All-male panels are an indirect way of shutting women up. This is not a hyperbolic statement but a call-out on both symptom and cause of a patriarchal society.
When men are invited to speak in a forum, they are invited based on reputation and/or because the invited already belongs to a network of friends. Actual expertise is, surprisingly or rather not so surprisingly, secondary. Most times, men will invite other men because in the prevailing hegemonic boy’s club kind of thinking, men’s views are held in higher regard.
Although in many places women and men have equal access to education, with women outnumbering men in higher education, men’s intelligence is a natural amalgam of cool rationality, clear-thinking and objectivity that legitimises his smooth transition into the comfortable position of being heard and taken seriously. Women’s intelligence is remarkable and threatening. She must work harder to be as good as a moderately intelligent man, because her judgment is thought to be easily clouded by emotion. Her journey to being heard and taken seriously is more uncertain and often perilous.
And what kind of views? A) Views about the state of the nation and its treasury, religion and faith, ideologies of our times – views that somehow require the legitimacy and authoritative aura of the male voice. B) Views that do not raise attention to the specificities of gender and sexuality. Specificities are not universal and sometimes accused as divisive. Universality is the ideal, privileged and invisible norm just as being men and masculinity are the privileged and invisible norm.
The predisposition to invite an all-male panel is about the hierarchy of speech. It is not that women are forbidden to speak in public forums. They can be in the audience, speaking from amongst the crowd and challenge the all-male panel without much consequence as they are uncredited even when they speak truth to power. An all-female audience with an all-male panel will do nothing to challenge men’s dominance of the public sphere. Women in the audience are treated as passive listeners, a collective mass lacking individuality – one woman’s views and complaint are the same as any other.
There will always be women panelists who speak in forums. Their numbers are small and their names have a repetitive quality over the years. Usually, these women gain a certain cache as the go-to-woman to fix an embarrassing gender ratio problem. If only these problems were always embarrassing to event organisers. In more insidious cases, the regular female faces are there because they do not upset male privilege.
What women are not invited enough to do is to partake in the higher forms of speech; authoritative speech on matters that relate to power, wealth and wellbeing of people in general, male-dominated discourses disguised as universal issues and matters of cultural expertise. The higher forms of speech conducted by and between men are to be distinguished from lower forms of speech such as chatting, prattling and the one that women are constructed to do: idle gossip.
All-male panels represent one part of a constellation pushing women out of public life. Women are stalked, harassed, and virulently insulted on social media and the web when they commit to more stylised public speech in opinion pieces, blogging and vlogging. This is because women are stepping into the precious stomping ground of patriarchy where hitherto women appear for men and serve men’s interests, now women’s voices are saying things men and some women do not like to hear and the voices are getting louder.
When event organisers continue to host all-male panels, decline their invitation to speak as a panelist and do not attend their events. If boycotting these events come across as too extreme, the least one can do is to point out that yet another forum on ‘something important’ will feature an all-male panel and decry its backwardness.