Should men boycott all-male panels at conferences?

January 8, 2013 39 By admin

manelA conversation on twitter this weekend triggered (yet another) ethical dilemma. Gosh it’s exhausting trying to be a do-gooder. Claire Melamed started it by sending round a link to an article arguing that men should sign a pledge stating publicly that they will refuse to take part in all-male panels at tech conferences (which are regularly men-only affairs, apparently). As a regular token NGO speaker at various talkshops, would I make a similar pledge, she asked? Owen Barder is already signed up, she added.

They may not be as extreme as geeky tech events, but lots of development gabfests do indeed feature men on the panel talking to women (and men) in the audience. That violates basic fairness, inhibits the profile and (possibly) career development of half of the potential talent pool, and is likely to distort the agenda and resulting discussion (less focus on care economy, women’s rights etc). So obviously, the answer is yes to a boycott, right?


Most people who contact me don’t know the final panel line-up yet. They are in the process of contacting a range of potential speakers, both men and women. Prominent women in the development debate (like Claire and her outgoing boss at ODI Alison Evans) are in huge demand, so presumably have to say no quite a lot of the time. Should I say ‘provisionally yes, but if you end up with a male-only line-up, I’ll withdraw at the last minute’? That seems to me to cross the line from principled to prima donna – pretty unfair on already stressed-out conference organisers who may be trying ever so hard to ensure a balanced line up. Or should I say ‘are you committed to inviting a decent number of women speakers to ensure a gender balance on your panels?’ – everyone is going to say yes, but how do you measure how serious they are?

Then of course there’s the organisational profile thing. In fantasy mode, suppose I get a call saying ‘Barack Obama, David Cameron and Jim Kim are speaking on development, and need a token NGO person, could you do it? Christine Lagarde is busy that day, sorry.’ Am I really going to say no?

And what about a panel with all male speakers and a woman chair (a pretty common occurrence)?

And why privilege gender over eg ethnicity – what about all-white panels on development (which are even more common than all-male ones)?

Oh dear. The torments of the self-obsessed liberal.

Tell me what you think, and depending on the response, I may well set up another online poll to help solve my dilemma. Meanwhile, the interns poll is still getting votes (see right), and the agnostics (NGOs should decide for themselves whether to pay interns) has overtaken the ‘pay all interns’ lobby and is drawing away. Unexpected result – love it.