Manels no more

Stop making excuses for all-male panels

Reaching out to women experts is necessary work
Photo: Swedennewyork

André Picard, the Globe and Mail’s health columnist, recently jump-started quite the public conversation when he declined to join a science roundtable at McGill University because no women were included.

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“Regretfully, I’ve withdrawn from the #TrottierSymposium roundtable,” he tweeted, “because it consists of 10 men.” He added the hashtag #NoMoreManels, a popular pejorative term for all-male panels. Springing into damage-control mode, the McGill Office for Science and Society quickly acknowledged their error on Twitter. “It is smthng we always strive for & should have made it a priority. It will be at #Trottier2018.”

While it’s nice to see the academic institution readily admit the mistake, one can’t help but wonder how gender parity is something they “strive for” when they managed to book 10 men and didn’t recognize their omission until someone pointed it out.

Sadly, all-male panels and keynotes are still common — in academic institutions, in media punditry, and in business conferences — and happen more often than we realize. What’s rare is for men who are given the opportunity to be part of these discussions to use their voices to draw attention to the gender bias. That’s why so much gratitude was expressed online to Picard for displaying allyship and leadership in shining the spotlight on a very real problem, particularly at STEM conferences.

Gwynedd Picket, a cerebrovascular neurosurgeon from Halifax, tweeted to Picard: “Thank you. Recently attended a conference featuring 14/14 male speakers. Hoping actions like this spur awareness and change.”

A persistent problem

Despite campaigns like Congrats, you have an all-male panel on Tumblr and #JamaisSansElles in France, the problem of all-male panels remains persistent and systemic.

I still often see men who have identified as feminist participating on TV and radio panels that have zero women. It’s a tricky thing to decline attendance on a panel that brands you an expert in your chosen field. But if we don’t start forcing change from within, it will never take place. Being an ally requires that you stand up for equal representation, even if the status quo doesn’t inconvenience you, and even more so when you see that it favours you.

Booking men is easier

The same effort needs to be shown by symposium organizers and media producers who are responsible for issuing the invitations. Here’s the ugly truth: booking men is easier. In all my years on TV and radio, producing shows and inviting experts to speak, I never once had a male panelist say that they would get back to me because they needed to make sure they could arrange babysitting for their children. It has happened multiple times with female guests. Why? Because women (even the ones who work full-time and are experts in their fields) are still disproportionately responsible for childcare.

All-male panels aren’t occasional and unfortunate abnormalities that cause angry feminists to get the vapours. They are a real manifestation of systemic inequality, which mirrors a society that still undermines women’s voices and contributions. And to the men who act offended and feel the need to speak about how panels should solely be chosen on “merit” and “qualifications,” we see you. Do you honestly think mere merit and qualifications netted an all-male panel of 10 experts in a world composed of 52 per cent women? How adorably naïve.

The persistence of all-male panels (just like all-white panels) is a sign of indifference and a serious lack of imagination and effort. Tackling the issue means men must play an active role in making them obsolete. If you’re a panel organizer or news producer, play close attention to the gender split, make a concerted effort to invite women, and consult Canadian databases of female experts so you never have to utter “But I couldn’t find a woman to speak” ever again. Informed Opinions has a mailing list of female experts that you can consult. How much easier can they make it for you?

If you’re a man invited on a panel, ask who the other panelists are and make sure you see women present. If there aren’t any, propose a few names, or politely decline and explain why.

In her book Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace, Jessica Bennett discusses the importance of paying attention to gender representation:

Look around the room. How many women are present? The goal is to reach at the very least a third. That’s the point of “critical mass,” as psychology studies have put it, at which a woman’s perspective is more likely to be heard and her opinions less likely to be perceived as representing her entire gender (or her gender and her race) rather than herself. Remember: white men constitute just 31 per cent of the American population. There is no situation in which they should be constituting the majority of the room.

And yet, time and time again, they continue to do just that.

Striving to make sure that your panel, or any decision-making or influence-peddling group, is representative of society’s overall gender and racial makeup isn’t pandering to political correctness or special interest groups. It’s ensuring that the issues being discussed and the decisions being made accurately represent and benefit us all, not just a small fraction of this world.

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