“Congratulations on an all-male panel”- is a satiric expression used in social media to bring attention to the lack of female speakers in international conferences. Having attended many and organized quite a few, I definitely acknowledge this problem and feel a pain in my chest every time I see one. Whether it’s one I just attend or one I’m organizing.
A colleague from a partner organization, a well-credited women’s right advocate, recently told me she attended a forum where all speakers were men. All. Mostly middle aged white men. When this was pointed out by an audience member in the Q&A, the facilitator’s response was to ask questions from only female members of the audience. “You are a woman, how do you think about the discussed issue”. You can imagine this made the already awkward and uncomfortable situation even worse. Ask a question from a woman just because of her gender?
Maybe the organizer of that event had just made an unintentional mistake, overlooked the gender balance or been extremely unlucky with last minute speaker changes. I don’t know.
Having organized events myself, I know just too well how difficult it is to achieve a gender balance in the speakers. I can’t speak for other organizations, but I know our team is 100% committed to aiming at full gender balance and that every member of the team is dedicated and eager to achieve it. We haven’t succeeded yet, but we try our very best. Every time we discuss a speaker, we discuss gender. There’s a huge cheer in the office each time we identify and confirm a female speaker, and we keep listing excellent women we hear of to add to our dream lists for speakers.
So why do we not achieve a 50-50 gender balance in the speaker line-up?
It should be obvious. There are relatively many more men in senior leadership and expert positions as there are women. Most (Asian) Ministers and senior government representatives are men. Even in the international developmental organizations a majority of leaders are men. And these are the people we target to speak in our forums. Decision makers, leaders, senior experts.
We try to tap into any and every opportunity to invite and confirm women speakers to all our panels. Sometimes we even need to be a little flexible with a level of seniority, or proven speaking skills, just to avoid an all-male panel. I can’t imagine any event organizer wanting an all-male panel and I know we work very hard to avoid them. That’s because we support gender equality. We support women rights and we believe women should have equal chances, equal pay, equal recognition. We want to do our part, but it isn’t easy. The world is still failing this, and so do we.
With our last forum, organized this week in Singapore, we pushed our team even harder than ever. Our internal ambition was to achieve a gender balance across the full forum, and at the minimum have at least 1 woman speaker in every panel. We organized 4 plenary level panels and 17 workshops, with over 100 speakers in the course of the 2 days, so it was a huge task to achieve. We also had to confirm a senior government representative for each workshop panel, and take notice of the balanced regional representation and level of seniority and speaking eloquence, in addition to the gender question.
We did not achieve a full gender balance, but 1/3 of our speakers were women. Two out of the 17 organized workshop panels were all-male – though in one of these, we had a brilliant woman confirmed but last minute the company made a change and sent a man instead due to her sudden unavailability. Still, we did not achieve our aim but we tried extremely hard and are proud of the efforts.
The issue of gender inequality has to be raised at every level, has to be fought with collaborative efforts at homes, in schools, in companies and organizations and in the governments. As Michelle Yeoh, actress and UN Goodwill Ambassador stated in her powerful speech at our forum, when gender equality is achieved, “everyone wins”. Gender equality doesn’t only bring benefits for women but it supports communities, boosts economic progress and improves company performance. These are proven facts yet we are far from achieving gender equality.
I don’t ever want to organize an all-male panel and neither does our team, but we need the governments, companies and organizations to appoint more women in senior positions and we need the women to agree and speak in our forums. We need collaboration to achieve full gender equality. Conferences give a good glimpse into the problems and level gender status, they can give a face to where the societies, governments and companies stand with achieving the gender goals. Hopefully in the near future the male-dominance turns into gender equality. Everywhere.