All-male panels tell half the story

When you organise a panel of experts and don't notice that none of them are women – you've got a real problem, says Shelina Janmohamed

When your panel chairs are filled solely by men, you've got a problem, says Shelina Janmohamed (iStockphoto.com)
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Poor men, they can never get a word in edgeways when we women are around. We talk, talk, and talk, and the poor things are forced to listen. If only they could get their opinions heard, if only they had a public platform from which once in a while, they might offer ideas, perspectives and inputs.

That must be the reason why a recent Islamic institute in the UK designed a webinar with not one, two or five male speakers, but 16! Yes, 16 men smiling in their little portrait pictures on the poster, with no pesky women.

After all, why should women have any right to speak? And even if they were asked, who’s going to cook dinner for their husbands and sons if they are on panels sharing their (non-existent) expertise to make the world a better place?

Other good and valid reasons why no women ever should be on panels are that women are shy, nobody has heard of any female big names, and celebrities are required for panels and the one speaker that was called once was on voicemail.

It’s not just religious scholars who are mansplaining (a portmanteau meant to convey a patronising male explanation) to us. A Tumblr site from Finland went viral called “Congrats! You have an all-male panel!” complete with a picture of David Hasslehoff for every picture of a male-only platform. Because, we need to celebrate men finally getting themselves heard and erasing women.

But wait, are women really angry about this sort of thing, and is it really that important? The answer is yes and yes.

If you’re an organiser or a speaker and you don’t even notice that there are no women, then it’s time to take a good hard look at yourself and wonder why you’ve erased half the population from your understanding of society.

Worse, you might have noticed, but you think it’s because there aren’t any suitably qualified women. The reality about influence and status is that there’s no absolute standard of “best qualified” or “most appropriate”. These are value judgements we make and by putting only men on a pedestal we elevate male opinion, devalue female opinion simply for being female by excluding it, and then shrug off responsibility for women not being “big names” or “not having anything to say” even though it is those very actions that triggered it.

Relax, you might say to women you perceive as unnecessarily agitated. It’s just a panel, who wants to be on a panel?

I’ll tell you who: women. Because it affects the ideas and perspectives in our public discourse. It tells us who is the normal active voice, and who is the passive follower. Because it excludes half of our bright articulate creative resources. Because denying ability, status and credibility on our platforms affects the way we treat women in daily life. Just take the gender pay gap as one example where perceptions of ability directly affect women’s reality.

So if you’re organising a panel, make sure nearly half your panel is female. There are always women experts on the subject you’re exploring. Turn them into the same kind of big- name celebrities as the men. Make it normal to have women leading the conversation. And if you’re a male speaker, then cede your spot to a female speaker. That’s how we’ll know that you really care more about your audience than your ego.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk