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Should men speak on all-male panels? Summary + time to cast your vote

January 11, 2013
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Right, I have now waded through dozens of comments, tweets and my own tangled thoughts on Monday’s post. What stood out?white male panel

Boycott v constructive engagement: is it better to politely push conference organizers, suggest female panelists, and express ‘strong disinclination’ to take part in testosterone-fests, or to play hardball with a blanket ban? And is the crime less heinous for a three man panel than a six man one?

Should this approach be extended beyond gender, especially to having representation from developing countries?

Pressure during the event itself: questions from the floor and from panelists should ask organizers to explain themselves and/or panelists should make the effort to ask for female colleagues’ input to the debate and pass it on (duly credited).

Should we add a ban on all-female panels on gender issues?

Don’t blame the event organizers when the real problem is broader – the lack of women at top level in a number of development-related institutions (yes, but a combination of conscious effort and affirmative action by event organizers can be part of redressing the wider problem).

For the moment, I’m coming round to the following position: When asked to participate on a panel, right-thinking men  should

a)      Ask about the current make-up of the panel

b)      If it’s devoid of either women or people from other relevant population groups (depending on the topic), both express serious reservations and try and suggest some names

c)       If they think the organizers are not serious, they should decline, but if they seem to be really trying, it’s OK to say yes

d)      Before the panel, try and get input from colleagues to fill in any potential gaps in the panel‘s analysis due to its grotesquely distorted composition

e)      When speaking on the panel, mention the disparity, and try and ensure a fair spread of questioners (male domination applies to questions at least as much as it does to panelists)

And of course, none of this applies if the panelists are Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela and Jim Kim, but Christine Lagarde is not available that day.

There, that should ensure I never get invited to speak at a panel again. Result.

And since everyone likes voting (judging by last year’s top ten), please could you tell me whether I’ve got it right? The Poll will remain open for a few days. The question is

When asked to appear on panels, men should

a)      Simply refuse to appear on male-only panels

b)      Constructively engage with organizers in the way set out in the blog

c)       Just be grateful, say yes and abandon all this pitiful liberal self-doubt


  1. …still finding it paradoxical that this conversation is happening in a context where option a) is meant as a statement – not as making way for a woman, or someone else, to take your own place.

  2. “constructively engage with organisers” AND the wider social/political/economic barriers that deny women opportunities and profile in global development debates and prevent their voices being heard! Symptoms and causes?? Taking the long view? But thanks for raising this tricky issue

  3. Speaking on panels is one of those things that seems to be most adversely affected by ‘continuity bias’ at work.

    The number of invitations you get a year is some function of the number of panels you were on the year before and whether you were any good. … Take a career break of more than a year and visibility and confidence drop. I think this is one of the hardest horses for women to get back on to after a career break.

    The approach of male panel invitees taking a stand (although welcome) wont fix that if it just pushes demand onto the few overstretched women who were on panels the year before.

  4. I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one left a bit sceptical towards the principles you’ve listed. I know you mean well, Duncan, but I’m tempted to call it a charade. The trouble is that the reason for your Lagarde exemption applies quite a way further down than you imply. If a conference organiser wants someone from Oxfam to speak on big societal change and Oxfam’s work, they’re less likely to call the newly engaged Assistant Policy Analyst –who’d statistically be female(?)- than the Senior Strategic Advisor –who’s, well, you. Which, were I to be in the audience, I’d commend.

    In my experience from Denmark and Norway, where your principles are perhaps already more internalised, the effect hasn’t so much been a decline in old suits on panels. Instead, whatever space is left at the table is now strictly reserved for a young(-ish) woman. Given I’m pro gender equality because I’m pro diversity, I don’t think that that is particularly clever.

    So, why doesn’t the women, who’re in majority at entry-level and in PhD schools, get the senior positions? I think that’s the real issue here.

  5. Great that you raise this. I’ve refused to attend a parliamentary event this week because it’s an all male panel to discuss post-MDG frameworks and fragility. Those issues have disproportionate effects on women and I’d expect women’s voices to be heard.

    If I were you I’d turn down the invite, explain why and suggest suitable women candidates.

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