Pretty well everyone in the SFF community will be aware of this by now, but in case you missed it, here’s a quick run down:
There’s been a frankly disturbing lack of gender parity on panels at cons, awareness of which came to a head at this month’s SFX weekender, when out of a total of about 70 panel spots, only 15 were filled by women. Not that there were actually 15 women featured on the panels, as several occupied more than one panel chair. In fact, I think there were 9 women and more than 30 men. China Miéville stepped down from a panel that had no women in it at all.
On the back of this, Paul Cornell announced on his blog yesterday that if he showed up at a con and found himself on a panel with anything less than a 50:50 gender split, he would recuse himself, and try to find the most appropriately qualified woman in the room to replace him.
So there’s obviously a problem here. Paul, Lizzie Barrett and any number of other people have pointed out the obvious: there are more than enough smart, talented, knowledgeable women for panels at conventions to be gender balanced, so, until someone comes up with a very convincing reason otherwise, we can assume they should be.
If it were me (and it’s about to be, I’m scheduled on a couple of panels each at Eastercon and Alt Fiction). I’d take a slightly different approach. I, like Paul, intend to step back from any panels which I find aren’t 50:50 in terms of gender, but I’m going to ask about gender balance before the event. The con organizers should be able to tell me who else is on the panel and if need be, between us we can approach a woman (and there are many, for almost any given topic I can yammer about) who’ll be as good or better than I will. As far as I can tell, this keeps the simplicity and gender balance achieved by Paul’s approach and helps put the best possible people behind the microphone, while ducking the following problems:
a) As Maureen Kincaid Speller pointed out on Twitter, the best qualified woman in the room might not want to be on the panel. Indeed she might, for any number of reasons have already refused the seat. She’ll be under pressure though, and probably embarrassed to say no on the spot (I would be) and that’ll just be awkward.
b) As China Miéville has said: even if the best qualified woman in the room does want to be on the panel, right off the bat she looks like an also ran, second choice, a sort of fastest runner up gifted her opportunity to speak by my extraordinary largess. It doesn’t matter if the woman in question is the smartest, most erudite, biggest expert in the room. She may well be. It’s still going to look (and maybe feel) like I’m riding to her rescue on a stallion of my own enlightened manliness. Which, obviously, is not what we’re going for.
c) Changing the lineup mid-panel’s going to screw the panel up, and eat at least ten minutes of the hour’s running time with awkward ‘is there a woman in the house’ toing and froing. While we ought to be arguing over dialectical materialism, or Dr Who, or most likely dialectical materialism in Dr Who.
There are probably problems with the above approach too, if anyone wants to suggest a revision to it: comment. I’d be grateful.
Whatever solution we wind up with though, it looks like there’s a movement brewing over this, an honest to goodness, manifesto-toting grass-roots thing. And I’m on board.