The Panel Pledge: A Follow-Up

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A few reflections on a plan to help phase out all-male panels at science and tech conferences

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I'm sure it was *incredibly* difficult to find not one but two qualified women to speak on this panel. And, who knows, maybe they weren't qualified at all and the panel was an absolute bore, which is something all-male panels never, ever are. (Reuters)

On Friday, in response to some chatter about a big tech conference with one sole female speaker, I tossed out an idea that I thought could help discourage this kind of homogeneity in the future: What if men who were invited to speak on panels were to pledge to ask whether the panel included women, and if the answer was no, condition their participation on the panel's organizers finding a woman (or a few!) who could join? Since then, that pledge has spread pretty far and wide, and I wanted to here elaborate on it, both because my original post was pretty light on explanation (I assumed -- I think correctly -- that most people would get the idea without much help) and because some of the reactions, both positive and negative, have helped me to think more carefully about the suggestion.

So here are a few thoughts:

The first thought, which I wish I had made more clear in the proposal right from the start, is that the whole idea of the pledge is premised on the fact that it's not just women who are unhappy about the current state of affairs. Many men -- men who benefit from or have benefited from playing life on a lower difficulty setting, as John Scalzi put it -- want to see more gender diversity in the workplace too. And this is awesome. The pledge comes out of a place of respect for the many men in my life who are advocates for, not adversaries to, the advancement of women. Implicit in the pledge is a recognition that greater equality is not something women will achieve by forcing it on men, but something both men and women want, believe in, and can work on together.

That's the animating principle. But what of the pledge's effect? Many people said the pledge would commit people to "affirmative action" and that it will tokenize whatever women participants wind up on a panel as a result of its demands. I think such criticisms rest on an unstated assumption that the reason women aren't on panels is that they are not as well qualified. (Sometimes this assumption is not so subtle, such as with one person who tweeted at me, "Better idea, have talented, aggressive women that get themselves on that stage, rather than expect men to hobble themselves." Thank you for this advice!)

But if you, like I do, reject the idea that there are no women qualified enough for the vast, vast majority of panels, then you have to ask why so many panels don't have any women on them. My belief is that for whatever reason men who are organizing panels are inclined to think of the names of ... wait for it ... other men. As Alice Bell tweeted, "Shortlisting speakers for an event? You'll probably think of men first. Make yourself think of women, then ask her first. It's not hard." That is the purpose of the pledge: to force the thought, or, as Jamelle Bouie put it, to "begin to see homogeneity as unusual." Once you do, you are likely to come up with plenty of women who would add a lot. (And, if you have any trouble, Ed Yong sent me this pre-made list of "1,000 Women Speakers Worth Listening To," which has some great ideas for conferences related to science, secularism, human rights, and a bunch of other topics.)

Does that sound tokenizing? This notion troubles me, as it assumes that when organizers stop for a moment to think of possible female panelists, they will have to fall back on people whose only value is their sex, but who are otherwise not meritorious enough to be on the panel. This is messed up. More than any other, the tokenization charge strikes me as a knee-jerk defense that undermines the very people it purports to defend.

Another criticism I heard in a few spots was a sort of "bravo, but this doesn't go nearly far enough." What about race, age, nationality, etc.? To this I plead guilty. I wanted to make the pledge narrow, to apply it to the particular situation that was on my mind that day. But the beauty of it is its flexibility: The pledge is all about getting people in power to recognize what power they already have, and to get them to use that power to make a more level playing field. There is no reason that principle will only work for gender diversity. The same goes for the many people I saw tweeting it saying: "We need this in economics!" or "We need this in foreign policy!"  By all means, take the idea and run with it.

Toward the end of the day on Friday we started noticing many fake names appearing on the list of signatories (e.g. I know "Steve Jobs" did not sign the pledge.) We decided to make that list private to prevent people from having their names publicly added to a document against their will. Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks of this decision was that people could no longer see the hostility the proposal was eliciting. So, for posterity, here is a non-random selection of "people" who signed the pledge:

GoFuckYourselfWithCactusStupidLiberalCollegeDropout
FUCK YOU BECCA
Die in a Fire, Retards
Mr. Rebecca J. Rosen [I checked with my husband and he swears this was not him. -- RJR]
Men are smarter than women
HaHaHaWhatAVaginaObsessedWhore
get in the kitchen and make me a sandwidch
women complain a lot
JEW DETECTED
dumb cunt

Lovely! So glad to have that out there.

But of course, the other major drawback to that decision was that no one could see the list of really awesome people who did actually sign it. Some of them, thankfully, tweeted about it as well, which verified that they had in fact put their names there. That list includes Alexis (the first signatory), Jason Kottke, David Dobbs, Anil Dash. All told, nearly 300 people signed the pledge, though some portion of that is impostors.

When I reflect on all of this, that's what I keep coming back to -- which is pretty much the spot right where I began. This pledge exists because I believe that many men care deeply about making the tech and science spheres more equal, and I had an idea for a tool that I think could help them do so. Despite the pushback, despite the trolls, seeing all those signatures pile up made it every bit worth the while.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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