As coronavirus cases surge in India, the lockdown continues. For the last three months, much of India’s formal workforce has been working from home. Beyond work hours, folks are signing up for online courses or attending webinars to keep their LinkedIn profiles updated and busy, and there’s a lot to choose from. Media companies, universities, trade associations, and not-for-profit organisations have been regularly organizing webinars, online conferences and panel discussions.
Unfortunately, not all organizers have prioritized on making their online offerings inclusive and representative of the diversity that exists in the Indian workforce. As a result, our Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn feeds have been inundated with posters of all-male panels or manels. Ungender has been requesting organisations for better gender representation in online discussions. In the months of April, May and June, we identified 57 all-male panels. Read this piece to understand why manels must go.
This article takes the conversation ahead and tries to suggest steps that webinar organizers can take to make their panel discussions more diverse and inclusive. As a quick refresher, why is doing this essential?
Any gathering, whether online or in the physical world, is usually a reflection of the underlying social structures. This is one of the very real ways in which a powerful social identity (men, in this case) consolidates its privileges and continues to exclude every other social group in the society. The problem with doing this and allowing this continue is that, quite apart from just the plain wrong aspect, genders aside of the ‘male’ together constitute half the world and so if knowledge is being produced at these online webinars, it’s essential they include all stakeholders if they are to be effective at all. The following video is an example of how all male panels with token representation speak for others, in this case, the female comic.
— Film Companion (@FilmCompanion) May 23, 2017
Of course, as we have recounted in the past, there are many real benefits to diversity from a business point-of-view as well, for example – this Berkeley study shows that diversity literally fuels innovation and makes us smarter. Despite this, the truth is that manels are a global issue, for example – this study across 23 countries found that close to 70% of all events have male-only speakers.
Of course, diversity is not a woman versus man thing only, as Atlantic journalist Rebecca Rosen says, a manel is about implicit biases. If one allows men-only panels, one could also allow only upper-caste (Savarna) Brahmin panels or White-only panels as has happened in the West all along which we have now seen amplified in the Black Lives Matter movement, recently but whose history is much older.
Organisers, new and old, will find broad considerations listed in this article that could help them put together better panels to ensure that they’re well represented and fair. There are roughly three big things (in random order) on the checklist when organising a discussion online: a relevant topic, the right panel and an audience.
All subjects are important but some are more equal than others. In our last article about manels, we called out an all-male panel discussing newborn health without a single woman. The manel illustrates why diversity should be a consideration from the get-go.
The main thing to understand about online webinars is that they are driven by personal networks. Human beings are wired to the principles of kinship and familiarity. Anthropologists and sociologists who have studied the fundamentals of human society know this. The wonderful book, Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and the Digital Humanities by Losh and Wernimont, a collection of critical scholarly work in the field of digital humanities (DH) edited by a digital media and rhetoric scholar and gender and women’s studies scholar, establishes that like ‘offline’ societies, digital societies too (think of a webinar as a digital social collective) are exclusionary. That said, efforts can be made to change the exclusionary nature of societies. The following video is one of the best examples of a diverse and inclusive cabinet set up by a political leader.
Bringing the conversation back to organising panels – when one wonders who to invite as a speaker or a facilitator, chances are that people invite within their network and people do, yes, they do, most people like themselves. This is why it is important to recruit in less familiar circles. How can one do that?
When you’re planning an online panel discussion, make three lists. One for the audience and the other two for prospective panellists. The first list should have all social groups affected by the discussion – people from different genders, caste, class and ethnic backgrounds. The first list will give you a perspective on all the stakeholders involved. Pass that list among your coworkers and ask for their thoughts. Once you have the first list, make the second one, wherein, include experts you can immediately think of from those social groups and reach out to them. The third list will have names of people who you could contact in case people from the second list do not accept the invite or don’t respond.
The most well-intentioned companies find speakers from existing closed networks, while this is not always due to nepotism or favouritism, think about making an open call before finalizing your speaker list. You might be surprised at how many qualified people there are in the field. Ungender certainly was pleasantly surprised when we tried to find women speakers in information security, that list is here, and it took us under an hour to find these names.
Including stakeholders or putting together, a diverse panel is as much a process as it is a responsibility. We must try and see through them both. It’s possible that you start out with the right intent – to organize an online discussion that is diverse and representative of as many stakeholders as possible. That said, resources and networks are limited. At some point, you might hit a dead-end where nobody you know is from a social group that needs to be represented on a panel.
Thankfully, it’s not the 1980s and we have social media. A shout-out on Twitter, a request on networking groups on Facebook or just plain old searching on LinkedIn will help you find the right people to feature on your panel. Twitterati has rallied time and again to come up with crowdsourced lists of all-gender experts in seemingly niche topics. They’re all there. You just need to go look for them.
As important, as having a diverse set of speakers, is having a diverse set of listeners. Here are some ideas;
Once you’ve gone through steps 1, 2 and 4 if there are people who think the panel can be better designed with valid reasons, take these suggestions into account and act on them swiftly. This is not just for the organisers but also for people who’ve agreed to speak on a panel. When you accept an invite, ask if the panel is well represented. If you’re someone with privilege and know someone else who might be able to share better insights – clear that space for them.
These are small gestures that have the potential to bring about change. As organisers, if it’s too late to invite someone or change the panel – try harder for the next one. If you strive for diversity, it’ll show.
If only men continue to discuss issues that affect everybody – we’ll always run the risk of not knowing enough.
About the authors: At Ungender, Rajkanya writes about the many ways modern workplaces can become inclusive. As a graduate student, she’s exploring the location of gender in issues of cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and violent extremism. She’s previously worked with the online social justice media platform – Youth Ki Awaaz as an editor. Varna is the editor of the Ungender Insights blog.
Ungender Insights is the product of our learning from advisory work at Ungender. Our team specializes in advising workplaces on workplace diversity and inclusion. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org to understand how we can partner with your organization to build a more inclusive workplace.