Death to the All-Male Panel

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Enough of this, thanks.
Enough of this, thanks.Photo: Patrick T. Fallon

Last week, Sree Sreenivasan, the chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote a Facebook post explaining that he will no longer speak at nor attend panels that are made up of all men. “I have decided the only way to do something is to call out the organizers who put these on. I call them out privately, but I am trying to make a point,” Sreenavisan told the Poynter Institute in an interview.

Sreenivasan’s self-described one-man “mini-movement” is not the only effort to push for panel organizers to include more women and people of color in their events. In Australia on Monday, a website called “No thanks, mate” launched, featuring seven prominent male tech-industry insiders who pledge to not participate in panels that only include men. (Their inspiration came from a Scandinavian pledge with a similar name.) Adam Fraser, one of the members of the Australian initiative, told Mashable that the only backlash they’ve received has been from anonymous men: “The specific complaint is that women are going to take all our jobs, unqualified women are going to take our jobs.”

The death knell for the all-male panel has been growing louder for some time, yet companies like PayPal and big conferences like Davos still appear to be confused over what a panel should be (like, not an all-male panel on the issue of gender diversity, for starters). When women and people of color (also known as more than half of the world) don’t see anyone who looks like them presenting about issues that affect their careers, they get the message that the industry isn’t for them. As the saying goes, representation matters.

But Sreenivasan was right to call diversifying panels a “mini-movement,” instead of something much bigger. The bigger problem is more difficult to tackle and requires much more commitment than simply sitting out a conference. In order for women to sub in for men on panels, men have to work to get more women promoted into leadership positions in the first place.

There’s a reason that women’s-only conferences, panels, and meetups feel like such beautiful utopias: They bring together women who made it despite huge obstacles in the male-dominated work world. In America, women hold less than 20 percent of leadership positions across a wide range of industries. And that very limited number of female leaders are asked to represent their companies and their industries wholesale at conferences. If Ava DuVernay were to be put on every directors panel that happens, even just in Hollywood, she wouldn’t have time to actually direct movies.

Of course, there are other female directors who are just not as well known, but in a title- and fame-based culture, they rarely surface to the top of the list. It’s much easier to default to the names we already know: Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino. There’s a reason titles like director, writer, and artist are so often prefaced by “female” and never “male.” We trust these men to be the actual leaders, and women just the female versions of them. Solving the broader representation problem requires allowing these women to speak for themselves, even if their names aren’t ubiquitous. And when seemingly there aren’t women who are available to fill those coveted panel spots, there are bigger problems in those industries than just the danger of the all-male panel.

This push toward a gender-inclusive work world is not just about tensely encouraging women to lean in: It’s the responsibility of the men in powerful positions to pull them up. Are there not enough women to fill a panel because there aren’t women occupying those leadership roles? If the answer is yes, men had better start considering women to foster, mentor, and promote within that industry. Pledging to sit out events is a start, but giving women greater opportunities in the work world is where the real change happens. Once men begin doing that en masse, pledges like Sreenivasan’s will become completely obsolete.