Kelly J. Baker

Editor at Women in Higher Education

Can We Finally End the All-Male Panel?

Full board meeting

Image: Federal Reserve Board Governor's meeting, (between 1905 and 1945) / Harris & Ewing, photographer

As a religious-studies scholar, I expected to see all-male panels when I attended scholarly conferences. After all, my field remained male-dominated despite gains in the number of women earning M.A.s and Ph.D.s in the discipline. Our conference panels were always made up either entirely of white men or had one female member (I’ve been that lone woman more than once).

What’s striking is that I didn’t really notice the overwhelming presence of white dudes in my field until 10 years ago when I was invited to present at a conference in another discipline, art history. That conference — for emerging scholars in material culture — proved to be the opposite of every other conference I have ever participated in (still). The panels were almost entirely made up of women, including women of color.

I was shocked, and then delighted, at the prospect of listening to all-female panels composed of junior and senior scholars. I’d finally found a conference where people who looked like me were participating and directing the conversations. I felt like academia might actually have space for me, after all.

Not so fast. Unsurprisingly, every conference I’ve attended since (with the exception of a Women in Educational Leadership meeting) proved disappointing and rage-inducing because of the lack of diversity in panel sessions. As years passed, I couldn’t help but notice that men were still more likely to be regarded as experts than women. I couldn’t help but wonder why conference organizers still allowed men to dominate as panelists, keynote speakers, and award winners. I couldn’t help but feel (again) that higher education was not the inclusive space that some academics imagined it to be.

So I began voting with my feet. I stopped attending panels and keynotes that featured only white men and made sure to attend sessions that featured women and people of color.

I’m not alone in that. Today, a decade after my own realization, the all-male panel appears to befalling out of favor in many employment sectors. Across academia, tech, and business, folks have finally started to question how it is possible to still have all-male panels. Why are men still viewed as solely the experts in their fields when there are women scholars who are also experts? What kinds of strategies can we use to convince conference organizers to find more women to speak at their events?

Public pledges and hashtags. A variety of activism, online and at conferences, is laying the groundwork for the end of the all-male panel. One example is Gender Avenger, an organization founded by Gina Glantz “to build a community that ensures women are represented in the public dialog.”

On its website, Glantz emphasizes that Gender Avenger was “an idea born out of frustration and in hope.” She was bothered by the absence of women as experts in the public arena, especially in public forums and on television. Gender Avenger tackles that absence. There’s the “Who Talks?” project that sought to bring more women analysts on television for the 2016 presidential campaign. There’s also the Gender Avenger Pledge: “I will not serve as a panelist at a public conference when there are no women on the panel.” So far, 155 people have signed. Gender Avenger, Glantz writes on the site, is not about “thousands of names on petitions or 15 minutes of social-media hype,” but rather, “a whole lot of individuals who challenge decision-makers at all levels by pointing out the absence of women and asking that those absences be corrected.”

In “Dude, Where Are The Women? #AllMalePanels in Global Development,” Malaka Gharib of NPR writes that the hashtag #allmalepanels has been around since 2013 — with folks tweeting about “dudes-only panel discussions” not only to highlight the lack of women experts in certain fields (especially science, tech, and finance) but also to emphasize the importance of including women.

Some men are joining the campaign, too. Gharib points to Owen Barder, vice president and Europe director of the Center for Global Development, as an example of the men who are working against all-male panels. In January of 2015, Barder decided to quit participating in all-male panels and created an online pledge, “I Will Not Be Part of Male-Only Panels,” to encourage others to follow his example. His pledge currently has 1,003 signatures.

In “Death to the All-Male Panel” for New York Magazine, Dayna Evans reports that Sree Sreenivasan, previously the chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and now the chief digital officer for New York City, wrote a Facebook post in April of 2016 saying that he will no longer attend or speak at panels that include only men. He dedicated that pledge to his daughter. His goal was to create a “mini-movement” to change who speaks at panels and to encourage more diversity. This, he notes, is his version of “leaning in.”

Congrats, you have an all-male panel! Finnish scholar and artist Saara Särmä created “Congrats, you have an all male panel!,” a Tumblr that documents panels featuring all men and other events with only male experts. She posts photos and adds an image of David Hasselhoff (from the 1980s show Knight Rider) giving the thumbs up. In an interview with Time, Särmä notes, “I think women’s expertise is often not simply recognized. It is somehow easier to see a white middle-aged (or older) man in your mind when you think of an expert. Academia has been white men’s world long enough, it’s time for a change.”

And it is. So what can we do to create more diverse panels for the events we host?

  • Start inviting women and people of color to speak at your conferences. Yes, it is that easy. Just invite women and people of color. Go on, now, invite folks.
  • Actually, invite more women and people of color than white men. In “On male privilege and networks,” Tin Geber writes that you should invite more women than men because “while we’re perfectly equal in capabilities, we’re still not equal in representation.”
  • Build better networks. Geber emphasizes that you have to expand your network to find all “those awesomely skilled women.” Ask your colleagues for recommendations of women scholars. Ask them to ask their colleagues, too. Actively work to build a network of people that don’t just look like you.
  • Be committed to ending the all-male panel. Take one of the pledges above. Let people know that you have. Be ready to make your panels more diverse, and don’t fall back on the easy excuses that you can’t find a female expert. Additionally, men must be willing to decline an invitation to speak on a panel if all the other participants are men. Declare your commitment by showing you won’t participate.

In 2017, the end of the all-male panel finally seems to be in sight. It’s beyond time.

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