A friend told me recently he had copped a lot of flak for hosting a panel which didn’t include women at an industry conference and has made sure it hasn’t happened again. But he was also puzzled why the suggestion to hold a women-only panel at a similar event met with quite a bit of opposition from other women.
It’s not unusual to hear complaints about these kinds of panels or about women’s seminars and networking groups. Instead of a help, some see them as a hindrance because of concerns they position women as victims, and trigger snide comments and a backlash over ‘special’ treatment.
Some critics may have bought into the idea that efforts to support or include women automatically means having a go at men – an old furphy which is getting an airing lately.
That’s certainly not what I’ve observed after years around the women’s business circuit. The fact remain there are so few senior women in most sectors that bringing them together in a panel to discuss their experience can have a major impact on their audience which has nothing to do with attacking men.
Audiences of women want to see and hear how women in decision making and leadership have made it. After all, it’s no good telling women over and over again they can aspire to any role if they can’t see anyone who looks like them at the top of the tree.
Even though there’s been growing awareness that a gender mix is a critical part of today’s conference planning, it’s amazing how many forums are still advertised with a single woman speaker among five or six men.
The Male Champions of Change, a group of heavy hitting CEOs and department heads supporting better gender balance, have committed to only appearing at forums with a reasonable gender mix. But even so, some MCCs have been caught out by conference organisers with plenty of reasons for mostly male panellists.
There’s a string of excuses – it was a CEO only group and we couldn’t find any women, we asked a woman and she said no, the people on the panel are there on merit. And so on.
None of these are either insoluble or even accurate if you think a bit laterally. Surely a CEO panel could be extended to senior ranks, directors or specialists to broaden the catchment (and possibly enrich the discussion too)?
And there are a number of registers available listing senior women willing to speak at conferences including the Women for Media site set up by director and business executive Carol Schwartz.
The impact of male-dominated business conferences and forums is a not so subtle reinforcement of the idea that women are still outsiders who are less suitable and less qualified for real power.
That’s also why networking events for women are needed. They help to normalise women’s experiences in the workplace, as I’ve seen over and over again.
These are the women who have been told their failure was all due to poor personal decisions, and let’s face it, a lack of what it takes. They benefit enormously from hearing how others have had exactly the same barriers to negotiate in inflexible organisational systems.
If there were more women throughout business ranks then of course the need to run women’s sessions or showcase women leaders wouldn’t exist.
But until that’s the case the role of women in panels and forums is crucial. Many women have worked out that keeping their heads down and working hard doesn’t bring the same rewards and recognition as many of their male peers. They are hungry for support and inspiration and to have some of their views and experiences reflected in discussions.
What they get from these events is not a venue to complain about men, or an emphasis on some magical feminine style that women bestow.
But they do see capable people who look a lot like them and have successfully navigated the system. If you want to do something you have to believe you can do it and that’s what these role models deliver.
You can’t be what you can’t see, as they say. We simply need to see more women and less men on the public stage or nothing will change.