Qualified women abound, so why is your expert panel all men?

Saturday May 21 2016

By NANJIRA SAMBULI
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If perception is reality, then many would be forgiven for subconsciously thinking that female experts are unicorns.

By this, I refer to the persistently nefarious issue of the representation of women in conferences, newsrooms and board rooms alike.

By bringing this up, I am putting forth a simple, yet radical proposition: say no to all-male panels. These so-called "manels" are often constituted almost subconsciously; you need to put together a panel of experts, and more often than not, it ends up being a boys’ club.

When organisers are asked why this 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.

This in spite of research that makes the economic case for having women incorporated in various spheres. 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.

The issue at the core of this continued injustice is the socio-cultural norms in societies worldwide about the role and place of women. 

In addition, merely placing women in such positions and not empowering them to actually do what they can is not an acceptable stop-gap measure; tokenism does not equate representation or empowerment.

It is not enough to have more female bodies in the room merely for the optics. In fact, it can even be more unjust, as it puts the women who are “chosen” to join the fold between a rock and a hard place. 

Saying no to tokenism could close that door for other women, given the usual reaction that women aren’t ready or don’t want these roles.

Saying yes, on the other hand, means you accept tokenism and move on, all the while having a very limited space to make an impact.  Worse, it exposes women to being considered “one of the patriarchs” for opting into a flawed system.

SERIOUS INTROSPECTION

The gender Bill’s failure to launch is perhaps the best example to illustrate this. The disdain elicited by Members of Parliament touches on the long road ahead in fighting the stereotypes around the role of women in politics as well as our place in society.

As has been noted, women have to stand a chance at party level nominations for us to improve women’s political representation in the National Assembly. Despite all this, the women in Parliament have defied the odds to do their job, and do it well.

In the Kenyan media, the role and place of women is disturbing. As one report notes:

the media continues to exclude women’s voices in their content and structures because they are never held to account. There is no regular empirical data to hold them accountable, or to be used as a basis to advocate for the inclusion of women in content and structure. 

The Media Council of Kenya found that men are ten times more likely than women to be used as a source of news in Kenyan news media. Furthermore, it was found that most media organisations do not have a gender or diversity policy.

Before holding any other entity to account, Kenya’s media has to do some serious introspection towards reform on this issue. In fact, it is my hope that they would dare to pledge to assess both content and structure, assessing the role of women in each, given that on average women journalists in Kenyan media houses make up 27.5 per cent of the total.

TWEET OUT LOUD

“In 2014, the top five television stations in Kenya aired a total of 16 hours of news stories related to women and girls. That’s just 4% of news airtime dedicated to talking about the challenges that impact women and girls and the amazing feats Kenyans have made.”

The Media Council of Kenya’s report notes that men are central to most of the news stories in print (72 per cent) and electronic media (46 per cent).

Media shapes narratives, and could either deconstruct or reinforce stereotypes. On which end of the scale do they fall when it comes to women?

Next time you are watching your favourite TV station, listening to your favourite talk show, reading your favourite opinion or news columns and you find that it’s only men’s voices represented, call it out.

When you attend the next conference or event with all-male panels, call it out during the Q&A sessions, tweet out loud or approach the organisers; just call it out. That is a sufficient first step and entry point into tackling this behemoth of an issue, as we pursue systemic change through other strategies.

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.

It is also absolutely lazy to give the aforementioned excuse about not knowing women in various fields of expertise to call in. This is not a male-bashing quest, or a zero-sum game. In fact, I am calling on men and women alike to speak out against manels, wherever they find them.

Across the globe, there are nifty approaches to curbing manels that are worth emulating. This Tumblr page crowdsources images of manels; it has gone viral and brilliantly raised awareness of how problematic this issue is across the globe.

LAZY ARGUMENT

A hashtag with such images, for instance, could be one way of calling out these manels as you encounter them in various industries. Kenyans online already have expertise in capturing the ironies in our society and their gaining wide attention, how about adopting such an approach going forward? #SayNoToManelsKE!

Also, to put a stop to the lazy argument of not knowing female experts to invite to various forums, there are databases such as these, to which I encourage women to sign up.  

If local organisers think the issue is discoverability of female experts, they should start similar lists, or openly ask for recommendations.

As mentioned before, men also have an enabling role to play. Men, you can pledge to not participate in all-male panels. When invited to a conference, TV or radio show, boardroom, and it’s only men in the room or on stage, call it out. Where possible, recommend women who should be invited.

Organisations, both public and private, can and should, also make a similar pledge.

There is an opportunity here for the Kenyan government, organisations and citizenry to lead the region and continent in truly showcasing, beyond lip service, the reality that women hold up half the sky. And it’s a job for all of us, men and women alike.

Twitter: @NiNanjira