I was confronted with another exclusively male panel this week. It was at the RSA (again). Unfortunately, the RSA is not alone. Ellie Mae O’Hagan wrote this week ‘on misogyny and female columnists‘ in the New Statesman. Many activists communities often replicate the same man on the podium women as supporter, organiser and helper model. I blogged about the problem at a “Radical” Communication Festival (and received 57 comments). In my experience this problem is evident in the Transition movement. I have heard stories about it being a problem in Uk-Uncut and I am aware that women have been organising to address the problem in the Dark Mountain community. Women tell me that it bothers them but they would not like to consider themselves the kind of woman who publicly challenges these all male line ups. Why not? How did womankind slip into such passivity only a couple decades after our mothers’ demanded that they were heard and granted the rights we now enjoy. How come our historical memory is so short?
When my mother brought me home from the hospital at six weeks old she had to go to work the very same day. There was no maternity leave for adoptive mothers at the University of Guelph (Canada). Later, I sat through many of her women’s studies courses when she could not find childcare. In these seminars women questioned inequalities and prejudices. They also learned social skills to demand equal pay, to demand an end to violence against women and children, and to demand a voice in both personal life and public discourses and affairs.
My mother and me in a photobooth.
These rights are now taken for granted. Many no longer see the need to identify with the term ‘feminist’. This dismissal of feminism can only weaken communities. It is not just that we only get to see men on the podium, but that other perspectives are marginalised by this constant prioritisation of the masculine authority. I want to stress that this problem is not only about gender. It is about what counts as valid knowledge. We literally cannot solve social problem without the contribution of women. Many feminists have written about this issue – including ‘Peak Oil is a Women’s Issue’ by Sharon Astyk. I have written about ‘The Environment is a Feminst Issue’ and ‘Lessons from Feminism for Environmental Education’.
Those on decision making committees claim that these male biases just happen ‘naturally’ – but we all should know by now how social conditioning and systemic privilege create what is seen as natural; how those with privilege define what is important; how cultural ideas are shaped by those who have traditionally held power. They just speak with more authority!
A couple week ago I complained on the RSA Women Speaker’s Network list about another RSA event with an entirely male panel and discovered, thankfully, many of my feelings were shared. Servane Mouazan had compiled a directory of nearly 300 women social innovators as a guide. While many communities suffer from gender problems, I am going to focus the criticism on the RSA as they are one community who easily have the capacity to address these issues and have a responsibility to do so. Here are some concrete proposals for the RSA to address the consistent failure to present women as speakers:
1) Any panel of over three people must have one women or person of colour. Larger panels should consist of at least 30% women/minorities representation (I have borrowed this idea from Jeremy Till, Dean of Architecture at the University of Westminster, who refuses to sit on panels without 30% female representation). Good magazine also recommends that men should refuse to sit on all male panels.
2) Speaker candidates should not be selected as ‘token’ panelists, but should be chosen from intellectuals, campaigners and activists who have strong views in defence of various marginalised communities or radical critiques of the issues being presented.
3) It is the responsibility of the RSA (and other institutions and communities) to maintain just practices in regards to gender and race. The RSA has no business presenting itself as an leading intellectual society if it cannot support an agenda for equality. The RSA must devote space and resources to address these issues. Ideally the RSA would hire a women’s officer with strong feminist credentials who will address the serious gender imbalances at the RSA in panels and speakers.
RSA members must demand that the RSA makes resources, time and space available for women to share in RSAevents and public platforms made possible by the society. Women did not gain the rights we have now by waiting for men to give us the rights we now enjoy. Feminists spent decades demanding every right we won. We now appear to be losing our voices. My hope is that the RSA, as a socially progressive organisation with older members than the newer activists communities, will draw on the historical legacy of the women’s movement and make a concerted effort to ensure women’s voices are given equal authority as men’s.