The 50:50 Movement

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.

 

10 comments

  1. Anne Lyle

    I agree that it’s really best sorted out before the convention, for the reasons you and other people point out. Paul’s suggested strategy might not be the right way forward, but at least it got the ball rolling. As with the process of writing, it’s far easier to edit a rough draft than to type those first words on a blank page :)

  2. Francis Knight

    I love that Paul started the ball rolling on this. That there’s been a disparity is pretty apparent–SFF in teh UK is still largely male dominated in some areas– but I think it needed someone to say something (Stacia Kane mentioned this on her blog about SFX too, about how surprised she was at the male-centricness.)

    Although, this means some of us will have to out their gender beforehand :D

  3. Fran

    This might be a stupid question, but ultimately whose responsibility is it to put these panels together in the first place?

  4. Elspeth Cooper

    I think a few more of us women need to step up to the plate, too. There are many who already do, but I believe there’s a lot more who feel faintly aggrieved at the lack of gender parity at these events but have disengaged from the issue because they a) don’t believe they as individuals can do anything about it; and b) don’t like to put themselves forward and draw attention down on themselves.

    Not everyone can, and that’s fine, but I do think more of us should. Yes, I’m counting myself in that number. I was invited to contribute to the programme at EasterCon, just as the 50/50 issue was rearing its head. My first thought was panic: I’ve never done this before, there’ll be Real Authors there and I’ll say something inane and make a fool of myself in front of them – crikey, I don’t even know what “dialectical materialism” means! I was all set to politely decline, and then I thought, “Ellie, you can do better than that”. So I said yes.

    It’s wonderful that men like Tom and Paul are making a principled stand, and I applaud them for it, but more women should be pressing for this too, from the ground up. More of us can quiz con organisers about the gender balance on panels. More of us can volunteer for them. We *do* have voices and we *do* have something interesting to say. I think some of us (including me) just have to believe it of ourselves a bit more, and *take* those seats on panels, not wait meekly to have them handed to us.

    I’m screwing up my courage and putting myself forward, because I do not want the end result of this campaign to be gender parity only through tokenism, because some blokes gave up their seats. Uh, no thanks. That might start the ball rolling, but it’ll roll a lot faster if more of us shove in unison, no?

  5. Tom

    Thanks for the comments guys!

    Francis – Yep, although to be fair, if you wanted to be on panels anyway you might find it hard to keep it a secret.

    Fran – It varies con by con, but there’s always someone who organizes the panels and is responsible for the schedule. They’ve got a tough job picking from the available volunteers, but it’s a smallish world. We all know people and we can step in to help.

    Ellie -good for you, and yes. Exactly, this whole thing is built on the fact that there are women who should be on these panels, who are erudite and interesting and entertaining. This isn’t about putting women out there, just because they’re women, it’s about making sure that I’m *not* there just because I’m a man.

    See you at Eastercon guys!

  6. Francis Knight

    Well, yes, it’ll be obvious at the panel (unless I grow a beard perhaps?)

    I’m just thinking re the organisation. ‘I think I’ll have that Tom on this panel, that’s half my male quota’

    And then Tom turns up and isn’t part of the male quota…oops.

    It was just a thought – this IS something that needs addressing in some way. Addendum: Are women only/most often asked onto panels that are seen as a more feminine province? (Romantic elements, or women in SF for example). Not always….and it’s not just the panels that can be male-centric. It’s all way more complicated.

    I’m not sure a quota is *exactly* the right course–I wouldn’t want to be asked onto a panel just because I have a certain set of plumbing–but it’s a good start. If it makes people think a bit (have I got a good, broad lot of experience/viewpoints on this panel? How can I expand it?), then that’s good.

    I’d like to think that then the rest of the problems will start to get tackled.

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  8. Jo

    *puts on conrunner hat* We’ve never pledged to have gender parity at Bristolcon, because it isn’t always possible, but we have found in the last few years that it’s become easier because more and more women are putting themselves forward to be on panels, which is great and I’m sure we have you and Paul and China to thank for that. We’ve always tried to have a good mix, but sometimes we can’t get the balance. It’s not always as simple as “This panel needs a woman on it, lets have her and her” – sometimes fewer women want to be on certain panels that a lot of people want to see. But we’ve doing our best and the more women put themselves forward, the easier it will be!

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