4 min

Why one woman is not enough

Statistics of women's voice in the OECD's digital future.
Written by
Published on
July 21, 2016

Today the OECD has started its ministerial summit on the future of the digital economy. It is the first such meeting they have held on the topic in eight years — so yeah, it’s a pretty big deal. Everyone knows the digital future includes women — SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) #5 on women even makes using tech for women’s empowerment an explicit commitment for the UN to strive towards.

Yet, only 31% of speakers at the OECD summit are women. What’s worse, many are spread out as the only women in their respective sessions. In total, 11 of 20 sessions have only one woman speaker. Three sessions only have men. The remaining six sessions have three or more women, which initially sounds promising until you realise that for every woman, there are at least nearly two men overpowering those voices (panel ratios of 8:3, 5:3, 7:4, 9:3, 10:3 in favour of men).

Some might ask, why is this such a big deal? Surely one woman is better than none at all, and we’re making progress on #nomanels. At least 17 out of 20 OECD panels won’t get on the http://allmalepanels.tumblr.com/ wall of shame. Of course, it is progress to have a woman included and avoid social media shame, but we need to make sure conference organisers do not believe it is “job done” — because one woman in a session is far from equal voice.

Why it is a big deal:

  1. It’s about proportions, not raw numbers. A panel’s membership influences its conversation. If you only have one woman and there are two or three speakers, it’s probably fine. But if you have one woman….and 13 speakers as we will see at 16:45 local time at the OECD summit in Mexico on Wednesday, then you’d have to give that woman a lot of speaking time to compensate for how woefully underrepresented she is.
  2. If that one woman can’t make it — you’re back in the manel zone. At the recent Anti-Corruption Summit in London, the organisers endeavoured to have a woman on every panel — obviously welcome. But unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you see it!) one of those women was at the summit meetings representing her country at the negotiating table, the negotiations ran over — and she couldn’t make it. Of course, we’re thrilled that a competent, brilliant woman is doing this kind of work. But the timing clash meant there was no female voice on that panel and it put that amazing woman in an unfair position. This wouldn’t happen if there had been two women.

3. The point of including women is to make sure their voices are heard, not drowned out. Often when you have a group discussion, it is prone to groupthink. People who are similar to one another or share similar views and experiences start reinforcing one another, crowding out the minority voice. This happened at the recent Open Government Partnership meeting in Uruguay, where attendees reported that the lone woman on a panel hardly had a chance to speak at all. By having balanced representation of gender — and also along other lines of diversity — you can make sure your discussions are less of a foregone conclusion, and spark more innovation and diversity of thinking. When only one woman is on a panel of four or as many as 13 at Wednesday’s summit, it is hard to imagine female perspectives will be truly injected into the debate in a meaningful way.

We admire the women speaking at the OECD summit, and although we don’t have any inside information on the planning process, we’re willing to give the benefit of the doubt that the gender balance was at least considered and the organisers did try to get more women to speak. We understand there is pressure from many organisations to cram one more person into a session, and he’s often a man. Some of these men could have considered handing the invitations to a female colleague once they knew the panel line up, or the organisers could have said to those organisations wanting a speaking slot that there were only spaces left for women. If the organisers struggle to find women who want to speak, it is worth considering how the event is structured and how to make it more of a welcoming and inclusive environment.

We would like to encourage the OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria (@A_Gurria) to consider signing a #nomanels pledge, and go even further to ensure that in future if the OECD cannot find enough women, that they at least ensure their voices are not drowned out by so great an imbalance (and we are confident they can, it is all a matter of planning as Tin Geber pointed out). Larger panels are always unwieldy and overrun, and many attendees don’t find them engaging, so we feel certain attendees would also welcome new formats and/or a more vibrant, balanced debate.

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