Women

How Women Should Respond to All-Male Panels

C’mon, guys. Make some room.

Experts discuss “The India Outlook” at Davos. (India’s 600 million women were unavailable.)

Photographer: Jason Alden/Getty Images

Last month, Goldman Sachs hosted a conference in London on disruptive technology. Out of 76 speakers at the event, five were women. That was hardly an anomaly: At a 2016 event in Davos organized by the company Mercer, for example, all of the speakers on a panel about helping women thrive were men. (The moderator, at least, was female.) Similarly, one count of events at six leading think tanks in Washington found that 65 percent of their panels were all-male. 

Denying women opportunities to present at professional conferences prevents them from gaining visibility in their fields, and it deprives their colleagues of valuable perspectives. So in 2013, Rebecca J. Rosen proposed a solution in The Atlantic: Men should refuse to speak on all-male panels. 1  If all men did this, of course, it would immediately solve the problem.

The idea is slowly taking off: A pledge posted online by a development economist in London now has over 1,100 signatures from male academics, researchers and NGO representatives, and nearly 100 men who work on peace and security issues at high-profile organizations have signed a similar pledge on the website manpanels.org. And last year, high-profile digital media expert Sree Sreenivasan made waves when he made the pledge to not participate in all-male panels. Then he upped the ante and announced he wouldn’t attend them, either.

But how should women respond to all-male panels?

Boycotting them doesn’t make sense for us, because we need professional development opportunities to advance in our fields. Women are already underrepresented in senior leadership positions: Less than 6 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives, less than 15 percent of corporate board members, and less than 20 percent of members of Congress are female. But women aren’t getting the professional development opportunities that might help bridge the gap. A study by Development Dimensions International found that men get more professional development opportunities than women at every job level. And 70 percent of women want more such opportunities, according to a study by the training firm Skillsoft.

So, instead of boycotting, I propose that women attend all-male panels to take advantage of the opportunities -- and embarrass conference organizers. For example, women can tweet photos of the events and use the hashtag “#WhereAreTheWomen?” One blog, Congrats! You Have an All-Male Panel!, features user-submitted photos in an ever-expanding wall of shame.

In their book “Activists Beyond Borders,” Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink call this strategy “moral leverage.” The idea is that organizations care about their reputations, so if they’re called out and embarrassed for a particular behavior, they’re likely to stop it. (United Airlines, I’m looking at you!)

This strategy is especially likely to work here, because adding women to panels isn’t a particularly difficult or controversial proposition. Ironically, empowering women is a goal of many of the organizations that have so glaringly excluded them as speakers at events. Goldman Sachs, for example, runs 10,000 Women, an initiative to support female entrepreneurs around the world. And in 2014, Goldman and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) launched the Women Entrepreneurs Opportunity Facility to provide women with capital. 

So it’s unlikely that many of the organizations hosting all-male panels have bad intentions. They’re probably just oblivious. That’s why raising awareness is the best solution. If organizations knew they had to fear bad publicity for gender imbalances at their events, I bet they’d plan to find female speakers from the start.

I should admit another reason I think the strategy would be successful: It worked on me. I serve on the program committee for the World Communication Forum. Last year, I was mortified when I noticed social media posts calling out an all-male panel that was, ironically, held on International Women’s Day. So this year, I organized and moderated the first all-female panel in the eight-year history of the event. I was repeatedly told by participants it was one of the best sessions of the conference.

If we all started asking “Where are the women?” at professional events, I bet organizers and sponsors would be doing the same in record time.

(In first paragraph of article published April 18, corrects name of group that organized a panel on helping women thrive.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. She got the idea from the organization Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, which created an early pledge for male speakers. 

To contact the author of this story:
Kara Alaimo at kara.s.alaimo@hofstra.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tracy Walsh at twalsh67@bloomberg.net

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