pushing back against low level discrimination. This topic really matters (thanks Duncan) – not just for women, but people of colour, GLBT, and on. All male panels, especially panels of white males over the age of 50, are an unpleasant symbol of deeply rooted discrimination (often shamefully unrecognised by the individuals involved themselves). There is no longer ever an excuse not to find a diverse panel, or a diverse board, or a diverse workplace.

  10. Tio

    I think we need to look at the bigger context. Technology invention (or innovation?) aims to make our task easier, it does not differentiate men or women. However, my experience suggest that the subject attracts more men than women. This may explain why, when it come to tech even/discussion, we will see more men than women sitting in the panel. They sit there not because of the gender bias but more likely because of their skills. If we look at other fields, I am we will see where women dominate the area. Or should we understand “gender quality” only based on outer layer – the percentage on men or women?
    Boycotting the even would not solve the problem. We need to find a long term solution, that is how to attract women to study and work in tech industry. For instance, few months ago in London, game programmers (all were women) took the initiative to meet up, writing code, and sharing knowledge. Partly because they realised that women are not interested making computer games.

  11. Louise

    Another phenomenon is to increasingly ensure that there is always a representative from civil society on every panel.
    Whilst this is great in principle, I often feel like I am witnessing a box-ticking exercise (southern woman from an affected community = three ticks in one) when looking at a platform of speakers. The inclusion of some civil society speakers (as with some female speakers probably) can sometimes seem tokenistic rather than all based on merit.
    Plus – as with identifying prominent women speakers – organisers can be very unimaginative so you end up seeing the same few people being drawn upon again and again to speak on behalf of civil society.
    The pool of speakers out there isn’t that small, we all just need to look harder.

  12. There are a bunch of things you address in here, each of which require there own response.
    Politely accept the invitation, but also ask what measures the organizers are taking to ensure both gender balance and a majority of “southern voices”. Some of your readers are right, though, it can be hard sometimes to find enough women speakers. So perhaps Oxfam can collaborate with other organizations and academic institutions to start a running pool of women and feminist speakers who can speak to a range of issues so that you can propose alternatives (to yourself !) when asked to speak on a topic.
    If you don’t see such a balance on the panel, then make a point of mentioning this as part of your intervention – regardless of what you are talking about, it remains a highly relevant point.
    Be it of women, “southern voices” or of NGOs, tokenism is never the solution. If event organizers are serious about their debates, they need to go beyond tokenism. Let your views on this be known as well.
    In Canada, we of course have the challenge of ensuring gender balance, and anglophone and francophone speakers. Try adding that to your mix!

  13. I echo Charlie’s views: good event organisers who arrange panels tend to have the audience’s interest in mind – which means putting together a panel representing a range of views for a lively discussion. High-profile names draw audiences. And most of them are men.
    I once watched a panel with the typical +40 year old men line-up discussing emerging market issues. When it came to audience Q&As, an audience member asked about the role of women, which prompted another lady to shout “why aren’t there any women on the panel”. They immediately plucked a lady (an economist) from the audience to sit on the panel for the last 10 minutes.
    It’s a supply and demand issue and two things need to happen: Women need to stand up. Lagarde didn’t get her position from a quota – she put herself forward. And audiences need to change their perception. Event organisers are in the middle, and boycotting sitting on their panel won’t solve the problem.

  14. I’m new to the development scene and would appreciate some advice. We wish to partner with one or more sub-Saharan universities for development of our wind powered aircraft. One selection criterion is gender equality policies at universities.
    Can you recommend people who could guide us in finding universities with established gender equality policies?

  15. Marwin

    ‚To split a tough block you need a tough wedge!‘ as we say in Germany. I’d vote for the double ‘don’t-participate’ plus ‘walk-out-of’ approach. In time, organisers will get that with stone-age behavior they just won’t be able to attract the audience they wish… and change! Keep it simple, dude!

  16. Nadja

    Hi Duncan,
    this is a really interesting question and very important. I am assuming that one purpose of setting that demand as a male speaker is an effort to raise awareness among, and put pressure on organisers to find interesting female, or for that matters generally more diverse speakers.
    There are no guarantees, but surely demanding it in the planned panel is reasonable? Organisers need to become aware of this and address it. If there is a 5 people panel, finding at least 2 women should not be impossible. And arguments that it is should not be accepted. Because it isn’t. The other argument is that there are no competent women. If that is the belief held by the organisers you need to ask yourself if you should be supporting an event organised by people holding it (which in exceptional instances may be the right thing to do).
    In this context, I’d like to draw your attention to a really interesting and fabulous organisation that was started by Lina Tomsgård in Sweden. It’s called equalisters. Lina, a feminist and PR professional was so fed up with male only events and the skewed representation of men and women in media and in events AND the argument that organisers always gave in its defence: there simply aren’t any women/more diverse speakers. So she started to create lists of alternatives through social networks like twitter and facebook. These lists were then given to organisers that no longer had that same dilemma. It has grown massively over the past years and I believe that there is even a UK wing now. It’s gained so much attention and it’s been brilliant at making an issue that can be very conceptual and sometimes abstract, pragmatic and concrete. Now they are a whole team and they get contacted by lots of organisations who need experts or speakers or different types of people. They make the call, put together the lists of people and hand the lists over. It’s really brilliant! And no more excuses. Here is the English website. Have a look. This is the kind of initiative that can drive change in this area in a very pragmatic and effective way.
    Best wishes,

  17. Jessica

    Another illustration: a few months ago I attended a UCL panel on working in international development: 8 speakers, all men. The message, unintentionally no doubt, was ‘sure you can work in this field women, just don’t expect to get important enough to sit on careers panels’! Bravo then to the (female) PhD student who stood up to ask ‘I have a todler, what’s the work life balance like working in your industry and bringing up small kids?’ Cue embarrassment and confusion on the panel…

  18. Koh

    I agree that if a man is invited to join a panel and find it men-only on the day of the event, making public reference to that fact is the least he can do. Finding an opportunity to make a point during the panel discussion about how many women around the world today, and not just men, are interested in the topic being debated, can be the next step in the right direction.

  19. Amara

    I am black,young,female,from a developing country in a specialized field. Can life get any better? I love the idea for selfish reasons; It gives me undue advantage! On a serious note; I’ve volunteered in NGOs where women’s very basic rights (such as education, even marriage and all the things a lot of people only read about) are real issues. So I understand how women can be disadvantaged. However I think a line should be drawn (especially if getting a woman on the panel would be just to pay lip service to gender equality/sensitivity agenda)…I think in the next 100 years or so men would have to fight for recognition of their rights! A man who works hard and makes sacrifices to be excellent in his career has a right too.The audience has a right to get the best resource people available.
    Personally, though I get irritated when an obvious “just for show” female panelist is on a panel of other people obviously above her level of expertise (I think it is hypocritical). I’ve found that I enjoy and pay better attention to a panel with a mix of smart knowledgeable women and young people.Unless it’s a topic I’m very interested in, the typical all white male older panels bore me.(I just find a little mix easier to relate to.) I think every smart event organizer who desires to reach a wide audience would take the preferences of audience members like me into consideration. Should this be a law or an issue? Today, I’ll hesitate to say yes

  20. Jake

    @Amara I like the point of “just for show” !
    Perhaps giving preference to evenly weighted panels (especially the high level, big draw ones) as an element of *displaying* diversity is made difficult for conference organizers and a pool of appropriate expertise or position that doesn’t have an evenly weighted rolodex. “Whelp, I guess Christine Lagarde isn’t available this weekend. Ideas?”
    After a few hours reflecting on this concept, I’m still hooked on the idea of other techniques for breaking tokenism or privilege for the benefit of the conference AND the larger agenda & future rolodex of a specific ecosystem. Beyond boycotting panels or preferring lip service as social commentary (though it can be appropriately constructive).
    Rather than a “even panel distribution or bust”, some of my favorite methods are the unique approaches offered by largely male dominated STEM conferences. If all-male panels happen, rather than leave them unattended or cancel the conference… the speakers (or conference attendees/organizers) could create more opportunities, for breaking that trend. More scholarships or travel grants could be provided (for minorities or underrepresented speakers/participants of any kind).
    Additionally, even panels might end up reifying the larger systemic issue. Some possible solutions begin with detecting privilege and creating more pre-professional, academic, or youth oriented conference tracks that would encourage the next generation or upcoming panel speakers. There is a great project called She’s Geeky that’s been attempting to create a similar track for women/girls in STEM.

  21. Sylvia Hordosch

    One problem is that it is usually heads of organizations or heads of departments who get invited. They are often male. I like the idea that invitees challenge the whole set up of a panel before they accept.
    On a related note, I think there is also value to rethink all female panels – especially if the topic is on gender equality issues. It would benefit the discourse if more men participated in discussions on gender issues, from combatting violence against women to improving women’s access to financial services.

  22. I think you should request the organizers pursue a diverse panel and make recommendations for potential panelists. It is their responsibility to form the panel but the external pressure from a panelist they desire will add weight and foster greater effort around diversity.
    Having been a mentor for the Tech Women program and having attended Women 2.0 events, there are some many talented women in all fields and they are not difficult to find.
    Interesting, Striking Poverty had an all male panel for a discussion followed by an all female panel for the next discussion. Intent and effort to pursue diversity is key – even if you don’t always succeed, it will hopefully balance out overall.

  23. How about “I will only attend a panel having carefully considered whether I, myself, make the most interesting addition to the other panellists, should I rather recommend someone else, and don’t give a toss about biological features?”

  24. Cynan

    Stop having so many gabfests of questionable purpose or outcome. Then the alleged small pool of high quality women speakers will be able to do all the ones they’re asked to.
    Fixed that for you…

  25. pa

    But what happens when I want to attend an a BBC, Aljazeerah or CNN conference where more than likley the line up will be all women? Do I also have to boycott this? In the interest of equality maybe all women should sign something similar to say they won’t attend when its an all female line up. Personally, I think Claire Melamed’s outdated attitudes are now part of the problem not part of the solution.

  26. Allie

    As a faculty member in a STEM field who is very committed to diversity and very willing to put my money where my mouth is and recruit female students and give them more mentoring time, I think boycotting is not a reasonable approach. And frankly it’s exhausting and unsustainable for the women in these fields. In fields where the UNDERGRADS are below 15%, female this is too difficult. There are plenty of topics where the requisite number of people available *at a given time and place* to speak on a narrow topic are the same gender, female or male! In these fields, male, of course.
    If a field is 10% female, and the RANDOM panel of five people being 100% male is 60%. The more senior people are around in lower percentages….and usually one wants more senior people. The women are stressed out by having to say no. Many women want to travel less…and that should be okay!
    This kind of bean counting too early is not the way to go.
    Change is essential. Having more females is important. We need a reasonable gradient though! And great care. A journal in my field two years ago said, “To ensure fairness we will make sure half of the reviews for each paper are done by females.” Seriously??? So 10% of faculty doing 50% of the service work is progress?
    The thoughtless blanket rule boycotting all male panels in ALL fields is ill posed and not helpful.

  27. Matti Kohonen

    An all-male panel is just the more visible aspect of gender discrimination, the questions before that are: 1) whether women were considered and asked for the panel (e.g. did they refuse due to unpaid care duties or due to being in high demand as panelists in a predominantly male industry), 2) were women considered to have the right expertise and position to be a panelist (and if not, is it outright discrimination or selection into positions where expertise is nurtured and developed), 3) how women are selected and are self-selected through positively applying into such positions (and what barriers they face into getting into certain “male” careers like banking, tech, business leadership that are dominated by men). So it tells a lot bigger story the whole issue of all male panels…