Kenyan women have set out to tackle their representation in the media and at event panels.
They have taken the fight against male dominance to the cyberspace with an initiative dubbed Say No To Manels.
A “manel” is a term used to describe a panel of all-males— highlighting the underrepresentation of women as experts.
To solve the problem of women’s noticeable absence on panels, Ory Okolloh, Sophie Gitonga and Nanjira Sambuli established a database of women experts across Kenya.
“In Kenya, the ‘gender rule’ has gained much lip service. That, as we see time and again, does not translate into reforms or the requisite action to make women’s representation a reality,” Sambuli says.
In September, they opened an online form for woman to register themselves or their colleagues as authorities on any given topic in order to make their expertise and availability known to event organisers and the media.
Since last May, technology activist Nanjira Sambuli has been urging people to reject all-male panels.
She started the hashtag #SayNoToManels and #SayNoToManelsKE, which call out media organisations and events that are male-dominated.
The hashtags also encourage people to include women’s voices.
“When organisers are asked why this [lack of women] is so, many often trivialise it, or give an excuse about there being no women available, or say they don’t know of women in the particular area of expertise to invite,” Sambuli says.
The public database is meant to counteract this issue.
Since its launch, almost 400 experts have signed up from disciplines ranging from technology to health.
While the database founders have not formally reached out to media or event organisers, they often use their Twitter account (@SayNoToManelsKE) to call out groups for hosting all-male panels and direct them to the database.
They say people have been finding it organically for the most part, having fielded several inquiries from those looking for women experts.
One of the women on the database is Crystal Simeoni, a tax justice expert who regularly speaks at and attends high-level events.
She says she often hears condescending comments about her presence in certain spaces.
“At the African Union or United Nations, the reaction from men is ‘What is a pretty person like you doing here?’ and I say ‘The same thing that you are, what do you think?’” Simeoni says.
According to the Media Council of Kenya, men are 10 times more likely than women to be used as a source of news in Kenyan media.
The Council further notes that men are central to most of the news stories in print (72 per cent) and electronic media (46 per cent).
In addition, it was found that most media organisations do not have a gender or diversity policy or strategies in the workplace to create gender balanced reporting, making it likelier that they will rely on male sources.
James Ratemo Communications and Information Head at the Media Council of Kenya says journalists are often pressed for time and male sources are seen as the go-to experts.
“They want to find subjects who are readily available and typically don’t think about gender. They can easily find men who are willing to talk.”
Having a gender balance in reporting must be intentional, says Ratemo.
“When we leave it to fate, males will always dominate.”
To sensitise journalists on the importance of representation, the media council partnered with Unesco to train reporters across Kenya on gender mainstreaming.
By increasing women’s representation, the goal is that women like Claire Kinyanjui will have fewer obstacles to navigate in the workplace.
Kinyanjui, a lawyer and entrepreneur is on the database as an expert in the areas of security, peace, conflict and law.
“Law is a male dominated field. I’ve had experiences where a guy was chosen over me,” she says.
“I’m a woman and I’m petite so people [look at me and] think I’m not capable. All these things I’ve gone through show me that it’s not an even level playing field, and it may never be.”
'CALL IT OUT'
Kinyanjui joined the database a few months ago but has yet to be contacted about a speaking appearance or interview.
By participating in the Say-No-To-Manels initiative, she hopes to represent women in areas that are typically male-dominated, especially as some of her work centres around gender perspectives of peace and security issues.
Sambuli encourages people to “call it out” the next time they see a lack of women represented— by asking about it during the Q&A of a conference, tweeting or approaching the organisers.
“It should be, and must become, absolutely uncomfortable to sit in any space where issues affecting one half of the Kenyan population do not have representation,” Sambuli says.
The Say-No-To-Manels organisers also encourage men and organisations to take a pledge that they will not participate or host all-male panels at conferences, in the media and boardrooms and when possible, recommend women instead.
The Kenyan movement to better represent women on panels coincides with an international movement to do the same.
The hashtag #AllMalePanels highlights events around the world where women experts are not present and resulted in similar databases of women experts being created in various other countries.
Jacky Habib is a 2016-2017 Media Fellow of the Aga Khan Foundation Canada at the Nation Media Group, Nairobi.