EightSquared Blog

Why we are committing to Gender Parity on Panels


A question asked at the bid session for the 2013 Eastercon was whether Eight Squared Con would apply a policy of gender parity for panels. On behalf of the bid committee, having discussed this issue in advance, I stated that we would. This blog post is aimed at explaining a bit about what we mean by this.

In short, gender parity means that for those programme items that are discussion panels (i.e. four to six panel members discussing a topic, usually facilitated by a moderator) we will, so far as is practical, avoid having panels where there is a gender imbalance.

Firstly, I will say that we have to be careful what we mean by gender. ‘Sex’ and ‘gender’ are words with particular meanings that are not always understood the same way, especially in their technical as distinct from cultural senses. For the purpose of ‘gender parity’, we mean the male/female identity that a person identifies as in cultural and social terms. (Yes, we are aware that this is not always straightforward, but we are aiming to set a general policy in this respect.)

Secondly, by ‘avoiding a gender imbalance’ we mean that we would generally avoid not just all-male (or all-female) panels but also panels where one gender was in a small minority. Having a single woman on a panel of four, or two on a panel of six, would be imbalanced in this respect.

We are setting out our policy on this because in the run-up to the 2012 Eastercon there was significant discussion in many fan forums about the lack of gender parity on panels and the steps that might be taken to deal with this. We have thus given this issue considerable thought and have decided that we will commit to gender parity. Our reasons for doing so may be summed up as follows:

1) It is one of the defining features of fan-run conventions such as Eastercon that the bulk of panel participants are recruited from the convention membership.

2) Eastercon membership now shows broad gender parity; fandom is no longer male-dominated (at least not in terms of numbers, and arguably not in terms of active participation.)

3) The Eastercon membership, taken collectively, constitutes an exceptionally interesting, experienced and well-qualified group of people. In my own expericne I recall one prominent visiting science lecturer saying that of all the audiences he’d given talks to, including major science festivals, the Eastercon membership was the most engaged and erudite he’d ever seen.

4) Points (2) and (3) work together: the Eastercon membership is comprised of interesting, experienced and well-qualified people, evenly split across gender. Our pool of potential panel members should thus reflect this and should itself be evenly split across gender.

5) If we draw our panels from this pool of panel members, then panels themselves, on average, ought to come out evenly split on gender. Some might have more men than women, some more women than men, but these would be the exception rather than the rule and the programme as a whole should contain broadly equal numbers of men and women.

Experience shows that this has not generally been the case. Historically the bias was because (2) was not true, but that’s not really valid any more. It is more likely that what happens is that (3) is not fully exploited and that in practice the pool of programme participants is drawn from a relatively small subset of convention membership. That pool is small in part due to inertia (“Andy, Bob and Charles always do well on panels”) and partly because women may feel disinclined to volunteer for programme if they see that panels are male-dominated.

Is it a bad thing that panels are male-dominated? We suggest that it is, for several reasons. If this argument is correct, then we are missing out on many really good panel members. Male-dominated panels imply that fandom is a male-dominated community, which it shouldn’t be and indeed arguably isn’t. And if we restrict the pool of panel participants, even without intending to, then it makes it harder to put together a programme. As someone who has organised programme for many conventions, one of the biggest headaches is trying to avoid using the same small pool of people to populate panels with.

So how do we avoid this problem? Firstly, we are going to do our best to be very inclusive in getting people to volunteer for programme. Not everyone makes a good panel participant, but very many of the people attending an Eastercon would, and members should be encouraged to feel comfortable in putting themselves forward. (Something I will stress is that this in now way implies that women should be or will be pressured into being on programme; rather, they should feel that there is no pressure against them participating.) We will also encourage members to suggest good panel members; again, while we would never pressure someone to be on programme, we are keen to invite people who might not otherwise come forward.

Secondly, we are going to apply our argument as set out above. If we have a panel of four panel members and a moderator, then we will assume that we would expect to end up most of the time with two male members and two female members, and that it’s equally likely across the programme as a whole that the moderator be male or female. We will therefore, as a default, look for two good female and two good male panel members, and will keep track of moderators to ensure that we are not ending up with (as all too often happens) mainly male moderators.

One criticism I hear is that programme organisers ought to focus on putting together the best possible panel, and that if such a panel is all-male, then so be it. My response to this is as follows:

Now, there will be some circumstances where it is difficult to achieve gender parity because the pool of relevant expertise is too small for it to itself be likely to be gender-balanced. There may also be panels discussing topics (such as the experience of female writers) where it would be appropriate to have a predominantly or entirely single-gender panel. But such items are likely to be rare and we will still seek to balance overall male/female programme participation.

To conclude, I would note that the single biggest factor that will result in gender parity on panels is if as many women volunteer to take part in programme as men. Historically this has not happened; Eight Squared Con aims to be as inclusive and open as possible in this respect, and we are keen to have as wide and diverse a selection of programme volunteers as possible.

Simon Bradshaw

Programme Coordinator, Eight Squared Con