One Way to Re-engineer "All-Male" Panels

Business team working together, discussing the different opinions. Teamwork.
Business team working together, discussing the different opinions. Teamwork.

Hans Schultz of the IADB recently pledged--as have others in recent years, including in media and academia--to forgo any future participation on panels without women. Cheers to that. Panelists like Schultz do hold the potential to re-engineer the panel world, but they need reinforcement from individuals inside panel-organizing institutions who are also determined to change practices.

The all-male panel phenomenon is of course not limited to the Latin American contexts that Schultz bemoans, but is fairly ubiquitous on the public policy circuit--as is the insistence of panel organizers that panelists be "top" executives (who happen to be men). Panel organizers' preoccupation with traditional credentials remains deeply embedded, despite the fact that an official title does not necessarily guarantee the most valuable insight, or the even the influence perceived to be associated with it.

In fact, even when a panel organizer chooses women panelists based on the most relevant qualifications, contributions or message, it is not uncommon for others in the panel-hosting institution to override those decisions using official titles, and organizational protocols around hierarchy, as a rationale. In an era of content-focused curation (e.g. TED talks) this practice not only comes across as stodgy, but signals severe limitations on developing expertise, new ideas, and audiences.

In Washington DC, for example, male cronyism in panel organizing (e.g. as previously described by Micah Zenko) is a particularly resistant sub-culture. Panel slots serve as currency for trading favors, and individual organizers' own status is tied to this currency. There is also a fair amount of apathy and habit among panel organizers: it is simply easier and more familiar to enlist panelists they already know who are likely to be male. These tendencies are so strong they can overpower even the most influential male advocates for women panelists.

However, the blunt and public approach taken by Schultz and other "pledge-makers" to outright reject participation on all-male panels may achieve measurable results. I was aiming for, and failed to gain, similar traction recently when I declined to moderate a conference that was notable for its absence of women speakers. I declined not because of their absence, but because my offer to recruit women speakers was met with resounding silence and organizational inertia.

And this is exactly the point--or perhaps the panel-organizing point person--where the buck often stops. Getting women on panels will remain, at least partially, an insider job. The database of women panelists Schultz is creating can only be mined by a genuinely responsive panel-hosting institution. Some of this responsiveness can be generated by well-known reformers setting strong precedent at the level of institutional culture such as--to use the DC example again--Hillary Clinton did at the State Department, and Christine Lagarde's zero tolerance for delegations who refuse to negotiate with their female counterparts at the IMF.

Still, though, responsiveness usually comes down to whomever has final say on the particular panel. Determining who this is can require homework, possibly discouraging less-committed pledge-makers. But if those in panel-organizing institutions who are also committed to the cause do join the pledge-makers' campaign, there will be a greater chance of sustained success. Pledge-maker publicity provides an invitation for "panel insiders," and consultants in panel organizing, to reach out to pledge-makers. Case in point: after I forwarded Schultz's article to a panel designer, he decided to reach out to Schultz with suggestions for women panelists from the Middle East.

Pledge-makers can, in turn, support an insider's efforts when they need to make the case for specific women panelists internally. Insiders can also advise pledge-makers on which decision-makers in an institution need to be approached.

Pledges by panelists are an innovative step towards re-engineering the panel world. By combining forces, persistent pledge-makers and similarly oriented panel insiders will increase the prospect that all-male panels will become a rarity. Maybe then the assumption that the women in the room are only there to support panelists can finally be put to rest.