Ending all-male panels is not tokenism

Public debate is in a bad way when efforts aimed at achieving a better gender balance can be dismissed.

The debate about the lack of women in public life has been reignited by poor female representation at last week’s gathering of the world’s financial, political and media elite in Davos. Just 17 per cent of delegates and only a quarter of panel speakers at the annual schmooze fest were women. Earlier this month Rebecca Rosen, at the Atlantic, suggested that men should sign up to a pledge not to speak on all-male panels after another technology conference featured an all-male line up. Rosen’s ‘panel pledge’ received a stream of abuse and she faced accusations of tokenism.

Public debate is in a bad way when getting a better gender balance can be dismissed like this. After all, these are not symbolic attempts to give the appearance of sexual equality, but efforts to ensure that half the population is represented in influential discussions that shape economic and political priorities with a direct impact on people’s lives. And while it is sadly true that there are fewer women in top positions to choose from – this cannot be an excuse to exclude women from public debates altogether.

While Rosen’s panel pledge generated much heat in the US, similar appeals have been made in the UK. A prominent group of women recently challenged the organisers of a number of apparently ‘men only’ Westminster-based events, highlighting for example a debate on the impact of the recession and spending cuts (which will hit women hardest)which featured no female speakers. Meanwhile, a series of Policy Fight Club debates (complete with macho red and blue corners) attracted attention when they featured three all-male line ups on the EU, legalising drugs and Scottish independence with as many as six guest speakers (including chairs)on the panel (hard to believe in this case they had tried but failed to secure women speakers).

Of course this has to change. But who exactly is responsible? Should men being invited to speak in public debates refuse to do so unless there is a woman on the panel? Should audiences boycott events with all male line-ups?

Refusing to take part in an all-male panel is not without its dilemmas, but as one man who is a panel regular suggests men can at least ask whether the line-up is likely to be all-male and suggest some women alternatives or decline to take part if there is no good justification. And while we shouldn’t place an unfair burden on event organisers, few buy the idea there are not enough talented women equipped to speak on almost any area of public life. So if organisations in politics, media, business and civil society aim to contribute to the public debate, they should think first about whether they are including a properly mixed range of voices in discussions.

This includes Westminster-based organisations like the think tank, IPPR, where I work. Particularly in areas like economics, relying on existing networks can lead to the same male, pale and stale debates. Changing this, as IPPR is now committed to doing, means seeking out new and more diverse voices and having a greater appetite for risk in bringing new voices to debates. At heart it is no more complicated than that. For the status quo to really change however, holding a large event with no women speakers will need to start being seen as a reputational risk.

The other question, of course, is whether this is a problem of women not being asked or not being able to participate. It is not always as easy for women to drop domestic duties for an after-work TV appearance or overseas conference, so many women who would like to take part find themselves having to say no. As long as women have primary responsibility for care, particularly childcare, this is unlikely to change.

Some may ask why we should stop at all-male panels. Why not challenge the appalling absence of ethnic and class diversity on panels and in public life, when last year’s census data showed the proportion of the population that is white has now fallen to 86 per cent? The answer is that we should. This can open up closed networks and enrich our politics, which is exactly what we need if we are to engage more people in the public debates they feel so alienated from. If this is tokenism, I’m all for it.

Just 17 per cent of delegates and only a quarter of panel speakers at Davos were women. Photograph: Getty Images.

Clare McNeil is a senior research fellow at IPPR.

Twitter: @claremcneil1

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.