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.