In a sector that aims to promote diversity and equality, there's no excuse for excluding women.

Photo: Global Summit of Women

A woman’s place is in the audience

26 October 2015

Last week I received invites to three events with all-male panels. This alone should be enough to shock you: in our more than gender-balanced sector it’s almost impossible to put together a panel that excludes women. What’s more incredible however are the responses I received from the event organisers when I queried them about their choice.

There’s no need to go into the details of why diversity is necessary. This has been articulated elsewhere, by everyone from human rights campaigners and government inquiries to people who would balk at being considered advocates for equality. Whether you care about representation, innovation or simply sound business sense, everyone agrees that excluding women, ethnic minorities or disabled people doesn’t make sense.

The Pledge, established by Owen Barder for men who refuse to speak on all-male panels, is widely known and has been signed by many CEOs, senior staff and sector representatives. This is not a new initiative.

This is why I was so surprised to see three almost exclusively male events pop into my inbox in quick succession. I promptly contacted all of the event organisers to note this, hoping that they had unwittingly promoted this gender bias and would be able to swiftly rectify it.

I just want to be able to attend events that don’t perpetuate the myth that men are experts and women are audience

I want to note that I was polite to the point of ridiculous, acknowledging the challenge of putting together a diverse panel and joking about the time I had to chair a finance event to ensure this. There were no finger-pointing accusations, merely the recognition that all-male panels are not something that our sector should champion.

Remarkable responses

The first offender, let’s call them "The Startup", were mortified. They sent me an extensive email about the struggles the organisation had had with female speakers dropping out and the decision it took to go ahead anyway. The Startup acknowledged that just because something is hard, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, and promised to never let it happen again. Note: The Startup was the only offender to include any women in its line-up: one woman, six men.

The second, let’s call them "The Bank", held an event where a total of five people spoke, all men. Their response was long and considered. They had done a lot of research to cite the numbers of women involved in their company, and explained that they had initially had some women lined-up, but that they had dropped out at the last minute. They then ruined all of this by:

  1. asking what pursuing this "agenda" had to do with my job,
  2. copying in my male directors to the email (not the female director of my team, note).

The third culprit, let’s call them "The Audit, Tax and Advisory Firm", take the misogyny prize. They responded to my email that queried their six men, zero women lineup by telling me that more speakers were to be added to their conference. They then undermined this intention by reminding me that they provide a pro-bono service to my organisation (which, incidentally, nobody seems to have ever used; the threat of removal of a service we don’t use made me smile).

To add insult to injury, they then released their full line-up a week later, where they had added: three more men. Yes, they now had nine men speaking at their conference. Nine men and zero women at a conference pitched at the INGO community that aims to pursue equality and equity.

Rays of light

There are many rays of light in all of this. The Bank may have thought that my male senior managers would put me in my place; in fact they are incredibly supportive of this agenda. The Audit, Tax and Advisory Firm may have ignored my emails and tweets on their audacious line-up, but when I then contacted the speakers themselves, they were broadly supportive. To his credit, a senior civil servant thanked me for raising the issue, and swiftly pulled out of the event.

I haven’t enjoyed stumbling into social justice warrior territory. I just want to be able to attend events that don’t perpetuate the myth that men are experts and women are audience. As I noted in my response to The Bank, it should not have to be part of someone’s job description to care about equality.

So, a plea: next time you are asked to attend an event where only white, non-disabled men are represented on stage, decline and tell the organisers why. And white, non-disabled men, please sign The Pledge.

P.S. Because the common refrain of organisers is: "There were no good women available to speak", we have started a list. Add your leading women speakers below.


About the author

Rose Longhurst

Funding Policy Manager at Bond