How to avoid an all-male panel? Just try harder

6 April 2016

There is no excuse for an all-male panel.

Owen Barder famously pledged to never be part of all-male panels. You can join the pledge, too. He offers a simple way forward which can be summarised as:

Try harder

He is right. All-male panels are lazy and they reflect poorly on those producing an event.

This is why I find websites such as “congrats, you have an all-male panel” quite appealing. They shame the organisers (and the participants) into getting their act together. So much so that I set up one for Peru: Eventos para Hombres.

And this is why we have produced a series on Women in Think Tanks.

Excuses people give

There are two main excuses from organisers:

  • First, they argue that they could not find a women to join their panel; and
  • Second, that who says it does not matter -what matters is what is said (a good idea is a good idea, they would say).

Is this true?

Not enough women

To some extend this is true. While women are well represented at the entry-stages of any profession they are scarce towards the top. And there are some disciples and sectors that are particularly male dominated.

But they are certainly no where to be found. All that is needed is for organisers to make a bit of an effort and to be a bit more creative.

They could, for instance, target younger women and give them the chance to develop their own reputations. They could ask the few they know if they may be able to recommend someone else. They could use Skype or other video conferencing facilities to include women based elsewhere.

I could go on. But the can also be a bit more creative. They could think harder about their event’s narrative to make sure that it creates opportunities for women (maybe from disciples where they are better represented) to play a key role.

If the event is about monetary or security policy (two fields where we may expect to find more men than women in leadership positions) why not start with an historical account of the issue or include a discussion of the social impact of these policies?

In recent years we have seen a rise in all-women directories to help journalists and others to find women: #WomenAlsoKnowStuff and Grupo Sofía are great examples of this.

But platforms such as The Conversation are also great sources of active women in a range of fields.

Anyway, make an effort.

Does it matter who says it?

In short, yes. It matters because an all-male panel suggests that the organisers don’t really care about the very obvious fact that the game is rigged against women -and have no intention of doing anything about it.

But it also matters because we cannot be sure that we are, in fact, getting the best ideas. We just do not know, do we? We do not know if the best ideas died out along with the chances of promotion of the many women who, for reasons beyond their control, are forced to opt-out of their careers or choose to follow low-profile paths.

What to do about it?

First, we could all pledge not to be part of all-male panels.

Second, funders should take the pledge, too. And they should hold their grantees to account.

Third, do a bit of polite shaming. If you see an all-male panel, call it out. Let organisers know as soon as possible, too, They may be unaware of what they are doing and appreciate your advice. I did this at an event for the Latin American network of think tanks, ILAIPP, conference in Lima:

Fourth, make an effort.

Fifth, be creative. After I had made a bit of a fuzz about the role given to female researchers in a previous panel, ILAIPP more than redeemed itself by including a speaker from DC via Skype (not because of my tweet):

Jacqueline O’Neill at the Institute for Inclusive Security has written a great article for Foreign Policy offering 7 Rules for Avoiding All-Male Panels. Her advice includes all of the above and more:

  1. Understand why gender diversity matters. It matters for both principled and practical reasons. You cannot have a proper discussion without including the perspectives of both men and women. All-male panels do not look like real life -they aren’t.
  2. Define your objective, then track it.O’Neill argues that organisers need to set themselves an objective and make sure they meet it. It is not enough to just express and interest in having a woman in the panel.
  3. Engage women in the planning stage. A balanced panel does not ‘just happen’. Often female speakers will show little interest in joining an event because of how the event has been framed. They will not see a place for them in it. And this is often because no women were involved in its planning.
  4. Pay attention to how you invite women. Related to the 3rd point, O’Neill points at a typical mistake by think tanks. They fail to invite women in a way that make it attractive or interesting for them to say yes.
  5. Don’t take shortcuts. In other words, don’t organise a panel and then try to substitute one of the male speakers with a woman. This will not work.
  6. Re-examine your criteria. Are you always looking for the top-dogs? This is not the best way to produce an event -in fact, read this post about producing events to avoid male-only panel and other event fails. Think about the narrative first and you’ll be sure to find interesting roles for women to play.
  7. Be aware of subtle biases. Discrimination in think tanks is often subtle but increasingly too obvious not to notice.