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07/03/2018

IWD: Are diversity pledges a help or a hindrance to women?

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The 'diversity pledge' is somewhat contentious in an arena where it is assumed that merit is – or should be – the chief qualification for speaking or presenting at an event. Anna Sabine-Newlyn answers some of the common complaints about this form of lobbying for greater diversity

It still amazes me how discussions about all-male panels at events can still arouse such ire.

To me and many others, it seems self-evident that if you have an industry with a mix of male and female employees, then if you are putting together a panel of experts to discuss some aspect of this industry, you might make the effort to include both men and women on it.

Let’s look at some common concerns:

“You should be asking people on the basis of their knowledge, not their gender”

Quite right, you should. Invites to sit on panels should extend beyond the event organiser’s friends, colleagues and golf buddies and should involve a bit of research into the panel topic and who might be interesting to speak on it.  A cursory Google search will show that it usually includes women.

"So many event organisers seem to whip out their Rolodex, head to the section entitled “usual suspects” and invite the same people time and time again"

So many event organisers seem to whip out their Rolodex, head to the section entitled “usual suspects” and invite the same people time and time again – which is not to say those people aren’t knowledgeable or excellent speakers, but if the point of these events is to learn something, by definition it helps to have a range of voices.

“Worrying about gender balance on panels is reverse sexism”

Ah yes, that old chestnut. Let’s assume such a thing as ‘reverse sexism’ exists, how is it ‘reverse sexism’ to suggest that panels might include a woman? To suggest that if you have a conference with 10 panels of 4 people and you’d like each one to have a woman on it, that asking for 25 per cent representation is ‘reverse sexism’?  I’ll leave that one there…

“It’s not the organisers fault that women don’t come forward”

Yes and no. I recognise that women can on occasion be reluctant to speak up, and women who are already confident speakers need to encourage others in the industry to do the same. But organisers bear a weight of responsibility. A lot of events rely on sponsorship and often speakers are drawn from the sponsor’s team. Organisers need to be more assertive about asking those companies if they have women they can ask to speak to ensure a diversity of panel.

“Women don’t want to be asked to be the ‘token woman’ on panels... and in fact, if women seem like the ‘token woman’, they will be discouraged from being on panels themselves"

This is my favourite and most convoluted of the concerns expressed on this issue. No one needs to be the ‘token woman’. The ‘token woman’ charge suggests the only thing that might recommend us to be on a panel is our biology, when (as I’ve covered above), there are enough women who know what they’re talking about for this not to be necessary.

"The ‘token woman’ charge suggests the only thing that might recommend us to be on a panel is our biology, when there are enough women who know what they’re talking about for this not to be necessary"

It’s also a subtle way of trying to undermine the many women who are already up there, speaking on their areas of expertise. The question of gender balance on panels (and of course BAME balance, which I have not tried to cover here) still seems to be a bone of contention for many people. Happily, a growing number of men are helping out on the issue.

There are two diversity pledges – #DiversityPledgeLDN and www.owen.org – which male speakers can sign up to and commit not to speak on a panel unless there is a woman on the panel as well. With a growing number of signatories on these pledges, event organisers feeling the pressure for balance, and women both pushing themselves forward (and helping each other up), hopefully gender balance on panels won’t be an issue we’re even discussing on future International Women’s Days.

Anna Sabine-Newlyn is chief executive of Meeting Place Communications

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