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Finding Her On The Stage: Where Are The Women Speakers?

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We were planning a three-day conference recently, which involved 9 sessions and 36 speakers. British Council being a strong advocate of gender-balanced panels, we were making sure that each session was ideally diverse and fairly represented. After some intentional adjustments (like bringing women moderators and giving the speaking opportunity to senior most female in the organisation), we were able to keep the balance just about right.

The panels which are overly manly in representation are known as ‘manels’. We observe that manels are pervasive and present in all the professional and social spheres.

Why it is so hard to find women on the stage?

Finding women’s voice — it has started yet needs more rigour

Around six years ago, in 2014 meeting of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons at the United Nations, 17 experts were invited to speak at the expert panels during the official plenary on autonomous weapons, filling 18 experts. None were women. The organisers suggested that there were no suitable women to fill any of the slots. The panels at the NGO side vents held during the lunch breaks included qualified and experienced women and men.

In a study around Gender distribution of speakers on panels at the Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons conducted in September 2020, 3405 speakers and 459 panels were identified. The results found that women speaker’s representation was merely 15%.

Sadly, this stands true today too. 69% professional speakers are male, research finds.

The positive sign, however, is that absence of female voices on stages is being recognised. Thanks to the role of advocacy and social media, individuals and NGOs are now raising their voice to name and shame ‘manels’.

There is one website, pointing out this phenomenon by publishing photos of all-male panels, or “manels”. It’s a Tumblr blog, sarcastically called, Congrats! You Have an All-Male Panel.  It features 200 photos, submitted from people from about 10 countries.

In 2019, The Arts Council of Pakistan was forced to backtrack after it emerged that a discussion on feminism it is hosting was to have an all-male panel. An outcry on social media resulted in two women guests being added.

How to avoid manels while designing the panels

The exclusion of women from panels is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed by systematic interventions.

A survey done by International Gender Champions demonstrate that, on average, men have 50% higher representation than women. Parity was achieved on 18% of reported panels, however, 54% of panels had more men.

A quick fix is a conscious, concerted effort to think through while designing the panel. Some organisations and event planners have tried and here are a few aspects to consider while planning an event:

  • Sensitising the planners: the first step is enhancing the awareness
  • Bringing more women as part of the planning team: It is interesting to see the positive results of having women on the curation driving seat.
  • Strive to achieve 50:50 gender balance. Keeping a target, at least half of the panel being women. Force the question and don’t give up easily.
  • Distribute topics so that women’s voices are heard on “hard” topics, not just “soft” topics. It’s easy to find women speakers around gender issues, however, it is also possible to find women speakers around science, nuclear issues, and tax reforms too.
  • Ensure speaker criteria are not inadvertently biased, e.g. limiting panel participation to CEOs or ministers leaves you with very few women.
  • Confirm women speakers early and have a reserve list – in case you need to change your approach to ensure gender balance.
  • Look outside of your traditional sourcing methods. – Women can be found, e.g. ask other panellists, industry insiders, specialist women’s organisations. Look at past conferences, government boards and industry associations. Google it at the very least.
  • He for She: When invited to speak, men should ask whether one or more women will be speaking on the panel and indicate that they will only participate if women are included. Men should also send names of women working in the sector to the panel organisers, including the list mentioned above.
  • Utilise available platforms.  There are a few websites, inviting female speakers. For example https://smileyposwolsky.com/womenspeakerinitiative is a website that invites female speakers from around the world to register.

This is not an exhaustive list and could be further enriched. However, none of the above is rocket science. It is possible and doable; all it needs is the intention and the will.

Long fixing the issue: Lead by example, be bold and make it loud and clear

It starts with role models and walking the talk.

In June 2019, Dr Collins, who runs one of the world’s foremost public funders of biomedical research, released a statement on the NIH website, stating that “I want to send a clear message of concern: It is time to end the tradition in science of all-male speaking panels, sometimes wryly referred to as ‘manels’.”

In July 2020, The United Nations Industrial Development Organization reaffirmed its commitment to gender parity by adopting a new policy to ensure the equal representation of women and men in events.

This initiative goes beyond merely filling gender quotas – it involves a fundamental shift in all elements of event planning and promotion.

In 2017 the Financial Times’ board decreed an end to men-only conference panels. Male journalists were encouraged to say we would not appear on panels, whether organised by the FT or by others, if no women were on the stage.

For women to be on stage, there must be a bigger pool of women in places of influence and leadership.

According to UNICEF, 132 million girls are out of schools in the world and only half of the world has barely achieved gender parity. A long fix will require structural adjustments that need collective efforts on many levels. Starting with access to education to breaking the glass ceilings and removing sticky floors for women, it requires serious efforts to have more women in leading roles.

Unless there is a critical mass of leading role models in every sphere, finding women in places of influence will continue to be a withstanding issue.

Let us start somewhere, the next small step could be making the next panel gender balanced. Are you in?

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Naya Daur