Recently, an unintended manel at the Paris Peace Forum led Open Heroines to write a Guide to the Guy Who Got Stuck on a Manel.
After we published the piece on the OH blog, David Sasaki of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (Hewlett gave Open Heroines our first grant) responded to our guide with a tweet:
I bristled when I read this but couldn’t quite figure out why. I’ll come clean — I’ve been a panel audience member with glazed-eyes, staring at my phone, not really paying attention. I am a huge fan of Michael Jarvis’s “Rants, Err, Reflections on Running Productive Meetings,” and encourage conference organizers to check out how OH has approached sessions through Skillshares, Do-A-Thons, and our Open Gender Monologues. Panels aren’t the way I personally absorb information the best. However, plenaries and high-level panels, no matter how many phones light up, symbolize both the status quo and the imagined future of the field. It’s where expertise and credibility are established.
With a bit of reflection, I realized that what made me bristle is this: how fortunate it is to view a high-level panel discussion, which in theory represents the high-level conversations happening in our field, and feel that there are better, more important (or powerful) places to be. The ability to “opt out” and maintain elite status, while others working their way up the ladder of professional influence have to rely on the tools of the status quo is a uniquely privileged position.
The manel, the blog, the response — all of this happened as I was reading “A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf. Powerfully, but sadly, the realities that Woolf describes in the essay are all too relevant today:
All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point — a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.
The point here is not simply to draw a parallel between our field, and the field of writing fiction in the 1920s, but in the fields of transparency, accountability, and civic tech — women (especially women of color and non-binary people) are still clawing back from years of underrepresentation in high-level conversations. Even today, our thought leadership is often ignored and undervalued. In the words of Woolf,
Awkward though she was and without the unconscious bearing of long descent which makes the least turn of the pen of a Thackeray or a Lamb delightful to the ear, she had — I began to think — mastered the first great lesson; she wrote as a woman, but as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself.
How wonderful it will be when women — especially women of color and women from the Global South — can afford to be unconscious of gender or race as we sit on stage or read about our field. There are, of course, countless women and non-binary folks adding deep critical analysis to the field. Some of my personal favorite, often-skeptical and dissenting voices are those of Nanjira Sambuli, Ana Brandusescu and Alix Dunn. But let’s not forget the numerous lists of “critical thinkers” in our space that skew too male, too Western, and too white — consisting of individuals who are welcome to criticize largely because they’ve been given the space, the privilege, the attention, to do so.
Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days.
Things aren’t always going to be like this. The status quo will change, giving women the emotional and financial ability to take up more room. And when it changes, women will have ample spaces of our own not only on panels, but also in boardrooms and on thought leader lists. Only then will our critique of the field will be valued as highly as men’s. But until that status quo has shifted, yes, read and be in the real world — but also make sure your panels are diverse, and your reading lists even more so.