Better Life Lab

There’s No Excuse for All-Male Panels. Here’s How to Fix Them.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Thinkstock.

In the public arena, there is never a shortage of white men who are asked to step into the spotlight and give expert opinions. The world is filled with all-male panels at mostly male conferences, featuring male keynote speakers and discussions dominated by men—including one at Oxford—that didn’t include a single woman—on “Being a Human Being.” One academic study of prestigious TED talks found that male speakers outnumber females by a ratio of 3 to 1. That’s about the same ratio of male-to-female political analysts on top cable news shows talking about the 2016 presidential campaign, which had the first female major party candidate.

Men are even asked to take starring roles in conversations about women. PayPal hosted an all-male panel—a “manel”—on gender equality. A manel hosted by Mercer has held forth on the topic of #WhenWomenThrive during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.* And in June, an all-male panel at the PRWeek Hall of Femme Conference told female attendees they’d do better in the “macho” PR culture if they would only “speak up more loudly.”

Is it any wonder that we continue to be surprised to learn that women served important roles as code breakers in World War II, or that black women mathematicians were the “hidden figures” behind NASA’s first manned space missions? When women and people of color are invisible on the public stage, their stories are erased from history. Literally. (Men outnumber women 6-to-1 in popular high school history textbooks.) And now, a growing number of increasingly fed-up groups all over the world are using technology, social networks, public pressure, and old-fashioned organizing to change that.

White men’s stories are not the only important stories, they argue. And they’re not the only experts. Not by a long shot.

In Sweden, I met a nonprofit group called Equalisters. It’s working to change assumptions about who we think of as an expert—i.e., white men—and offer concrete proof that expert women, immigrants, and diverse voices do, indeed, exist across a wide range of fields. The group got started in 2010 when founder Lina Thomsgard, a PR consultant, attended a gala, got fed up with the number of men featured onstage compared with women, and began tweeting the count: 51 to 8. Still angry, she went to a club afterward and noticed all the DJs were men. When she asked why, she was told they just couldn’t find any women. Female DJs don’t exist, they said. She went home that night, created a Facebook page asking for names of female DJs, and within days had a list of more than 100 that she handed over to club owners. “We believe people saying, ‘There aren’t any’ is just a lazy way of saying, ‘I don’t have them in my network,’ ” said project manager Tina Sayed Nestius. “With our lists, we’ve got a really good way to prove them wrong.”

Even in what Thomsgard called the “egalitarian paradise” of Sweden, men were featured as experts or were quoted in the news about 70 percent of the time. To try to disrupt that, Equalisters puts out regular calls for women and racially diverse experts over social media to more than 130,000 followers and now has more than 600 lists with the names of more than 30,000 diverse people who are experts in everything from politics and leadership to hip-hop and magic.

Elizabeth Walentin, an American who lives in Sweden and runs a PR agency, had been frustrated for years that the usual experts called upon to analyze American politics tended to be older Swedish men who didn’t really understand the American perspective at all. “Some had barely been to the U.S.,” she said. After answering an Equalister callout, Walentin has now become a regular political analyst on TV and in the news media. That she’s a woman being presented as an expert is one thing, she said. That she’s an immigrant woman speaking accented Swedish is quite another. “That’s almost a political point in and of itself,” Walentin noted.

Back in the U.S., I’d been warned that, unlike Equalisters, there weren’t many resources available for bookers, journalists, conference organizers, and other gatekeepers of the public arena who say they’d like to have more diverse voices but just don’t know where they are. But after a little digging, I’ve come to see that that’s just not true. Not only are the diverse expert voices out there (and lots of them), but with a host of lists and other resources springing up around the globe, they’re also not that hard to find anymore.

Witness Fresh Speakers. Co-founder Vanessa Valenti, a speaker herself, got sick of complaining about the whiteness and maleness of conferences. Then she found out that a white male speaker was paid $10,000 and flown first class to a conference while a black female speaker at the same conference had to argue to get a coach ticket refunded and wasn’t paid a dime. “We thought, ‘OK, we have to do something,’ ” Valenti said.

She and her two partners opened their own speakers bureau and began curating a list of diverse experts and speakers. Now, 73 percent of their speakers are nonwhite, 71 percent are women, and 51 percent are women of color. “In the conference world, a very common response you hear is, ‘Oh, we couldn’t find enough women speakers for this event. We couldn’t find enough people of color,’ ” Valenti said. “Well, here they are.”

The thing is, she said, you have to want to find them. As Elizabeth Broderick, sex discrimination commissioner on the Australian Human Rights Commission, has said, “If you don’t intentionally include, the system unintentionally excludes.” (The commission publishes a “Panel Pledge Toolkit to help, it says, broaden the range of perspectives and the quality of public conversation.)

That’s what Elisa Camahort Page realized in her 13 years overseeing programming for the BlogHer Conference, one of the largest gatherings of female online content providers. From the start, the conference wanted to fully represent the diversity in its community. That meant putting women and people of color on advisory boards and planning committees in the first place. That meant asking for help and putting in more time to plan and curate the conference. That meant setting goals, targets, and, yes, quotas. And it meant taking on the notion that diversity means lowering the bar instead of adding complexity and telling a truer story. “That insulting trope really got me,” she said. “That whole, ‘I don’t want to sacrifice quality for diversity.’ As though that’s what I was asking people to do. No. I was asking people to find qualified diverse people.”

And that meant asking diverse people to talk about the topics they are best qualified to discuss. “We didn’t just want to put diverse people on panels to come talk about being diverse. We wanted diverse people talking about whatever their expertise was. And we did,” Camahort Page said. “Look, if I needed to find a qualified gay Republican black woman, I’m here to tell you, I could find her.”

In this era of big data, there are more ways to quantify, create accountability, and publicize the problem of a lack of diversity on the public stage. The nonprofit Gender Avenger creates social media campaigns to track the presence of women on panels as speakers and in the news. And a new app, Are Men Talking Too Much, allows users to time how long “dudes” speak compared with those “not a dude.” Tumblr’s “Congrats, you have an all male panel!” plasters a thumbs-up from David Hasselhoff on photos of testosterone-heavy public forums. The Gendered Conference Campaign of female philosophers not only publicly shames all-male public events but boasts a catchy theme song: “When I flip the page/ I feel something close to rage/ If not a single name of a lady can be found.”

Men themselves have an important role to play in all of this. Prominent male speakers and a number of conference organizers are signing any one of a number of pledges springing up promising not to appear on or organize all-male panels, including the U.N. Global Compact. And while many leaders are getting on board, it’s not without controversy. A recent effort to encourage diverse panels at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs has come under attack.

To Shanelle Matthews, these efforts are critical, regardless of any backlash they may create. Matthews is the director of communications for Black Lives Matter and creator of Channel Black, an effort to train black leaders to offer expert opinion and analysis in the public arena about the lives and needs of black people living in the United States.

“Implicit and explicit bias in this country is allowed not only to exist but to flourish because we only hear from a few viewpoints,” she said. “Whether we are talking about issues that impact the black community, white community, or any community, we will not be able to move forward and become a more empathetic and pluralistic country until we hear from more diverse voices. Regularly.”

That’s why the Better Life Lab is jumping into the fray. Starting on Friday, we’re launching Mission: Visible. We’ll be curating an aggregated list of the wealth of resources that already exist to make it easier to find diverse experts and voices. The goal is to add complexity to public discussions, tell truer stories, and get the first draft of history right. We invite readers to contribute ideas and send updates. You can tweet at us or email us with your suggestions for experts and resources to include.

We have a long way to go. At a high-profile science festival in Norway, organizers asked an all-male panel to discuss the future of humanity. One panelist, a Nobel Prize–winning economist, admitted that he’d changed the voice of Siri on his iPhone to a man’s voice, because, as he put it, “You trust the voice of a man more, I’m told.”

And how will that ever change if men’s voices are the only ones we ever hear?

*Correction, Oct. 11, 2017: This post originally misstated that an all-male panel called #WhenWomenThrive took place at the World Economic Forum. In fact, the panel was hosted by Mercer and held parallel with the World Economic Forum in Davos, not as part of it.