To the delight of many party members, Mark Pack recently announced his decision to decline invitations to sit on all-male panels at Liberal Democrat fringes, urging other men to take the same course of action. A few of us, however, feel uncomfortable with the suggestion that women should be invited to speak for their contribution to the diversity of the panel, rather than for what they can bring to the debate.
Currently, anybody who is invited to speak at a fringe can be confident that they have been asked – obvious choice or not – because somebody thought they had something to say that was worth listening to. Women deserve the right to feel as strong a sense of pride as men when they stand up with something to say. We are concerned that second-guessing the reason for an invitation will not encourage women to participate confidently.
A woman might very well be the most qualified person to speak on a subject, so it is unfair to cause audience members or female speakers to ask themselves which male might have been sitting in their chair. We have to ensure that women can be confident that they are regarded equally as panellists. Any well-meaning man signing up to this agenda risks both corroding that confidence and fostering resentment in overlooked males. By treating men and women as different groups, we promote separation and conflict, not equality.
And what about the fringe organisers? It is unfair to ask them to start viewing their potential panellists as check boxes. If fringe organisers are made to feel pressured into looking for an extra woman to appease the audience and male panellists, how do we expect them to answer the inevitable question, “Am I a token woman?” It is not unimaginable that women who share our concerns will feel patronised and refuse to attend conference fringes if they receive an honest answer or see through a lie.
The idea that a panel should look a certain way reduces women to what we’ve spent decades fighting against. It goes beyond just women, to viewing us all as categories to be ticked off a list – gender, race, disability. We are more than that. We want you to see past that and to judge us on the content of our character, our experience and our skills. We want you to listen to the valuable input we have. We need to stop assuming that there’s a one-size-fits all approach to women. Quotas and token panel seats might encourage some women to put themselves forward and put off others entirely. Until we address the root of the problem of why women are not invited to participate as often as men, we aren’t dealing with it at all. We’re just window dressing our fringes and our party.
It is our view that the problem will fester if we treat only the symptom. We should be striving to create a society where gender is not important, where all unwanted barriers to participation are removed and people are judged by what they bring to the table and not by which box they tick. By pitting woman against man, this initiative risks creating lasting barriers to equality that will be hard to break back down when we realise that they were erected in error in the first place. We should aspire to a society in which everybody is gender-blind, and in which anybody brave enough to participate in public discussion is celebrated for more than just their identifiers.