Women on panels: where are we?

A guest post from Lisa Glass on women’s underrepresentation as speakers in entertainment and other male-dominated industries such as technology, science and politics.

 Author David Gilmour recently said he would not teach books by female authors as he is only interested in authors who are ‘serious heterosexual guys’; a category to which I assume he considers he also belongs. What a sad thing it is to self-limit your own experience of cultural engagement, to go through life only exposed to points of view with which you can identify, reaffirming over and over your own place in the world and never challenging yourself to take a different perspective.

I am also intrigued by his use of the word ‘serious’, as it implies that women’s lives and their expression of them through writing are somehow whimsical, lightweight or humorous. This would appear to directly contradict the view that is often expressed in the media, that women can’t be funny. Take, for example, Lee Mack’s recent comments on women stand-ups. Quoting ‘scientific facts’, he said that women are not cut out to be stand-up comedians as they cannot ‘show-off’ to the same extent as men, which is why men dominate TV panel shows.

If you choose to agree with both Gilmour’s and Mack’s points of view, that women are a homogeneous group who intrinsically aren’t serious, nor are they funny, you contradict yourself. But the argument shouldn’t be whether women are or aren’t funny, or serious; the issue in both cases is about representativeness. What Mack indirectly highlights in his comments is the lack of confidence that comes from underrepresentation. If women don’t see other women being writers, or being comedians, they are not encouraged to become writers or comedians, leading some to speculate on their lack of seriousness, confidence or talent to explain their minority status.

Women are underrepresented not only in the entertainment and literary worlds, but in other male-dominated industries such as technology, science and politics, and there is frequently a lack of women speakers and panellists at events and conferences. In my role as a journalist regularly attending medical conferences, it has been notable how few women present at meetings or speak at debates, and this has echoed the number of women attending overall. As a woman walking around at a conference, I usually feel distinctly in the minority.

A recent blog piece gives advice to event organisers on getting more women speakers on their panels. This is in response to an entry in the FAQ section of an upcoming scientific event, which asked whether “fanatical, misandristic ‘feminist[s]’ would be allowed to “drone on about the lack of women in the line-up” and claimed that none of the female invitees they had asked accepted. The blog’s author offers some simple advice: “Ask more women. If all the women you asked said no, ask some more. And some more.” Another simple suggestion from a blog on a similar topic encourages any men who find themselves in a line-up in which no women are included to refuse to participate.

In another post, on the Labour List blog, an outraged woman voices her disgust at the lack of female representation on 34 panels at the Labour Party Conference. She encourages attendees to boycott the all-male panel events in protest, asking, “Is it really the best panel you can get on a subject when all the speakers have had male experiences of the topic?” There is, again, a lack of representativeness here, which not only speaks to the issue of the lack of women working in politics (currently men outnumber women 4:1 in parliament) but impacts on political engagement in society as a whole. As Caroline Lucas said at the Fawcett society debate last year, there will be a greater chance of people engaging with the political process if there are more women in power, because women will see that they are represented.

The point being made in these blog pieces is that conscious, direct effort needs to be made if the gender paradigm is to be challenged. In 2013, it is not enough simply to say, “we tried” to achieve gender equality. Action needs to be taken to come to a point of critical mass where there are enough women in a particular sphere, whether in industry, media or in entertainment, so that others can envisage themselves in similar roles. If women cannot see other women represented at the top of their vocations at events where a panel of experts is present to speak on behalf of an industry or a practice, there is little chance of them feeling encouraged to join those professions.

Lisa Glass is a London-based writer and blogger. She tweets at @lisaaglass and blogs at femmevision.wordpress.com

Image description:

Black and white close-up of a microphone, with the head at the front, by Daehyun Park and shared under a creative commons license.