Panel Parity

Paul Cornell has an interesting blog entry up where he plans to tackle the gender gap of SFF convention panels during the upcoming year.

That there is a gender gap at many cons (the ratio of male panelists to female panelists) is fairly common knowledge, but one that seems to be coming more into focus lately, or at least in the blog circles that I frequently read.

Paul’s strategy is to force the parity by voluntarily stepping down from panels and leaving his place to a female when the panel split isn’t an even 50/50. I think this is interesting, as a way to bring the issue to light and get people talking, but I don’t think it’s going to be very successful, and I don’t think it’s the best way to go about it in the long term. Hopefully I’m wrong.

For one thing, the insistence that ever single panel has an even split is probably stretching things, but that’s a part of his point, that if you don’t go for the full stretch you’ll never get there at all. I think the target more people would want would be an even split on average. I don’t care if one panel is all-male any more than I care if the next panel is all-female, as long as it’s interesting and the panelists are knowledgeable and capable, but I would like to see a better average overall among female attendees.

Which brings up another point, female attendance. I haven’t been to a lot of cons (I think I’m up to five over a three year period), but I was curious to see what the ratio was, since I didn’t notice how many women were in attendance. And before anyone yells out, “male privilege!”, let me say “maybe”. But, far more likely, it’s just because I’m fairly oblivious in general and so I don’t tend to notice ratios of people around me who don’t call attention to themselves in some way by being more noticeable than average. Put me in a subway car for 20 minutes and ask me later how many men or women were on it and I’d never guess even close. I could maybe tell you how many people on crutches there were, or how many punks with foot-high neon mohawks, or how many people in bear costumes, but probably not anything more mundane than that.

Anyways, I was curious about the numbers. I’ve only been a panel participant once (at ConCept 2011), so I pulled the information from that specific convention to do some digging. I took the list of panel participants, and the schedule of panels, and I broke them down by gender.

At ConCept 2011, there were 43 panelists listed. 28 of those were male and 15 were female for a split  of 65.1% to 34.9%. For the list of panels I excluded a few things like readings, instructor-led workshops, or movie and slide presentations, because those often only have one person heading them and aren’t really under the purvey of discussion panels, since there isn’t any discussion going on. For those that were actual discussions of a topic by a panel, I counted 50 over the course of the weekend. There were a total of 100 male participants (with repeats obviously) and 55 female participants, which seems ugly at first, but makes for a 65.5 – 34.5% split, which aligns extremely closely with the gender of the panelists by population.

Again, that’s just one con and almost certainly there are some where the numbers are even more badly skewed, but at this time of the night I’m not going to go spend three hours digging more of it up. Suffice it to say that 65-35 still isn’t a good enough split.

I don’t have stats on how that number has changed over time, but it’s something I’d like to keep an eye out for in the future. Making the females more prominent than the 34.5% would have meant assigning them to more panels individually, which isn’t a great option. I can’t speak to every con, but ConCept asks if you want to be a panelist, if there are any specific panels you’d be interested in, and the number of panels you want to do in total. Assigning people to more panels than they want to do just to achieve parity would probably just leave you with angry panelists. Ideally, what you want is for more women to sign up as panelists to begin with. I think if you had a more even split between male and female attending panelists, then you’d have a similar split where actual panel participation is concerned.

So how do you get more women interested in showing up at conventions, and by extension more interested in being a panelist? I really don’t know, but it probably starts with Wheaton’s Law. Cons are notorious for being places where people behave badly and get away with it, and especially toward the females in attendance. I’d like to think that there’s a shift happening but I could be wrong. I think most cons these days have a harassment policy in place, and those that don’t ought to be feeling the pressure to adopt one. Mistakes made at one con are broadcast loudly and other cons work not to make the same ones. It’s probably a very slow shift that some people are getting impatient for, and I can’t say that I blame them. Also, I don’t know that the perception of con atmospheres has changed, or how long that might take. Paul’s actions are a form of affirmative action, where the hope would be that by forcibly affecting the ratio himself, you’d lead to a broader female appeal, and thus a broader female attendance and participation down the line. Again, I don’t know that it will work, or that it will work faster than the current continental drift method, but maybe it’s just the right kick in the ass to get the conversation started and maybe it will encourage more women to attend and participate. That can only be a good thing.

I wish Paul luck and freedom from indignant nerd rage when he steps down from a panel. Or, preferably, I hope he never has to in the first place.

2 responses to “Panel Parity

  • Pat

    But is there parity among the authors at large? And, as dumb as it sounds (people are going to be calling me anti-women’s-lib in a second), do the gals actually want to be on the panels? I ask only because I’m not as strong in sf as I am in other genres, but…are female sf writers at large as diverse and specialized a group as the male? In fantasy, 100% I can see it. But sf?

  • mlorenson

    What do you mean by specialized? If you mean qualified to talk on panels, then absolutely, and it goes far beyond just having written something. From the few cons I’ve gone to, the women are just as likely as the men to have masters and doctorates degrees. And as Paul said, it goes beyond just the authors. It’s about bringing in the fans, especially for fan-run conventions. People like bloggers or anyone who writes about SFF would be cool, costumers, movie reviewers, girls who like games…
    I don’t know how you’d measure “want to be on a panel”, but how about this: I’d have to dig, but I expect the attendance at many cons skews even more towards the male than a 65-35 split (certainly that was my impression at ConCept), and if that’s true then as a percentage women fans are more interested in being panelists than men are (ie. if women make up 35% of the panelists but 20% of the general attendance). I’m sure there are more out there who would be interested, it’s just a matter of putting in the effort to find them, or better yet, make them interested enough to come find you.

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