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Say No To Manels! Here Are 3 Ways To Organise An Inclusive Webinar

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By Rajkanya Mahapatra

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.

Representational image.

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.

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.

Pick Inclusive Topics

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.

  • Diversity should be a Webinar Success KPI – Diversity on your panel must be a critical factor in scoring webinar success, right along with a number of attendees, a number of questions asked and so on. One way to do this is to think about topics and sub-themes or niches that appeal to a diverse set of people. For example, if you are doing a panel on web-security, ask what a woman expert can especially comment on that a traditional group of men can’t – perhaps women can comment on the safety of women online, on web literacy for busy women, child safety online, bullying and harassment and so much more. Of course, all genders should comment on the main issue/theme as well.
  • Allow For The Discovery Of Diversity Categories – We also need to adopt the stance that we don’t already know what all the diversity needs are – there are diversities most companies don’t even know that exist. For example: political minorities, class-related marginalization and mental health.
  • Use Technology To Make Your Topic Choice Process Blind – One way to beat inherent biases is to create a topic resource bank that, itself, is crowd-sourced using a diverse and inclusive process. Use the principles of partial anonymity (topics must be gender-neutral for instance) and randomization (be not suggested from one source, person or time-zone/place) to pick from this list.
  • Make Your Topic Qualifying Criteria Explicit – Use standardized questions, which are gender-neutral, diverse and reflective of differing abilities and experiences, to find fresh topics. The deal with differing abilities is also very important because not all backgrounds result in great speaking or presentation skills – education, a history of exclusion and violence, just being under-represented or discriminated against can and does affect the speaking ability to a massive degree. One can talk meaningfully about diversity only if one is willing to risk hosting all types of voices, confidence is an acquired ability.

Create A Representative Panel

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.

Representational image/ Photo: Rajkanya Mahapatra

Build Your Audience

As important, as having a diverse set of speakers, is having a diverse set of listeners. Here are some ideas;

  • Expand Your Reach – On social media, you can attract your target audience – people who are a part of your industry and consumers of your product (such as books, services or cosmetics). Do not look to find audiences in regular places, because regular places are often populated with homogenous voices. For example, if you are looking for an audience segment of new mothers, you are unlikely to find them on a youth-led vlogging platform, recruit instead on mom-only groups on Facebook, parenting websites, and so on. Similarly, there are networks for transgender folks, students, women and Dalits too. They may not be active participants in the industry but might be interested in the discussion and might want to tune in.
  • Do Not Exclude By Assumption – While targeting is important for webinar success, diversity in the audience also opens up new markets. Create relevant mailers/invites for different sections of the population pitching the online event to them and telling them why they should consider tuning in. The more you expand the scope of the discussion, the better the engagement will be. Having a diverse audience will also result in a more vibrant Q&A session. So ultimately, the more the merrier, right?

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.

Note: You can refer to Ungender’s full list of all male panels, here. If you spot any manels, please use this form to let us know!

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 contact@ungender.in to understand how we can partner with your organization to build a more inclusive workplace.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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Find out more about the campaign here.

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Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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