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.”
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.