The organisers of #IST2018 have worked extremely hard, and pulled together what has already been an interesting and thought-provoking programme (with a day and a half still to come). Barring a few things in the conference programme (the floor 1 and 4 switcheroo), it’s been a well-oiled machine – in part thanks to the affable and incredibly good-looking volunteers in the purple t-shirts. But I digress, because there have been – there’s not point denying it- a couple of tone-deaf moments. This blog is about one of those moments, the nature of question and answer sessions the world over, what we can learn from it, and what “we” (by which I mean “hey you, hosts of #IST2019”) could do differently in future.
For those of you still wondering about the neologism in the title of this blog post – a manel is an all-male panel. The term was born on a Tumblr and the phenomenon has even been covered by the Financial Times. It’s not restricted to business or social sciences – it’s a thing in the natural sciences too. The folks over at UN Global Compact have even pledged not to allow its employees to participate in or host an all-male panel. The executive director said
“Too often I’ve been the only woman on a panel. It is time that we challenge the status quo and stop making excuses — there is no shortage of qualified women,”
There’s a boycott site, where men can pledge to refuse to take part in all-male panels.
Today’s opening plenary panel, while full of rich insights was… a manel. This did not go unnoticed in the twittersphere or in meatspace..
An excellent panel responding to some massive questions from the audience! Great start to #IST2018 (but even an excellent ‘manel’ is still a ‘manel’ 😔 and who asks Qs is noticeably skewed) #sorrytobeakilljoy pic.twitter.com/UeTYHUp5Kc
— Claire Hoolohan (@ClaireHoolohan) June 12, 2018
Now, I raised the manel issue with one of the organising committee of the conference (and in the interests of full disclosure I should say that two other members of the committee are my supervisors) and they said that there had in fact been a woman scheduled but this had fallen through and the final make-up was what we saw.
In the break after the plenary (and indeed, all day), I’ve overheard or participated in discussions about this. It left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, mostly, but not only, women. Let’s not catastrophize, it hasn’t meant people have been bereft, unable to take part in the many excellent discussions and sessions. It’s not the end of the world (climate change, now that is the end of the world), but it has I think dampened some enthusiasm, and become – fairly or unfairly – another anecdote for the (bulging) patriarchy scrapbook.
Alongside comments on the lack of diversity on the panel, there were twitter exhortations asking women to speak up. (And during the morning session there had been catcalls about women being chosen to ask questions, which was pretty extraordinary). I wasn’t there at the evening plenary, but I am told there was an awkward silence when women were explicitly called upon to speak out in the Q and A.
Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, (this is probably impolitic to say), but there is a certain irony here; in that we are seeking to reconfigure – or offer policymakers advice on reconfiguring – at the societal and systemic level, but respond with individualised “solutions” to systemic issues in our own backyard. (Then again, some of the practices within our own regime are not under the microscope, for reasons that both institutional theory and MLP scholars might well understand.)
Anyway, while, the functional utility of purposive endogenous lacrimal gland excitation as an adaptive response to the catastrophic decontainerisation of bovine lactates is low (see here) , we can still look forward to the future.
What is to be done.
I would modestly (cough, cough) put forward the following proposals
Strenuous efforts should be made to avoid manels. However, if a woman is going to be thrown in as an obvious token/fig leaf, then (and this may be controversial) I think that is probably worse than useless, and the manel should go ahead. However….
If a manel cannot be avoided,
a) it should be placed in the middle of any given conference programme, rather than the first session (which sets the emotional ‘tone’ for the event) or the last (which is what people remember- see the Peak-End effect).
b) there should be a clear acknowledgement that a manel is taking place, with a short explanation/assurance that the organisers took all reasonable steps to avoid this. The audience could be invited to suggest women who could have been asked to participate
Re the Q and A – time-keeping and emotional tone.
Chairs of sessions and facilitators of panels should be asked to keep all speakers strictly to time, perhaps via the ‘clap clinic’ method, which seeks to tackle the problem of power dynamics between chairs (sometimes lower status) and the speakers. It simply involves setting a time limit and when that time is reached, starting to applaud and asking the (already prepared) audience to join in.
Chairs of sessions and facilitators of panels should be asked to consider how they will ensure that those people who traditionally do not speak up (many women, some men, many ‘newbies’, introverts etc) can have brief opportunities to confer and hone their question. Perhaps via the ‘Q and A’ method.
Once the chair/facilitator sees a sea of hands (and they probably will) it will be possible to pick – say – a woman, a man and another woman: each to ask a question of no more than three sentences. Not all of the questions will necessarily be interesting, but then again, “interesting” might be in the eye of the beholder.
What other (better) suggestions do people have? #reflexivelearning and all that….
UPDATE Thurs 14 June – from a very astute person who sent me a direct message on Twitter (reprinted with permission)
Good question, some thoughts if i may.
- participatory sessions (see format of Transformations Dundee 2017 for example), speed sessions are useful for the audience – though may not suit all speakers.
- Wider disciplinary contributions, but taking care who contributors run parallel to (a multidisciplinary session / more international perspectives in competition with a ‘big name speaker from within transitions’ would be a shame for all involved).
- Question etiquette enforcement (short or microphone removed, ECR first – even if it requires a moment’s silence).
- Balance in speakers – have a white middle-age male quota and don’t exceed it, actively approach others (and do not allow the programme to be dominated as it is).
- Creative spaces e.g. collaborative writing jams.
- Networking sessions.