Seeing- if not red, at least strong magenta

A friend of mine sent me this link to a report attempting to help improve the quality of communication at conferences, entitled Fifteen Obstacles to Dialogue and written by Mark Gerzon.

I have an obvious bias here, so please take that into account, but I honestly can’t quite believe my eyes:

The gender trap, while much more subtle, is double-edged. On the one hand, a conference with a series of all-male panels undercuts itself, particularly if it is otherwise progressive. When conferences repeat the importance of “participation” or “the role of women in development” but then have less than 10% female participation, charges of hypocrisy are in the air, even if not spoken.

On the other hand, if women are placed on panels or in roles precisely to counteract the male dominance, this can also backfire. A series of panels with a single woman, while perhaps better than all-male ones, begs the question of why the single woman was included. One should either be serious about equitable female representation, or let the chips fall where they may. Better honest male chauvinism than manipulative tokenism.

Let’s start with that last sentence, shall we?  It seems to me that male chauvinism is mentioned in the context of blind partiality for male participants, and tokenism is mentioned in the context of blind partiality for female participants. I love how blind partiality for men is described as honest, while blind partiality for women is described as manipulative.  I suppose that it was too complicated to simply advocate against any kind of partiality based on gender.

I’m sad as well about the statement made by this author that the inclusion of one female on a panel begs the question of why that woman was included.   The implication seems to be that it is better to avoid the appearance of tokenism than to let that lone female participate.  The implication also seems to be that people would naturally assume that a woman is unqualified and a “token” before they would believe that the woman is as qualified as her co-panelists.  Otherwise, presence of a single woman on a panel wouldn’t “beg” anything.

Lastly, it can only be assumed that equitable female representation is an onerous burden.  Given the author’s unstated assumption that people assume tokenism before qualification for women panelists & presenters, I’m not sure why “equitable” female representation would result in a more positive audience impression than representation by one female in a panel.  If anything, according to the author’s logic, the likelihood of attendees accusing organizers of tokenism would grow as the number of women grow – after all, the more women involved, the greater the likelihood that some of them are unqualified, right?

A trap indeed.

4 thoughts on “Seeing- if not red, at least strong magenta

  1. Big missed opportunity by the conference. They should have used WS-Trust STS to do a token exchange to exchange for a token person who knows something interesting or useful

  2. I dunno, this guy has a big fancy reputation as a mediator, and has even written a book entitled “Leadership in Conflict”. His conference experiences were not in the tech area, yet his other observations apply to tech. Maybe he just needs to fire his editor for not catching and neutralizing his natural state of honest male chauvinism :)

  3. Well surely it depends on the conference. If the industry is 99.9% male then putting a female on the speaker list may well be tokenism.

    From the other side I have a big problem with positive discrimination, having grown up in Northern Ireland where it was forced on industry to a certain degree.

    Part of the problem of positive discrimination is this; if you’re chosen to speak are you being picked because of your ability or because you have bits boys don’t have, or your skin colour is different, or you’re a disabled lesbian wheelchair bound dwarf?

    There’s a move afoot to make positive discrimination legal in the UK when there are no other differences between candidates other than sex or race. That may well cheapen the employment of the people who are supposed to benefit.

    I ran a competition in September to encourage more women to submit talks to a UK community conference; we had 3 entries, only one of which was from a new speaker. In the same way that there’s a massive complaint about the lack of women in the UK parliment it (hopefully) raises the thought that it’s not sexism but simply because women don’t actually want to do the role.

  4. If a conference organizer puts somebody on stage that they *know* will fail, just to have equity, they are an idiot. I do not consider that kind of stupidity to be my problem.

    If, however, it comes down to the unknowns, on what basis do you give people a chance? Are you going to deny the chance for the minority, to be sure that you avoid positive discrimination? I would hope not.

    I suppose that if it there are concerns, the fairest thing would be to give a scrubbed version of the proposals to a third-party, and have them choose what they think has the best merit, without the minority issue being even a possible factor.

    No matter what, I would hope that you would not retreat to the safe haven of “honest male chauvinism”.

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