Saying “No” to All-Male Panels: Why it Matters

Think about the last conference you attended and try to recall: was there an all-male panel? And what about the conference before that? In fact, have the majority of panel discussions you’ve attended, organised or – if like me, you identify as male – participated in been all-male?

Sadly, for most the answer is “yes” across the board.

As someone working in the sustainability space (and in sustainable development for the events industry no less!), I often find myself in discussions lamenting the silence and silencing of female voices on public forums. For events of any industry or field – be it academia, pharma, tech or even sustainability – it’s far more common to see men deliver key-note speeches or be part of a panel than women. In fact, it happens so often that there’s even a Tumblr account devoted to mocking this phenomenon.

While some claim that these scenarios reflect existing gender imbalances within certain fields and management positions overall (which in itself is deplorable), the fact of the matter is that the numbers still don’t quite add up. No matter how you cut it, current levels of female (in)visibility at conferences is neither representative of “the real world” or acceptable.

But why does gender-balance matter? To put it bluntly – what’s the value?

  1. Women make us smarter. When we take steps to ensure the voices of women are heard in discussions the group’s collective intelligence rises, according to research by the Harvard Business Review. In experiments where teams were assigned a variety of challenging tasks, the teams made up of members with higher IQs didn’t perform the best – the teams with more women did. As the very purpose of panels is to address and showcase insight around certain challenges through discussion, the value of having women involved is clear.
  2. Women encourage (meaningful) discussion. Homogenous groups are more confident in their decisions than diverse ones, but despite that confidence, homogenous groups are far more likely to arrive at wrong conclusions. In a nutshell, having women – and the diverse range of opinions, views and experiences they bring – on a panel encourages holistic discussions which are more robust and have more value. As very eloquently put by Simon Rothery, CEO, Goldman Sachs Australia – “conferences and panels provide a platform to share experiences and perspectives. When you limit the range of perspectives, you limit the quality of the conversation.”
  3. Women protect and promote your brand. Improving diversity paints you, as the organiser or the brand you represent, as more progressive, forward-thinking, non-discriminatory, and a leader in your industry. On the flip side, a clearly gender-biased programme brings with it the threat of reputational damage. During the 15th International Congress of Quantum Chemistry for example, more than 1,500 scientists signed a petition at to boycott the event after it was unveiled that from a list of 29 conference speakers, chairs, and honorary chairs, none were women. In response, the conference committee came up with a new list of speakers that included six women, but that was too little too late – the damage was done. Similarly, during the 2016 World Economic Forum, “women” was the third-most tweeted topic (with more than 10,000 tweets) because only 23% of the speakers and moderators were women. What more, 20% of the panels — on topics as varied as energy, global debt, refugees, and the European financial outlook — were composed entirely of men.

Now that we’ve established the importance of striving for a more gender-balanced representation at conferences, the next hurdle is the “how”. Here are a few practical tips to help you ensure diverse speakers and views are represented:

  1. Don’t accept excuses. “It’s a male dominated field” and “the women speakers said no” are never good enough reasons for not having female representation on a panel. There is a plethora of resources available to help organizers find qualified, female speakers. For example, Women Also Know Stuff is a directory of scholars, particularly in foreign policy, you can tap into for reference. Seeking a tech, business or start-up investment speaker? Try exploring the Female Investors Opportunity: a collective created to connect female investors with speaking platforms. It may take some work, but it is certainly possible.  Of course, starting this research early is crucial as it minimizes the chance of falling back on your “default speakers,” who are more likely to be men.
  1. Set goals and track them. Achieving gender balance at events is going to require deliberation, effort and emphasis. If you deem female representation and diversity at your event a priority, then set related goals for your conference and make them clear to your entire planning team. I would also consider making this commitment public through your marketing channels  as it will promote your diversity agenda (which may in turn attract greater diversity and build reputational value). An added bonus is that it’s also a good way to keep you and the event owners accountable to these goals.
  1. Don’t take shortcuts. One of the worst things you can do is to make a commitment to diverse representation, only to place a token woman on stage as the moderator. Panels are asked for their opinions, insights and their expertise, while moderators facilitate the conversation. Both are important roles, but they’re not the same. Women can, and should, fill both seats.

The reality is this – if we continue to unquestioningly organise and participate in all-male panels, we will be doing ourselves, the events industry and society at large a huge disservice. Incorporating more diverse perspectives, including those of women, offers the best chance of encouraging the robust, thought-provoking discussions that are at the heart of the events industry.

As the gatekeepers to the stage, event professionals have the potential to create platforms which encourage meaningful dialogue built on the experiences of the many, rather than the few, and to shine a spotlight on the women – and men – whose insights may very well change the world.


The writer is Pranav Sethaputra, Group Sustainability Consultant at MCI – the world’s leading event management and association consultancy firm. Feel free to contact him at @PranavSTH or


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