The ethics of conference speakers


In March 2018 Stanford University in California held a two-day conference in applied history. There were 30 speakers. Every single one was male and white.

Like most academic fields, applied history is dominated by white men. However, there are also many women and people of colour who work and study within the discipline. No doubt there are also queer historians and historians with disabilities. To be fair to Stanford, three female historians had been invited to take part in the conference, but each of them declined due to previous commitments. To be fair to women, I’m sure that more than 10% of historians are female. Stanford inadvertently made history itself by ending up with the biggest manel ever. (For those who haven’t heard the term before, a manel is a panel comprised entirely of men.)

Of course the media, as usual, reported this event as though gender is binary. While there is some point in prioritising women, who still face structural discrimination in professional life, this also risks further marginalising trans and non-binary people. Their voices are equally important, as are those of people from different sexual orientations, belief systems, and so on.

As an occasional event organiser, I find it difficult to ensure that panels are suitably diverse. There are a number of reasons for this. First, in the UK, there are about four times as many women as there are people of colour. Another is that someone’s ethnicity is not always obvious from their name or their voice. There are white Jamaicans, black Scots, and so on. It doesn’t feel right to ask a potential panellist, ‘Are you a bit brown-skinned at all?’ in the hope of ticking the diversity box. Yet trying to be ‘colour blind’ isn’t right either, because meritocracy ignores the structural inequalities in our society that keep many people of colour from reaching a career stage where they are offered speaking opportunities.

Second, like Stanford, I have experienced women declining invitations; also, those who do accept have sometimes dropped out at the last minute. Of course men may drop out too, but despite efforts to achieve equality there are still fewer women in the academic pool than men, especially at senior level, which makes it hard to find women in the first place and harder to find female replacements at short notice. Also, women may drop out for different reasons from men. For example, anyone can get sick, but recent research from Carers UK shows that women are still much more likely than men to have to prioritise caring for family members in need.

Because of the number of people of colour in the UK, if you put together a panel of five people and they’re all white, that in itself is not outside the curve – particularly if you’re outside London or Birmingham. However, if you put together a second panel of five people, and they are all white too, you need to start asking yourself some serious questions. The proportions where you are may be different, but the principle is the same – and it also applies to other oppressed and marginalised groups.

I don’t have a good solution to this problem, but I do think it’s the responsibility of all of us to work towards finding such a solution; particularly those of us who are privileged. People who are disadvantaged, marginalised or oppressed already have too much to do. If you’re not sure whether you are privileged you can check here. Like gender, privilege isn’t binary. For example, I am white and English-speaking British, which confers privilege; I am also female, bisexual, and living with disabilities, which does not. These elements don’t cancel each other out; they mean that some aspects of life are much easier for me to manage than they would be for others, while other aspects are physically and/or emotionally draining.

Ethically, I think I have a responsibility to identify and do what I can to address structural inequalities in our society. After all, it’s long past the time when manels or all-white panels should be thought of as acceptable. If you also feel this way, here are some ideas for what we can do. If you are invited to speak at an event, you can ask about the diversity of the speakers before you choose whether or not to accept the invitation. (A young white male researcher recently told me he does this, and mentioned that one of his life’s ambitions was never to speak on a manel. I love that the next generation is getting so much right that my generation got wrong.) And something we can all do is to make a point of finding and using the work of women, trans/non-binary/queer people, people of colour, Indigenous people, and people with disabilities who are working in our fields. If we find ourselves on, or listening to, a non-diverse panel, we can cite their work in our presentations or our questions – and we should be citing it in our own scholarly work too. Also, this should also raise everyone’s awareness of more potential speakers for our events.

I believe these are actions that can help, but again I doubt they’re all we need to do to solve this problem. Perhaps you have more ideas?

Author Bio: Dr Helen Kara has been an independent researcher since 1999 and writes and teaches on research methods.