Michelle Solomon urges conference organisers to consider gender diversity and women’s voices when selecting speakers. This article originally appeared on fesmedia.org.
The time to retire all-male panels has long ago come to pass, yet conferences still fail to find and invite women speakers on their panels. Media conferences, particularly in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector, are some of the leading offenders, with women in tech too often excluded from conference speaker lists.
The all-too-common presence of all-male panels and conferences deny women visibility and, thereby, power in a given industry. Women’s voices are ‘othered’ and marginalised in fields like the tech industry, already known for its sexism towards women. Worst still, all-male panels affect the future for women in such industries, as a lack of women in leadership dissuades young women and girls from pursuing ambitions in those fields.
All-male panels were found to be so problematic for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that its director of television Danny Cohen banned them in February this year for comedy quiz shows. This after the BBC Trust tasked management with putting more women on screen as “a matter of urgency” in December 2013.
When I attended the Menell Media Exchange (MMX) conference in July last year these symptoms appeared in abundance in the form of sexist microaggressions. First used in the 1970s in reference to casual racism towards black people, the term ‘microaggressions’ evolved to encompass the casual degradation of any socially marginalised group, including women. Speaking with regard to race, Columbia professor Derald Sue referred to “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults towards people of colour”.
The MMX, partnered with South Africa’s eNews Channel Africa (eNCA) and the Dewitt Wallace Centre for Media and Democracy at Duke University, was to be a forum for a discussion about journalism and “the presentation of tools and resources that offer practical ways for journalists to improve their work,” according to the conference’s website. It is extremely unfortunate, then, that the MMX reflected those sexist microaggressions symptomatic of a male-dominated and patriarchal media institution in South Africa.
Only a third of MMX’s speakers were women, with roughly only one in four speakers Black women. (Here, I use a South African definition of Black that includes women of African, Indian, ‘Coloured’ and Chinese descent.) Unsurprisingly, sexist microaggressions were visible throughout the conference, ranging from sexist remarks to an all-male panel on tech innovations.
A comment that exemplified the insidiousness of sexist microaggressions was made by Adriaan Basson, editor of Afrikaans daily newspaper the Beeld. In response to a journalism student’s question about employment practices Basson recited a list of do’s and don’ts ranging from “do be persistent” to “don’t have typos in your CV”. Basson was sitting on a panel discussing challenges in newsrooms which, tellingly, did not incorporate a discussion of sexism in newsrooms. That is, not until Basson told students in the conference audience: “And if you’re pretty, it helps (to get you work in journalism)”.
The sexism displayed by Basson’s remark wasn’t particularly unique, either. During that panel’s question and answer session, I stressed that sexism in newsrooms must be addressed and included in conversations about challenges presented by and in these spaces. In a break after this panel, a senior director of a prominent South African news organisation felt it important that I discuss said organisation’s hiring practices with its human resources executive in order to affirm that these are not sexist. And while the executive seemed progressive at first, her comments soon devolved into classic sexist assertions regarding women employees. “Women don’t work as hard as men because they want to have babies and take time off work,” she said, recycling an old sexist refrain used globally to justify unequal pay for women employees and unequal hiring practices. The comment’s intrinsic sexism was further highlighted by the fact that two women journalists from that same organisation told me they had either delayed or given up on a family in order to pursue their journalism career.
The Highway Africa conference is another offender known for a prevalence of all-male panels and a male-dominated line-up of speakers. Hosted annually by South African university Rhodes University, Highway Africa is a leading forum for discussions about African digital innovation, and has an extensive and broad speaker list including digital developers, media researchers, journalists, civil rights activists and businesspeople. And while almost half of Highway Africa’s 2014 speaker list were women, only one in four were Black women, thereby mirroring the demographics of MMX in July.
In response to all-male panels and conferences, businesswoman Debby Edelstein founded two conferences aimed at supporting women innovators and leaders in the last decade. The annual Women’s Leadership Conference, hosted in South Africa, is now in its 9th year, while Edelstein’s tech conference Wired Women has been running for four years.
Edelstein felt male-only panels were a common occurrence, and accused conference organisers of being “lazy”. “When I confront conference organisers with all-male line-ups about why this is the case, I’m invariably met with the same excuse: They contacted the women available (usually a total of 3) and those women weren’t available.” (The MMX conference organisers provided the same excuse to criticism of its all-male panel on tech innovation.)
Edelstein admitted that finding women conference speakers required more work than simply pulling together all-male panels. “This involves research, speaking to influencers and identifying some of the rising stars who deserve to be celebrated”, she explained before adding: “But I know plenty women speakers all over Africa who have great lessons and insights to share, so there really are no excuses (for all-male panels).”
The persistence of all-male panels is only one symptom of an overwhelmingly sexist and male-dominated media institution however, and isn’t only supported and mirrored by all-male panels and conferences. The patriarchy ingrained in the media industry is revealed in a variety of forms, including sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace and a lacklustre number of women in senior management positions.
Sexism and harassment of women journalists has been highlighted by South African media organisations for almost a decade, with the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) lamenting newsrooms’ patriarchal hegemony as early as 2006. Following a “snap survey” of journalists, Sanef found that women did not hold senior positions because of the intrinsic patriarchal discourses in newsrooms around the country.
Six years later, Sanef’s findings are still relevant. University of the Witwatersrand’s Journalism school published a State of the Newsroom report in 2013 based on data collected in 2012 from randomly selected newsrooms. “While women were generally well represented in newsrooms, males still dominated at senior levels such a section heads and in investigative units,” author Glenda Daniels noted.
Excluding women, particularly Black women, from conference spaces through the lazy appointment of all-male panels compounds the problem of a lack of women journalists at senior levels. It also denies women the opportunity to communicate the direction of innovation in the media, and in the tech industry in particular. Conference organisers, like senior managers in newsrooms and media organisations, need to show a greater commitment to strengthening and supporting women’s voices.
Michelle Solomon is a gender and sexual violence activist, and has worked with the Shukumisa Campaign, an umbrella organisation for up to 30 sexual violence and women’s rights non-government organisations around South Africa. When not working in activism, Solomon works as a freelance journalist, writer and researcher.