A discussion about Panel Parity

A week ago I got back from the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton. One of my duties while I was there (in addition to representing Angry Robot and supporting our swathe of authors who were present) was to tell folk about next year’s FantasyCon (the annual convention of the BFS – the British Fantasy Society), which I am co-chairing with Sophia McDougall.

At the end of one evening I plonked myself down in a chair next to one of my favourite  BFS stalwarts (let’s called him Simon), and we chewed the fat for a while, until I said, “We’ll see you at next year’s FantasyCon, of course…”

Simon paused, and a look was passed between him and his wife, until he said, “Actually, Lee, I’ve been meaning to have a chat with you about that. I’m a little bit worried about this ‘Panel Parity’ thing.”

Pause. Rewind.

FantasyCon 2014 is operating with a “Panel Parity” policy, worded as follows:

Panels are drawn from the membership of the convention, and its Guests. We are dedicated to ensuring that gender parity is achieved across the programming at FantasyCon 2014.

It is possible that some panels may feature more men than women, but in this case an equal number of panels can be expected to feature more women than men. We will not be forcing an equal male/female parity on every individual panel, but will be seeking to ensure that across the convention as a whole men and women are equally represented on panels, including as moderators.

This is not something that FantasyCon has ever done, before (though it is becoming increasingly commonplace at other conventions), so it was inevitable that some members might be concerned by it. It is a truism that significantly more men than women appear on panels at SF&F literary conventions, not just in the UK, but worldwide. Panel Parity is a way of ensuring fairness.

Before my conversation with Simon, I’d already come to the conclusion that Panel Parity was the right thing to do, but hadn’t actually delved too deeply into the reasoning – it was more instinctual. My friend Paul Cornell has been living this policy for the last few years. I’m a relative newbie. The conversation with Simon helped me better understand the very policy that I had instigated for the convention.

The following is a fair representation of the conversation, though it has been paraphrased throughout (because (a) it was over a week ago and like most conversations I have, I didn’t record it, (b) a lot of wine was flowing, and (c) I’ve taken out some details which might identify Simon).

Simon explained that he was worried that the aim to get a 50/50 male/female ratio across programming smacked of political correctness, and that panel members should be chosen for their suitability to speak on the subject.

I disagreed with the former, but agreed with the latter and asked Simon (deliberately provocatively) if he thought that women were less capable of speaking on genre subjects than men.

He said no, but that there would be occasions where the best people for a particular panel would just so happen to be men. I agreed with this, and countered that it was equally likely that on another panel the best people suited to that subject might just as easily be women.

If a range of panels is chosen for a convention wherein the best possible combination of panelists happens to be heavily weighted toward men, then it isn’t the picking of panelists that’s the problem, but the picking of panels. A wider range of interests and skillsets needs to be identified and utilized, or the members of that convention are getting a very one-sided view of the genre.

I pointed out that I recently conducted a bit of informal research into the debut novelists we publish at Angry Robot – and the gender of the author is never a factor in deciding whether or not to publish. Only 37% of the debut novelists we have published are female. However, if we ignore the debuts that have come through agencies, and look only at those who we have worked with direct, this figure becomes 47% (and should a recent offer letter be accepted and go to contract stage, this figure becomes 50%). So, where we are approached directly, we find that 50% of the novels we deem good enough to publish are by women, and 50% by men. I don’t yet have enough data to determine why that figure drops significantly when the authors come through an agency.

So, if 50% of the debut authors we publish are women, it suggests strongly that there is as much good work being created by women as by men. If that is the case, shouldn’t women and men have equal representation on panels? Panel parity isn’t about tokenism, I explained. It’s about fairness. It’s about acknowledging that there are just as many good women working in the industry as there are men.

I could tell that this was sinking in, but Simon had another point to make: “When I see a panel I want to know that the best people are speaking on it. Sometimes that will be men.”

I made the point that this was precisely the reason that FantasyCon 2014 is not having panel parity across individual panels, but across the convention as a whole. Also, I pointed out that a panel that consisted of (for example), me, Mark Morris, Conrad Williams and Tim Lebbon might be an interesting and entertaining panel, and I’m sure the audience would find a lot to enjoy in it, but because of who we are, and where we come from, the panelists would only be able to speak from the experience of white middle aged, middle class men. How much more interesting would that panel be if it had an alternative perspective?

The conversation with Simon lasted about an hour. At the end he thanked me, and said I had given him a lot to think about, and I could tell that he was not paying lip-service, that he was actually considering what I’d said.

I saw him again at breakfast the next day, when he thanked me again, and said that he was slowly coming around to my way of thinking.

There are few people I admire more than those who are genuinely willing to listen to other people’s opinions, and who are willing to reconsider their own opinions as a result of reasoned debate. It’s a trait that is sadly uncommon, and to be admired all the more for it. Simon, if you’re reading this, you don’t know how much I admire you following our chat two weekends ago. I always did, but now even moreso.

It is true that when asked to appear on a panel a woman is much less likely to agree if she feels she has less to say on the subject, than a man with the same level of knowledge and experience. A man is often more likely to “have a go”. How many times have you attended a panel where the first words out of a panelist’s mouth are, “I’m not sure why I’m on this panel”? Is it really likely that there isn’t someone else at the convention who couldn’t do a better job? Isn’t it just as likely that that alternative panelist is female?

There are – of course – women who disagree with Panel Parity, just as there are men. No one policy, no one opinion, no one point of view is ever going to be universally accepted – of course, not. But until a fair gender representation across the convention scene is commonplace, until we don’t have to think about fairness any more, this seems to be the best we have.

If we are to have a range of interesting panels, designed not only to entertain and inform, but to encourage the next generation of creators to take part in panels and in the convention scene as a whole, we must design our programmes so that they appeal to as broad a range of attendees as possible. It’s not good enough to keep trotting out the same old themes and panel subjects if those themes and panels are heavily male-focussed, and then claim that we’re doing the best by our members. We have a duty not only to include women in the programming, but a duty to the convention members, to ensure that there is as broad a range of programming as time and budget will allow, to make the panels interesting to everyone.

And will Simon be at FantasyCon next year? You know – I’m pretty sure he will.

25 Responses to “ “A discussion about Panel Parity”

  1. Lizzie B says:

    You know, sometimes I think the whole ‘but sometimes the best people are men’ thought comes from their frame of reference – because men don’t tend to read as many books by women (I’ll find that stat as soon as someone challenges me to, but I know I’ve seen it). So therefore they can’t think of an alternative to talk about epic grimdark fantasy as they are used to Brandon Sanderson.

    It seems every time we have to prove that women are writing the same stuff as men because so many people just aren’t noticing it. Perhaps if people kept an open mind about the gender of the authors they choose, then we wouldn’t have to have these conversations in the future. So it’s a wider issue than just cons, but I’m so happy we’re starting there! And well done you for being awesome and explaining and well done ‘Simon’ for taking the time to think about it.

  2. Lee,

    This is one of the best and most elegantly simple summaries on the pros of parity I’ve read. And I love the idea of parity across the con rather than individual panels.

    Few things make me as crazy as the “women writers panel”, where the only thing the writers have in common is their gender identity – and lit fests are absolutely guilty of this too.

    My first WorldCon experience was awesome. The programming was inventive and interesting and among others, they put me on a Future of War panel which I was not remotely qualified for, especially with a writer who had served in the peace-keeping forces in the DRC, in front of a hardcore crowd of military SF readers and army veterans.

    So, I researched the hell out of it and prepared interesting, provocative things, from drones to the face-melty ray thing and the robo-dogs the army was testing at the time, so that I WAS qualified – and threw in some South African apartheid history, some Anglo-Boer war guerilla strategy, and government suppression, like cutting off cell phone networks to quell riots – and explored not just the tech, but the moral issues of using them – it was a terrific panel.

    It paid off and I think I even impressed some of the vets, because a couple of them stopped me afterward to ask about Moxyland.

    We’re writers – which makes us creatures of the imagination.

    Whatever your gender or genre, you can find a way to talk on any topic, especially if it’s one that’s designed to be engaging and thorny, and hey, people are paying to see you, the least you can do is prepare.

    • That sounds like an amazing panel and I love your approach to it. Can we expect a mil-book from you now? Shame to put all the research to waste :)

    • That’s hysterical (in a great way)! Last weekend I found myself scheduled for a “Romance for Geeks” panel that I expected to be a lifestyle panel rather than the literary panel it was. My initial thought was “I can’t do this,” but in realized that while I don’t read Romance Novels™ I do really lot of character- and relationship-driven SF and fantasy, and a lot of the craftsmen and craftswomen who do great genre mash-ups like Bujold and Pratchett.

      I spent about an hour talking with the moderator before the panel, and we came up with a roadmap that took us through the structure of the Romance Novel™ and common tropes, into paranormal romance, urban fantasy, and general f&sf that uses romance well.

      I also talked with the program staff, and found I was on the panel so it wouldn’t just be a “ladies’ panel.” (And before someone gets offended, these were the women running program who told me that.)

      But there’s nothing wrong with contacting program staff and explaining that you don’t think you’re right for a panel (assuming you get your draft assignments early enough), and studying for a panel is even better (assuming you get your draft assignments early enough).

    • Steve says:

      I wish I had been there for that discussion, Lauren. It sounds as if it was a corker!

  3. What worries me is that race and other social issues don’t seem to come into it any more. If somewhere is seeking true parity, then race, class, gender, sexual orientation and disability should all be playing a part. You make a good point that on your panel all the men were middle class, and I think that you’re going to find a lot of that as well. Most of the women chosen are most likely to be middle class as well, and white.

    I’m not sure I understand the parity across the convention aspect, but my current understanding is that if there were too many panels dominated by either sex, then other panels would be created that would re-balance the weighting. Does the possibility then arise that (for argument’s sake) an all white, all male etc. panel would then cause disparity in the audience by appealing to only men? Why this fixation with panels? I agreed with you in that
    I feel that parity should go beyond panels and people from all walks of life should be encouraged to attend these events but not that panels should be engineered to do this other than ‘what would be a really cool panel?’.

    I fear that I’m rambling somewhat now, so shall press submit and be damned.

    • Lee says:

      Matt, I agree wholeheartedly that race and other social issues should be considered, too, but it is always going to be impossible to force a situation where, because of pure parity representation you need to ensure that 0.56% of panelists are female Russian rockstar PoCs. But if we let the impossibility of an ideal prevent us from doing anything, then we’ve lost. We have to start *somewhere*, and this is where my starting point is. Yours may differ, and that’s good, because as you say, everyone should be represented.

      I’m not sure I understand why you ask “why this fixation with panels”, though. It’s a convention – the structure of it is built around panels.

      • Sorry Lee, my paragraph got broken somehow after I cut a load of waffle. What I meant was why fixate on panels as these policies do, rather than on the audience, have great panels that bring in more parity as a whole, and especially in the audience.

        • Kev McVeigh says:

          There’s a symbolic element to consider Matthew. If women see panels where they are represented fairly and taken seriously they will be more inclined to be part of that audience and to participate themselves.

        • Race, class, sexual orientation and disability are all being discussed. But this is the big obvious problem with easy numbers. Half the world is women, and there are genre subcultures where women are prominent, so why not in general SF and fantasy conventions?

          It’s a chicken and egg thing. You can promote a convention to female fans to get more women to attend, sure. But will they return if the program doesn’t feature panelists whom they can relate to? Will the promotion even be successful?

    • It’s an interesting thought. You are correct Matthew in that when we look at diversity and parity it rarely includes sexual orientation, race and disability. This is a particular bugbear of mine. I’ll be running a series of blog posts on Dark Matters featuring a number of views on multiculturalism in the SFF community. Wesley Chu is one of my bloggers for this series. I think if we do all we can to raise awareness and ensure that we treat all others as they should be treated then we are doing a little to help the situation, and despite what some old school con attendees may think, there is a problem. The fact that there are panels ran by a white middle class male panel or a women writing panel shows it isn’t being addressed correctly. I for one like the Fantasycon 2014 stance and truly hope to attend, health and time permitting. And that’s the other thing. My health. I just missed my fave con last weekend because of my health. It happens. But when I do attend I hope to have help getting my bags up to my room and also hope that my room, acknowledged as a disabled room, isn’t on the 4th floor with thin elevators that barely fit a wheelchair or scooter. These are barriers that can be addressed on a practical level.

  4. Tom Hunter says:

    A really interesting post, thanks Lee.

    I think one of the best things about the approach you’ve laid out here is that the emphasis isn’t just about ensuring parity but also focusing on something that will help create a much fresher-feeling programme over all.

    Anything that helps remove the ‘I have no idea why I’m on this’ in-joke that seems to permeate so many panels can only be a good thing, and I for one would love to see what new kinds of topics might be created as a result of this approach.

  5. We did an issue of Journey Planet about this very topic with a wide variety of opinions on the matter. It’s at http://journeyplanet.weebly.com/uploads/1/5/7/1/15715530/journeyplanet13.pdf.
    Chris

  6. pete sutton says:

    Speaking from the LitFest POV (although I am a genre guy) I see that we had a good mix of “panelists” (although we have a minority of events that are panels) in that we had a 40/30 mix men to women & also did an event with Art & Power (a writers group for disabled & other socially excluded folk) which was really good.

    Speaking as an attendee at both LitFests and Cons I do wonder at the fact that Cons are dominated by panels in the first place…

  7. Interesting post. As FantasyCon 2014 will be the first “big” con I attend, it’s nice to see such a sensible approach.

    I guess the other thing is who *picks* the subjects for the panels, and making sure there’s as equal as possible decision making…

    • AmyCat / Book Universe says:

      “…who *picks* the… panels…”:
      I’ve seen several smaller conventions which send out e-mail requests to the membership for panel topics and ideas. The most successful ones have included ideas they’re already considering, asking us to note for each whether we would a) be interested in attending such a panel, and b) be able to participate as a panelist or moderator. They’ve also included vague-suggestion things like “someone asked if anyone wants to talk about thus-and-such…”.

      Once they’ve gotten the initial responses back, they send another letter, often with more firmed-up topics and with some proposed panelists, asking for more comments and for volunteer panelists. Sometimes they’ll ask a specific person to consider being on a specific panel (“We want to have a panel on THIS, and N— suggested you as having useful experience”).

      I’m normally very busy as a Dealer at cons, but have made time to attend and even be on a couple panels of this sort… ASKING your membership encourages participation from people who might not normally consider being on a panel. Granted, it wouldn’t work well for larger cons, but even with a WorldCon, there could be requests to the membership (in P.R.s and other publications) to submit panel ideas and suggest panelists, including themselves.

  8. Sylvan says:

    An excellent article and, indeed, social parity (in this case, gender parity) across panels is a great idea! I think I’ll need to do more with my co-heads of my gaming department to elicit referees who are female in an effort to provide broader context.

    How do you think your policies will progress with regards to sexual orientation, gender identity, race, and other such demarcations? Not as criticism: just curiosity because I would love to know more so I can bring it up to our general Con-Comm, locally.

    Yours,
    Sylvan

  9. Rosanne says:

    And I think the Fantasycon policy is a move in the right direction and I really liked Lauren Beukes’ comments on her experience at Eastercon. At WFC I was invited on a panel about fairies – a subject I thought I didn’t know a lot about. However, I contacted the moderator and got some idea of what she wanted to cover. I had a good think, did a little research and realised I knew much more that I thought I did.
    I’d add that parity can be seen as something to strive for, not necessarily a set of hard-and-fast quotas.
    I also agree with those that have brought up race, class and other social parity issues. WFC looked very predominantly white, as have previous FCons.
    Perhaps a step towards addressing that could be inviting more diverse guests of honour, which can influence the rest of the con. For example, I think Helen Oyeyemi (The Opposite House, White is for Witching, Mr Fox) would be a cracking GOH, and could have exemplified the Next Generation theme very well.
    For all I know, Helen Oyeyemi might have been invited and couldn’t make it. But it’s just a thought. There are others who might have been good.

  10. Alex Bardy says:

    This post is spot on, Lee. While I like the idea of having some form of ‘panel parity’, I like even more the idea that while some panels may be weighted one way or the other, there will be another panel elsewhere weighted in the opposite direction. This is a sensible, modern approach, and one I wholeheartedly endorse. As you so graciously put it, we have to start somewhere. May I just add that I can honestly say I don’t think I have taken the slightest bit of notice as to whether or not the book I’m reading has been written by a man or woman, 80% of the time I’m reading stuff for review, but the rest of the time it’ll be an author I like, a subject I’m researching, or something I simply like the sound of, irrespective of what sex the author is.

  11. Alex Bardy says:

    As an additional to my last comment — I have read 67 books since October last year, give or take a handful of others that I dip in and out of for research purposes. Of those 67 (yes, I have records and am that sad), 39 were by male authors (approx. 58%), and 28 were by female authors or jointly written by a male and female. I don’t know how this fits with the general male to female ratio of genre writers, but am guessing it’s a pretty close match, so in that sense, any attempt at panel parity ought to be applauded, and I’m proud to see you adopting it for FantasyCon 2014…

  12. I would argue that it’s also a way of ensuring you get the best people for the panel. Because there is this misconception, from the employment sector to the creation of panels on a fantasy convention that we select people on merit ( it has been demonstrated fairly conclusively that we are subject to a range of cultural/racial/gender biases subconscious or otherwise).

  13. Sorry will try that block quote again:

    This is not something that FantasyCon has ever done, before (though it is becoming increasingly commonplace at other conventions), so it was inevitable that some members might be concerned by it. It is a truism that significantly more men than women appear on panels at SF&F literary conventions, not just in the UK, but worldwide. Panel Parity is a way of ensuring fairness

    I would argue that it’s also a way of ensuring you get the best people for the panel. Because there is this misconception, from the employment sector to the creation of panels on a fantasy convention that we select people on merit ( it has been demonstrated fairly conclusively that we are subject to a range of cultural/racial/gender biases subconscious or otherwise).

  14. Gah what have I done :) Lee’s points in italics mine in normal text.

    Simon explained that he was worried that the aim to get a 50/50 male/female ratio across programming smacked of political correctness, and that panel members should be chosen for their suitability to speak on the subject.
    I disagreed with the former, but agreed with the latter and asked Simon (deliberately provocatively) if he thought that women were less capable of speaking on genre subjects than men.

    Far from being political correctness (parity or equal opportunity employment in the case of HR) is the most easily implemented tool to handle a very complex issue ie the subjective judgement on whether a person is suitable.

    And when it comes to choosing someone’s suitability to speak on a subject, that’s where I think the issue becomes tricky. In some areas it might be easy to judge a person’s skills and experience in others it becomes very subjective.

    He said no, but that there would be occasions where the best people for a particular panel would just so happen to be men. I agreed with this, and countered that it was equally likely that on another panel the best people suited to that subject might just as easily be women.

    There are a number of reasons why a panel might be weighted towards men and I think that the reason that might be so is less to do with subjective judgments of who is “best” but rather: profile, who on the program committee knows them, the fact that some women may have had bad experiences with certain male panelists before and will not subject themselves to sexist behavior again, that certain high profile women experience panel fatigue by virtue of always be called on, that due to disparity there are a number of women who might be “qualified” but don’t have panel/public speaking experience/ confidence

    If a range of panels is chosen for a convention wherein the best possible combination of panelists happens to be heavily weighted toward men, then it isn’t the picking of panelists that’s the problem, but the picking of panels. A wider range of interests and skillsets needs to be identified and utilized, or the members of that convention are getting a very one-sided view of the genre.

    Are you saying that there are some subjects which men by virtue of being male are likely to be more qualified to speak on?

    If I were programming I would be looking at both issues. If you are confident that you have chosen the “best” possible people for panels and you still end up with heavily skewed panels I’d be looking very closely at your selection processes.

    So, if 50% of the debut authors we publish are women, it suggests strongly that there is as much good work being created by women as by men. If that is the case, shouldn’t women and men have equal representation on panels? Panel parity isn’t about tokenism, I explained. It’s about fairness. It’s about acknowledging that there are just as many good women working in the industry as there are men.

    And as I stated above it’s about trying to aim for the best possible selection of people. When you say we will attempt to fill 3 out of 6 spots with the best women we can find you are removing for those 3 positions the implicit biases that operate that prevent their selection, it forces organisers to look outside their usual networks, it removes the handicaps that are placed on women that prevent them from “competing” on a level playing field.

    I could tell that this was sinking in, but Simon had another point to make: “When I see a panel I want to know that the best people are speaking on it. Sometimes that will be men.”

    I think there is a wealth of untapped quality out there in the community, if you really tried you could probably fill any panel entirely with women and they would all be as highly qualified as the 6 men you would have had on the panel. And that word “best” again, how do we measure that, what informs our perception of best? familiarity? our own cultural biases? our own personal preferences?

    I made the point that this was precisely the reason that FantasyCon 2014 is not having panel parity across individual panels, but across the convention as a whole. Also, I pointed out that a panel that consisted of (for example), me, Mark Morris, Conrad Williams and Tim Lebbon might be an interesting and entertaining panel, and I’m sure the audience would find a lot to enjoy in it, but because of who we are, and where we come from, the panelists would only be able to speak from the experience of white middle aged, middle class men. How much more interesting would that panel be if it had an alternative perspective?

    I like your second point here. But I am concerned that a “parity overall” approach doesn’t “force” organisers to interrogate their selections. I’d be concerned that organisers might be be tempted to make up the numbers with “women writers in fantasy” or “feminism and fantasy panels” ,which might be interesting and valuable but they aren’t really going to address the issue. If you target panel parity, parity overall would be a given no?

    I’d much prefer it if an organizing committee aimed (note I said aimed) for direct panel parity. You may not achieve it for a number of reasons, but it shouldn’t be for lack of trying.

    And all of this applies in some way to POC and other traditionally disadvantaged groups as well.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Linkspam, 11/15/13 Edition — Radish Reviews - [...] A discussion about Panel Parity [...]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>