Why the lack of women (and their views) on panels, boards and in institutions is a problem for society
This follows from Men, we need to engage with women.
It’s becoming more of a regular feature on Puffles’ Twitter feed – people complaining about the lack of women on TV and radio panels, and at conferences or on the boards of institutions too. What’s good is that people are finally beginning to speak up about it, but what’s bad is that too few institutions seem to be doing anything positive about it – or are paying lip service.
“Yo Pooddles, why the big deal? Stop being a man-hating tree-hugger!”
“When it comes to big male knights in shining armour, dragons have a right to be reserved: When it comes to dragon-slaying, knights have form. Being from the Magic Forest, Puffles has every right to be a tree-hugger. So there.”
Apart from the basic equalities and equal rights issues which are discussed and advocated by people far more experienced than me, having attended lots of gatherings of late I have noticed some core differences emerging between diverse and non-diverse panels.
“I’m only getting one perspective here” is the feeling I get when faced with a panel of people with similar qualifications and backgrounds. This was particularly apparent at a London Birkbeck conference I was at. A panel of four similarly-aged academics of the same gender talking about something – that something which could easily have been wrapped up by one of them. It was the more diverse (by gender, ethnicity and even class background) second panel that put the differences into perspective. This was because between them the second panel had much more diverse experiences which they could bring to the discussion. I noted the issue of an all-male panel that I was on in Bristol earlier this year too.
What might be important for a group of men may not be so important to a group of women
Let’s take menstruation. You might think it’s obvious why men wouldn’t be interested in it – but is it? One of Puffles’ followers, @Halfabear started a project of blogging and tweeting through a single cycle. Now, from an average bloke’s perspective you might think “Ewww! Disgusting ladies’ stuff that should not belong in polite society! Confine her until her unclean period has elapsed!” Now, how individuals choose to react is ultimately up to them. But in public policy land, we cannot afford to be squeamish on something that impacts half the population. Though having a look at these pictures, there are a few who might disagree, and say there’s nothing wrong on having all-male panels on issues that directly affect women’s bodies. You’d have thought they could have found at least one.
Does this mean we’re not discussing the things that are really important?
Let’s ponder over one possible example – the Alternative Vote Referendum that Nick Clegg won the battle tactically but lost the war strategically over. Having succeeded in gaining the concession in the Coalition negotiations, he wanted to cash his cheque as soon as possible, prioritising this otherwise niche issue ahead of everything else that was going on. The problem was that everything else that was going on was dragging his party towards what some are predicting a political oblivion. Had he had a far greater percentage of women MPs and peers, would he have been influenced to prioritise other things ahead of the AV referendum, putting it back until, and coinciding it with the 2015 general election?
You don’t have to be party political to be interested in politics – as Charlotte Church and Tanni Grey Thompson recently.
If you haven’t seen Charlotte Church shoot a BBC Question Time panel out of the water, have a look at this episode from Swansea. Yet she was the only woman on the panel. When it came to the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions, where was the female representation? Was it only men that had had their privacy invaded? As for the Committee itself, over 80% were men. Representative? What would a more diverse committee and a more diverse set of witnesses (i.e. other than a group of very affluent males) have come up with? We shall never know.
These are our daily experiences
This comes back to perspective – as the Everyday Sexism project has documented in all its raw and painful detail. But perhaps it needs to be in order for action to be taken. How many men were aware of this sort of behaviour was going on daily, crushing our fellow human beings? In Parliaments and panels, if they are not drawn from the society they ultimately serve, is it any surprise that things get overlooked – intentionally or otherwise?
It’s not just a case of ‘these are our problems’ but also ‘here are some solutions’ too. Very early on in Puffles’ existence the people who interacted most frequently were (and still are) women. I noticed that what they decided was news and sound comment was often different from what the mainstream media promoted as news and comment. Two years on, that bastion of conservatism The Telegraph launched its own women’s section online which contains lots of articles that would have the gentlemen’s clubs of Pall Mall choking on their cigars. What’s interesting here is that that there seem to be a critical mass of high profile writers drawn from a variety of fields who are commentating about a wide variety of issues. Thus they are not pigeon-holed into writing about only things that only women are supposedly interested in. This means you get a series of articles on things from a woman’s perspective, as opposed to articles on women’s issues. See the subtle difference?
Why can’t media programmes and panels find the expert women to be on their panels?
Personally I don’t think they are trying hard enough. Far easier to cast the net around for the usual suspects. The thing is, the usual suspects give you the usual responses, leading the staid politics that we have had in recent years. This is one of the reasons why BBC Question Time has become very boring – it’s the same panelists over and over again – as this short piece of research shows. Political parties are so desperate to control who appears (or politicians so unwilling to appear) on the programme that it’s same panel, different venue repeating the same lines to take written by the same group of political advisers in party HQ.
It goes beyond politics. BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme – the ones where politicians that appear the most regularly are called “The minister for the Today programme” gets regularly criticised for the lack of diversity on its panels – as does Newsnight. Hence the creation of The Women’s Room. One of its purposes is to compensate for the lack of experts across a range of professions who happen to be women. For a start it would stop ridiculous situations where a presenter has to ask a man to ‘imagine’ being a woman & decide whether he’d have breast screening or not. So if you are a woman and have professional, working and/or academic expertise in a given area, and are happy to appear in the media, consider getting yourself listed.
“Yo Pooddles, this sounds like positive discrimination tick-box Britain and I don’t like that!”
It isn’t. If you go down the route of picking people for positions purely on the basis of anything other than merit, you run the risk of picking people who are below par. This was one of the criticisms made of the “Blair Babes” (a horrible term coined by the media in 1997 when 101 women MPs were returned to Parliament). The problem here is that people who are above par (and happen to be women) are not getting the profile that their expertise otherwise merits. Just as with the lack of British-Asian footballers in the Premier League (I refuse to call it ‘The Premiership’), to the lack of minority ethnic managers at a top level (leading to calls for this), women with the talent are not getting to the levels they merit. At one high-powered reception I was at earlier this week, I was struck by all of the speakers being middle-aged or older White males.
So, what’s the solution?
There is no one single solution. To think that you can pull a single legislative lever or throw a dollop of cash at the problem (because those are the two main levers ministers have) is misguided. Yet despite the call for more imaginative ‘thinking’ from those at the top, we see perilously little of it on the ground. Indeed, in Whitehall it feels like it is going backwards. If progress was really being made, I get the feeling there wouldn’t be the need to talk so much about it. Everything would be demonstrated by its actions.
If you don’t know what the problems are, how about asking the people who face them – and then ask them how we should go about dealing with them? This touches on a future blogpost about open policy making. It’s one thing to listen, but quite another to act upon what’s fed back – hence me jumping up and down about feedback loops. To what extent is such feedback fed into decision-making processes and to what extent are decision-makers prepared to be influenced by such feedback?
But that is for another post. At the moment though, it feels like the inability to incorporate representation and incorporation of the views and experiences of women are leading to organisations, institutions – and society as a whole getting some of the basics very badly wrong.