The latest email from the WFC organizers includes the following:
“World Fantasy Convention 2013 also does not operate on a gender “quota” or “parity” system for programming. Instead, our aim has been to match the best people available to us to the most appropriate panel topics, thereby creating an informed and enlightening discussion for your entertainment.”
I’m not having a pop at the people running WFC. Some of them are my friends, and they’re all doing a very difficult job that I personally wouldn’t touch with a tractor beam, and yet am very glad is being done. They’re doing it for no money, and they’re doing it mostly very well. I will buy them a pint in Brighton.
Still, their email contains a false opposition, and it’s not the only place I’ve heard it. So here’s my two cents:
There is no trade off between gender parity and ‘having the best people’. It’s not one or the other. The point of having a parity policy is in service of getting the best people on the most appropriate panel topics.
This is mostly because the ways in which people build profile in the industry, including reviews, awards nomination and previous convention panels, systematically over represent dudes. This in turn would lead you to believe that the ‘best person’ is a dude, far more often than the best person is actually a dude.
Parity is supposed to encourage programmers to dig a little deeper into who ‘the best person’ is, as much as it help address the bias in the first place.
The parity policy which I signed up for last year is this: If I get asked to be on a panel at a convention with more than 50% blokes* I’ll try to help the con runners find someone who was not a bloke who is ‘as, or more qualified than me.’ This would never lead to a panel that was less informed or enlightening than that initially planned.
Repeat after me, in Darth Vader voice: There is. No. Conflict. No trade off. No quality sacrificed.
Also, this policy doesn’t ask con-runners to do anything other than to let me step aside and help them look for someone else. Rather, the responsibility is pitched wider, at the participant. Personally, I think this a feature rather than a bug, since when you’re dealing with any systematic societal problem, it’s good to have as many people as possible acting to deal with it.
(Aside: this is one reason why I don’t think merely aiming at parity across the whole convention, rather than panel by panel, works. Convention-wide programming isn’t something most people can influence, so it lets us shrug and bounce responsibility back onto the con-runners. Another bigger reason is that it tends to lead to what my wife calls ‘Women in genre, aren’t they weird?’ panels. For more on this: Jess Haines.)
I know there’s a lot of points of view on this. A lot of people I respect disagree with me. I don’t expect everyone to immediately take a parity pledge. I don’t expect every convention to have one (although Nine Worlds recently showed you can have an ace con if you do). But actively trying for better representation on panels doesn’t have to come at a cost of them being ‘informing’ or ‘enlightening’, and we should stop pretending it does.
*With an even number of panellists, not counting moderators. Two out of three, or three out of five is ok.
UPDATE – Foz Meadows has crunched the numbers and found the following:
“Of 306 panellists (not individuals): 197M, 109F. 295 white (190M, 105F), and just 11 POC (7 MOC, 4 WOC).”
Taken with the email above, this suggests that the WFC organizers believe that ‘the best person’ out of those attending, is about twice as likely to be a man as a woman for any given panel topic, and around 30 times as likely to be white. I wonder if they’d make of that.