The Issue of 100% Male Conference Panels


I was the woman who asked the exclusively male panel at Memefest’s Festival of Radical Communications ‘Inspiration day‘ why there were no women presenters. I think it’s worth unpacking this topic a little with the  intention of helping Memefest develop into an network with strong input from women and other marginalised voices. Diversity of representation should by now be standard practice in any international  network, but is especially critical for one that aspires to represent a radical tradition.

The Memefest speakers represent excellence in design, critical thinking, engagement with social movements and activism. In their defence the group represents those active within the Memefest network that evolved organically over the past decade. Speaker choices might not be a matter of producers choosing men but rather choosing people who were active building the network. There were many women participants in the workshop (although the facilitation was also 100% male most of the week). It was suggested that perhaps the next generation will be more equal. I consider the struggles my mother endured and am aware that changes made by feminism have been the result of active intervention; not passively waiting for the next generation to resolve masculine domination. Today women are central to all radical social movements (at least all those I know) and radical female writers are well recognised. In sharp contrast, the design industry is particularly good at privileging male voices and roles out all male panels at conferences with astonishing consistency and shamelessness. What I find particularly disturbing is that this can happen under the auspices of radical communications.

When I spend a day watching a panel of men present their work, I find myself slipping into despondency pierced by outbreaks of frustration. First, I become bored with a sameness of perspective and expression. Then these events start to represent more than just the results of one organisation’s decisions on composition of a panel, but all the many subtle ways in which women are undermined in systems that still privilege men and male perspectives. In communication and design industries this masculine bias is amplified as dominant cultural discourses are constructed by and reflective of the experience of masculine cultural producers.

Although Memefest has grown organically and done an admirable job in building a community of radical communicators, this issue of balance and female voices is critical. Women and ‘other’ marginalised voices offer deeper critiques of systems of exploitation because we have the lived experience of being on the end of oppressive discourses, structures and systems. Feminism and anti-oppressive scholars have argued that marginalised perspectives can offer clearer critiques the ways that power works. A network of radical communicators must be explicitly feminist and anti-racist; and it must also do the work that accompanies creating inclusionary processes.

How is work created by women with different? Mapping out the territory covered by female radical communicators could be seen as an important part of the Memefest workshop’s week-long project ‘Mapping Socially Responsive Communications’. I believe that women communicators have unique contributions in our method, style and content due to different subjectivities. This difference is especially noticeable for radical women – as radical women will more likely challenge conventions. These differences mean that we are less likely to be featured in design magazines or conference panels. Defining difference is sketchy territory but I will hazard one comment that I think is particularily relavant. We often have a different approach to collaboration; one which accepts the value of diversity and allows voices to keep their individuality (and authorship) within a group. Perhaps this attitude comes from a historical awareness of how collectivism and universalising discourses can reproduce the perspectives (and power hierarchies) of the dominant voices.


Critical artwork created at our Socializing Social Marketing workshop the same day as the 100% male panel @Memefest 

It might sound strange to describe women’s voices as excluded in an era when women are everywhere in the media. As long as women peddle the dominant ideology they are well received. Progressive networks must acknowledge women’s input as vital. When there is an obvious lack of balance, conscious intervention is necessary. I am sorry that I made the panel uncomfortable on Friday, but I had to say something. Several women expressed gratitude to me. I also have to say that I resent having been forced to say something. This issue made the week quite hard work for me. It is an uncomfortable process of publicly criticising a group of men that I think are doing good projects (as individuals). I think it is important enough issue to risk the discomfort as networks and society at large will continue to perpetuate these problems until we confront the reasons why women are filtered out influential positions within industries and make determined efforts to address these problems.

I should also mention that I am have faced the same problem in other networks where I was the person at the platform. During my years with Transition Town Brixton we struggled with the fact that we had a overwhelmingly white membership in Brixton, well known for as a centre of black culture. In Climate Camp and Climate Justice Action we sought to use the privilege we held to support voices from the global south. Making concerted efforts to show solidarity across sex, race, class and location is the foundation of radical politics but always more difficult in practice than in theory. Critically, it’s not about token voices, but strong critical voices. Memefest seems open making this happen and I would welcome a conversation on this topic within the Memefest community. Oliver’s socially responsive communication aims to ‘expose how power works’; masculine domination is one of the most subtle examples of power and should be a primary site for contestation.

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