01/16/2013 04:53 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2013

Where Are the Women Speakers on Expert Panels, and Does It Matter?

Browsing my speaker list at the Washington Ideas Forum a few weeks ago, billed as 'a place to hear and meet the most prominent thinkers of our time,' I couldn't help but notice that 35 out of the 41 speakers at the event were men, and being in a contrary mood, I couldn't help but tweet about it: 'Do women lack ideas, or just Washington status?' I inquired. Moments later, someone from the Aspen Institute replied to my tweet, suggesting I nominate a speaker/topic for next time. Someone else then replied to suggest I nominate a female television host to talk about women's health. That five minute episode encapsulated much that frustrates me about gender equality on panels. But I rolled my eyes, tried to think of some inspiring female speakers to nominate (who could perhaps even manage to gather their brains to speak on topics that were not specifically about being a woman), and got on with listening to the variable quality of mostly male speakers at the variably inspiring event. I was reminded of the experience today when I came across an interesting Atlantic article by Rebecca Rosen: 'A Simple Suggestion to Help Phase Out All-Male Panels at Tech Conferences.' The suggestion in question is men pledging to refuse to accept invitations to speak on all-male panels, thus nudging conference organizers towards making more of an effort to include women. An interesting proposition. The barrage of comments mainly fell into the following categories:
  1. What a good idea!
  2. Why stop at women -- what about minorities?
  3. Sometimes there just aren't good women speakers on a particular topic.
  4. It would be annoying to replace good male speakers with 'sub-par' women speakers.
  5. It's more annoying to have an all-male panel than a panel with a token woman.
  6. I'd feel degraded to be the token woman who knew I was only there to fill a quota.
  7. There's not a problem to be fixed here -- who cares what gender panelists are?
  8. These things should be addressed on a case by case basis, not a binary solution for all.
  9. Get more women interested in science/tech careers -- then there will be a better pool for panels.

I have been the only women on several panels; perhaps even felt like the token one. I don't know whether a pledge/boycott approach to drive more women onto panels is the right thing to do (I like the concept but do agree that dogmatic all or nothing approaches can be problematic), but it does draw attention to a glass ceiling issue that needs to be addressed. And I tend to support the final point -- we should get to the core of the issue and empower more female students to choose professions that have historically been male-dominated. But perhaps this is a circular argument -- one way to widen these females' choice of professions is by having successful female role models to inspire and encourage them. And if the successful, inspiring females in a profession are rendered invisible by the many forces that work together to keep them off panels (and out of boardrooms), that role model function doesn't happen very well, and the vicious circle continues.

I'm willing to believe that there are some professions so small, specific, or esoteric that there don't happen to be any current inspiring, intelligent female professionals in situ and available for panels. That was once true of medicine and law, after all, when women weren't permitted to practice at all. But times change. I find it hard to believe that mono-gender professions are now anything other than an anachronistic minority. If people are serious about gender equality in the workplace, maybe this pledge, or a version of it, isn't a bad idea, because even if solutions are imperfect, accepting the 'usual suspects' status quo is an excellent way of maintaining it.