Huffington Post Women has a new cause du jour, complete with a catchy twitter hashtag: ridding the globe of conference panels that fail to feature female speakers (#allmalepanels). A United Nation’s affiliate, the U.N Global Compact, has announced that its employees will not take part in any all-male events and is urging member companies (which includes heavy-weights like Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, and HP) to make a similar commitment. The Huffington Post’s Emily Peck challenges readers to also “just say no to all-male panels,” which she describes as “a super-easy way to foster gender equity.”
Certainly businesses, policymakers, and industry leaders are wise to strive to include a diversity of perspectives on any panel. Women and men often fill different roles in society and therefore approach issues from different perspectives. Women and men also often have different methods of communicating, so having both men and women in the mix is a good way to broaden your appeal and keep your audience engaged. Particularly for panels geared to the public, conference organizers should be aware that decisions about featured guests are sometimes understood as sending a message about who they value and are speaking to. It’s to their detriment if they unnecessarily exclude women.
Yet recognizing the value of a variety of perspectives, including women’s, doesn’t mean that panels all must, absolutely, every time have a woman speaker. After all, while diversity of perspectives is an important consideration, it isn’t the only criteria and shouldn’t overshadow important factors like issue area expertise. Moreover, a blanket boycott of all-male panels, like any quota systems, sets up an expectation of tokenism that largely backfires in terms of promoting women’s advancement.
The Huffington Post dismissed the idea that there might not be a qualified female speaker for any and all panels as nothing but a hollow excuse. While women are increasingly taking on positions of leadership in industry, politics, and the corporate world, creating a growing number of qualified female speakers in many areas, there are still disciplines in which men dominate and sticking a woman on a panel will be recognized as nothing more than window-dressing. Readers may not want to admit it, but most have witnessed this first hand. I’ve not only seen such panels, but I’ve also been that token woman on stage, when it was pretty clear I was there to fill the obligatory “woman” slot, rather than because of any particular expertise. I knew it, my other panelists knew it, and, most likely, so did the audience.
Depending on the panel’s purpose, there are times when having a woman’s perspective, even if she brings less expertise and experience, makes sense. But that isn’t always the case. And if the goal is to promote “gender equality” and demonstrate that women are just as capable as men are, then while there may be some value to having a woman featured on stage, the positive impact is offset when everyone has a sense that she’s mostly there to fill a quota.
The Huffington Post’s story included a photo taken from a computer conference with a long, Disneyland-style line leading to the men’s bathroom and no queue at all in front of the woman’s restroom, to demonstrate just how pervasive sexism remains in certain industries. The photo certainly illustrates that parts of the tech sector remain male-dominated. There are many potential explanations for this: It may be part nature, with more men simply being attracted to data-intensive work, but could also speak to sexism and other pipeline problems that discourage capable women from entering these fields. People in the tech industry ought to consider how to create a culture that welcomes women, but sticking a woman on the panel in that tech conference wouldn’t do anything to solve more fundamental problems, and would likely breed resentment that could actual undermine women’s prospects.
Increasingly, the public expects to see women in prominent positions, and takes note when organizations fail to appear inclusive. The Republican Party, for example, has paid a high price when it’s appeared to exclude women and showcase only men. Yet just as no one should be surprised when there is an all-female panel—and in fact, all-female panels are common in academia—sometimes all-male panels make sense too. A commitment to equality is supposed to be about looking past categorizations like race and sex, and assessing people as individuals, not about conforming to one idea about what diversity must look like.