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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Don’t blame young people for not voting – blame the system that fails them

The majority of young people voted to Remain in the EU, but turn out was low. But this is a symptom of an unfair system, not a recent to punish them.

“A Britain divided” – that has been the dominant narrative to emerge in the aftermath of the Brexit vote a week ago. There has been talk of the divisions between rich and poor, the metropolitan and the regional, the Scottish and the English/Welsh, but perhaps the most vehement discussion has centred around the gulf between generations. Polling indicates that 75 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted Remain, while Electoral Commission data showed that, in urban areas where the average age was 35 and under, there was overwhelming support for remaining in the EU.

Older people, meanwhile, voted to leave, which is why the morning after the result, social media erupted in fury at the baby boomers and their parents accused of cocking up our futures (for it is we who will live longest with the fallout, after all). Rarely have I seen such vehemence directed at the old by the young.

There was, of course, the inevitable backlash. Generation Y, boomers argued, just couldn’t be arsed to wrench themselves away from their screens to go and vote. We don’t know the turnout figures for certain, but Sky data indicates it may have been shockingly low – 36 per cent for 18-24 year olds, and 58 per cent for those between 25-34. There was more than a whiff of disdainful superiority in the air from some of the older generation – many of their criticisms amounted to “shut up and stop whining”, or, “you’ll come crawling back when you need cash from the bank of mum and dad”. Worst of all was being told to bow down and respect our elders in their infinite superior knowledge.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that young turnout was as low as estimates suggest. Can this really be said to be an indictment of young people, or is it really an indictment of a system that alienates them utterly? There is a whiff of blaming the victims to all this. As Ben Bowman, a researcher on young people’s politics from the University of Bath tells me, “turnout and ‘low engagement’ are symptoms of an illness, not the illness itself. The illness is politics done at a distance from young people.”

Something else Bowman says resonates particularly with me, as someone who took part in the 2010 student protests against tuition fee rises and cuts to EMA, and then sunk into political disillusionment and disgust that our voices had meant nothing to the politicians implementing policy. “I can’t overstate the extent to which young people feel politics is about people needing things and being told ‘well, we haven’t got the money.’ The Iraq war, tuition fees and austerity have really shrunk the horizons of what young people consider possible. They are just trying to get by, to play by the rules and navigate increased risk in transition to adulthood.”

For this reason, as well as many others, it is unfair to heap derision on the young who didn’t vote (and for what it’s worth, some experts have said they actually think turnout may have been up). Dr James Sloam from the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway university points out that public policy decisions have generally been against our interests. While rich pensioners keep their winter fuel allowance, their free TV licences and travel passes, we face the highest tuition fees in the western world, the closure of youth centres, a living wage that only starts at 25, and cuts to housing benefit. Why participate in a system that hates you?

Of course, the easy rebuttal to this is the fact that, unless you participate, the politicians (and the policies they create) will continue to ignore you. There’s an element of truth to this, but it fails to take into account several things. Firstly, thanks to our first past the post electoral system, there is a perception that, even if you do vote, that it doesn’t really count, and certainly doesn’t change anything. Secondly, there is the mantra, one you’ll hear again and again, that all politicians are the same. As Kelly McBride from The Democratic Society says:

“To large numbers of people the political system, party politics, the institutions of statehood seem like immutable objects. You cannot change the way that politics is done, or upheave centuries of tradition, or fight against what you consider the overwhelming social power of Oxbridge politicians and their friends running international business ventures.

“Why bother to swap one boring suit for another when nothing has got better for you or your family? As the old adage goes, “no matter who you vote for, a politician always gets in.”

These are words worth bearing in mind to those in the establishment still baffled by the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn, who at the time of writing is refusing to budge as Labour leader, amongst younger people. McBride tells me that my generation’s disenfranchisement is not just from the political apparatus of state, but from ideology, too. While older people can remember what it was like to have a political party formed on the basis of ideology, “young people today can probably count the number of politicians who seem to act out of principle or ideology on one hand, and such figures are roundly ridiculed in the press for being high-minded or weak leaders”. Sound like anyone we know?

If we are to get young people voting, it’s clear we need a wider range of politicians. A Demos/Vinspired report found that 56 per cent of young people would be more likely to vote if there were more local working class MPs. We also need more women, more candidates from diverse backgrounds, and younger representatives (just look at the 21-year-old SNP MP Mhairi Black, whose maiden speech went viral). The EU referendum campaign on both sides reflected this paucity perhaps more than any campaign that I can remember. Where were the women, the young people? It was basically just grey-haired men in suits arguing. When there was a debate for young people, it portrayed the sides as evenly split between leave and remain, thus giving a distorted view of how younger people felt about the issues involved.

I’m also not convinced that – despite the valiant efforts of campaign groups such as Bite the Ballot – was entirely made clear how important it was that young people registered to vote in this election. Many seemed unaware that their vote could have been a game-changer until afterwards. Plus, young people are notoriously peripatetic, and many will not have been at their term-time addresses. The registration system saw 1m people fall off the register. It fell by 40 per cent.

Before the referendum, an article for UKandEU argued that young voters are rarely anti-EU; they just don’t understand it. To my mind, the campaign did not help to clarify the already-murky waters. The impression I get from friends and acquaintances is that the EU debate led to a lack of confidence in terms of knowledge and understanding of the issues at hand that was not helped by politicians' statements or media coverage of them. “I don’t feel I know enough” was a phrase I heard again and again. It’s not something you hear so much from the older generation.

And if this referendum made anything clear, it was that not understanding the issues at hand didn’t put older people off voting. Perhaps it is the young who are truly wise. As Richard Bronk, a Visiting Fellow at the European Institute at LSE wrote in a recent blog post:

“The world has changed so fast that the Platonic idea of respecting the greater wisdom of the elderly is out of date . . . it is most of us over fifty who have no idea how social and economic life really operates in the interdependent, fluid and digital age in which our children live.” 

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.