Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Nota bene: Women on panels

All panels must include at least one woman. An easy, sensible rule, and one which Bloomberg seems to have signed on for.

We will henceforth follow the same standard that several other news organizations and our own conference unit are adopting. If you are asked to participate on a panel — as a speaker or moderator — you should ensure there is at least one woman panelist prior to asking for approval. (At the risk of stating the obvious, the woman could be you.) 

I’ve followed this rule myself for a few years now, and there’s a better-late-than-never feeling to the new Bloomberg policy. But the thing about coming to such issues late is that you can learn from the people who went first. Which I fear Bloomberg hasn’t done.

The problem is that there’s a good way and a bad way to ensure that every panel includes at least one woman. The good way is to ensure that you have a good gender balance of panelists overall, with at least one woman on every panel.

Then there’s the bad way. Which is to ignore gender balance entirely, and put together a program where a bunch of panels feature all-male lineups. Finally, to avoid being accused of having all-male panels, you go along to somewhere like Bloomberg and ask a female Bloomberg journalist to moderate. Problem solved!

I’ve seen the result dozens of times, and almost every female journalist knows the score. There’s a lineup of professional men in suits, all of whom come from a certain industry. And then you have the outsider, a woman, performing the journalistic function of moderating the panel, asking the questions rather than answering them.

This might bring the panel in line with rules about having at least one woman on every panel, but it still violates the spirit of those rules. Which is why my preferred version of this rule specifically excludes panels where the only woman is the moderator. If a journalist is the only woman on a panel, that’s ok — just so long as she’s a fully-fledged panelist.

It’s not that being a moderator is in any way an easier or lesser job than being a panelist; it’s not. (In fact, it’s much harder.) It’s just that allowing the female-moderator loophole effectively gets conference organizers off the hook when it comes to identifying and inviting qualified female panelists. I wish that Bloomberg, knowing that full well, had taken this opportunity to close the loophole.