Opinion: Gender blindness or… why we don’t want token women

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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.

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60 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 15th Mar '13 - 1:42pm

    I completely agree with the authors of this article. I’m glad women are speaking out against the patronising practice of “positive discrimination”. Equality means treating people equally and I believe if I was a woman I would not want special treatment. I would want to believe I got somewhere on my own merit.

    It is this sort of thing that lead Diane James to leave the Conservative Party for UKIP.

  • Eddie Sammon 15th Mar '13 - 1:46pm

    I meant led.

  • Anthony Hawkes 15th Mar '13 - 1:52pm

    My reasons for signing up to this are entirely selfish. After a long career with too many meetings, I am of the opinion that all male panels are usually boring. My experience is that the more diversity you have, the more you get interesting ideas that you had probably not thought of otherwise.

    I am against token anything, but I see this as a small step towards getting the best people available. I am not mandating mixed panels, just saying that I don’t want to be on all male ones.

  • jenny barnes 15th Mar '13 - 1:57pm

    I remember listening to a debate on the Today programme between John Humphries and two men about abortion. I think that illustrates the problem.

  • Eddie Sammon 15th Mar '13 - 1:58pm

    As Tim Oliver says, how far do we take this, do we say people should refuse to sit on all white panels too? Or have taken state education panelists? The list goes on.

  • Don’t you ever ask yourself whether participants in all-male panels got selected because they are men? Maybe you should. You seem to assume that a woman has to be assumed to a ‘token’ unless she can prove otherwise. But no man is ever asked to prove that he’s qualified in spite of his sex. Yet the problem wouldn’t even exist if it were not the case that, time after time, weak male participants were chosen over stronger women simply because they were male.

  • Richard Dean 15th Mar '13 - 2:25pm

    What is meant by “token”? Is its definition gender-biassed?

    It’s important to have speakers and panelists from all sources of difference, certainly all the major ones anyway, because otherwise the discussion risks bias and risks being ignored.

    I am imagining a panel that is mainly male, and an audience who is mainly male, and a panellist who is judged to be “token” partly because the things she says or the way she says them aren’t understood or considered useful by those males, and partly because those males don’t let her in to the conversation and won’t listen anyway.

    In such circumstances, ANY woman could be a useful addition to the panel, and the more outspoken the better!

  • Tracy Connell 15th Mar '13 - 2:54pm

    I’m against positive discrimination. making a decision to put someone on a panel based on their gender is ridiculous. It should be experts in the field whatever their gender. And if we do go down that root, what about transgender? Won’t we be discriminating against them if we don’t have one on a panel. What about colour and background?

    Sorry, but this is a slippery slope. Same with all women training groups etc. For years women have been fighting for equality, but then end up segregating themselves off. Why? Why should such a big deal be made out of being a woman. if you can’t do a training session with men then how are you going to deal with them in a work situation?

    I think it wrong to boycott being on a panel just because of the other panelists gender.

  • Liberal Neil 15th Mar '13 - 3:29pm

    I applaud Mark for his stance. I don’t think it is about having ‘token’ women on panels, it’s about making meeting organisers think a little more widely about who they could invite.

    I noticed that the meetings organised by an organisation I am involved with was heavily male dominated in its panels at conference and we are going to make a concerted effort to do something about it.

  • Maria Pretzler 15th Mar '13 - 3:41pm

    The authors of the article say this: “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.”

    So, why do the men on an all-male panel deserve it that the audience may well ask what better qualified woman should be sitting in their place?

    But this isn’t just about men and women on the panel – it is what this says more generally about the organiser’s care in inviting people, or their clout as measured by their ability to convince the very best people to attend. I’d suggest that an all-male panel almost always suggests that the organisers haven’t been trying hard enough to get the best people (male or female, so some of the best men might also not be there). If you really think hard of the best people in a field, you are highly unlikely only to end up with men on that list – not if you do it properly. So an all-male panel reflects badly on the organiser, and might put the panelists into an awkward position quite like the one described in the quoted passage.

    No panel member should have to put up with the suspicion that he is only there because he is a chum of the organiser who happens to know a little bit about the subject, instead of some of the real experts who have obviously not been invited.

    These arguments always work both ways.

  • It’s certainly worth raising the point to highlight the issue and ensure that we’re not blind to overlooking potential female participants – but the trouble with a ‘policy’ like this is that it makes a big deal out of participants’ gender and as a consequence undervalues all the other potential differences between participants, for example their ethnicity, religion, social background etc. And taken to its logical conclusion it would be possible to put together a truly ‘representative’ panel since it would be impossible with such a small number of people to ensure that all the various differences within our population were accurately reflected.

  • Foregone Conclusion 15th Mar '13 - 3:59pm

    I think it’s worth a stab, and we’ll see what happens. It’s voluntary, it’s about something quite small (conference fringes), and the risk of ‘tokenism’ is pretty small imho.

    My worry that as a party, we are very small-c conservative and, in objecting to ‘positive action’ in even its more limited forms, we completely fail to solve our very real problem of gender imbalance. There’s a very real chance that we might end up with an all-male parliamentary party at the next election, something which would be an absolute scandal. The current system plainly isn’t gender-blind. We need to try *something*, and I think this is a very good starting point.

    I agree with Anthony Hawkes that greater gender, racial, social etc. diversity often leads to a wider range of views. The number of conference fringes I’ve been to – filled with very intelligent men, no doubt – that just basically all agree with one another (and usually the conventional wisdom) after five minutes is too many for my taste.

  • Eddie Sammon 15th Mar '13 - 4:14pm

    “I agree with Anthony Hawkes that greater gender, racial, social etc. diversity often leads to a wider range of views.”. I think this is dangerously prejudice. Is there any evidence to say women have different political opinions than men? I want to see politicians as politicians, not as male or female politicians.

  • David Evans 15th Mar '13 - 5:03pm

    I would be rather more concerned about the preponderence of people who get selected because they are “known” in the Westminster bubble. It would be interesting to know how many men and women (other than MPs) were selected who live outside the South East region, the M25, or maybe even London itself.

  • Paul McKeown 15th Mar '13 - 5:44pm

    “Gender blindness or… why we don’t want token women”

    Quite agree with the second bit, but disagree strongly with the first bit. The Lib Dems have evidently NOT been gender blind, otherwise they would have a much more equal ratio of women to men in councils throughout the country and in Parliament. Therefore I would welcome women only shortlists, with capable non-token women.

    I write as a male voter, who happens to think a lot of the noise from feminist quarters is often silly and equally often gender chauvinist. However, I do also accept the evidence of my own eyes and life experience. Women are discriminated against in the workplace and in selection for positions of political leadership, often in subtle ways, and usually in ways in which no harm is meant.

    I think that it is high time that Britain’s main liberal political party got serious about this issue. I think it not unreasonable an ambition, for instance, that by 2025, say, 50% of Lib Dem MPs should be women. And that requires tough corrective policies in the short term.

    It is absurd to say that shortlisted women MPs are “token”. They got there and will stay there by electoral choice and through their own merits.

  • I’m against positive discrimination, and would object strongly to (for example) All Women Shortlists.

    This voluntary action by the two Marks is not positive discrimination, it is COUNTERING the positive discrimination that men have benefited from for a very long time, therefore I fully support it.

  • Eddie Sammon 15th Mar '13 - 6:03pm

    Let women say whether they want positive discrimination or not, but what I will say as a man is that men have rights too and I’m not too cowardly to stick up for them.

  • But this isn’t just about men and women on the panel – it is what this says more generally about the organiser’s care in inviting people, or their clout as measured by their ability to convince the very best people to attend.

    Yes exactly right! If all this means is that organisers are just going to invite all the usual suspects + a woman then it is an utterly pointless exercise. I’m sure there are many qualified women AND men who are forever overlooked because they don’t necessarily have the confidence or stamina to push themselves to the front of the queue.

  • The sad truth is that in both business and politics the selection of participants on boards, for a job or on an expert panel are chosen because the person choosing has in their mind a view (often unconscious) of what the person they are choosing will look like. It’s almost always a pale male. Unless a conscious decision is taken to open up choice to include non-male and non-pale people for the party’s expert speakers at conference fringes, then this problem will persist.

    Incidentally, the overwhelming evidence is that without positive action, including all-women shortlists, it has never been possible anywhere in the world to achieve gender balance in any lawmaking body. Our party has talked about the problem for the last 20 years. It is no nearer achieving it now than then, precisely because with one notable exception – in 1999 when zipping was used for European selections allowing for a gender balanced European Parliamentary Party – the party has always rejected the one thing that would achieve its objective.

  • Tony Dawson 15th Mar '13 - 6:40pm

    “The Lib Dems have evidently NOT been gender blind, otherwise they would have a much more equal ratio of women to men in councils throughout the country and in Parliament. ”

    That statement has no basis in reality.

    The principal reason for low numbers of Lib Dem women in Parliament is mainly because most women are far too sensible to chronically exploit themself (and others) shamelessly in the manner required for Lib Dem candidates to ‘break through’ against superior numerical and financial odds in particular constituencies. ‘Nutters’ in Farronese. We have too few ‘succession seats’ where the Party feels comfortable/safe enough to pick the ‘best potential MP’ rather than the ‘best candidate’.

  • Paul McKeown 15th Mar '13 - 7:36pm

    “The principal reason for low numbers of Lib Dem women in Parliament is mainly because most women are far too sensible to chronically exploit themself (and others) shamelessly in the manner required for Lib Dem candidates to ‘break through’ against superior numerical and financial odds in particular constituencies.”

    Babelfish:- “politics is a difficult business, nice women aren’t up to it”

  • Morwen Millson 15th Mar '13 - 8:54pm

    I’m an older woman. I once thought that women didn’t need positive discrimination; if we were good enough, we would make it to the top, whether in employment, income or politics. I’ve been a Parliamentary candidate and I’m currently group leader of my council group – in fact all three groups on my council are currently led by women.

    In spite of that, I now think that we do need positive discrimination. It was all women lists that improved the gender balance in the Labour party in Westminster, it was zipping that improved the gender balance in the Liberal Democrat European group.

    We need to make people think that all male panels look odd, that something – or someone – is missing. When that happens, we can go back to making sure that we’ve got the best people available.

  • daft h'a'porth 15th Mar '13 - 9:15pm

    Sheesh.

    People getting their undies in a bunch about positive discrimination please note: thoughtlessly picking a woman out of a list of all the women working in that domain in order to add a token female to your panel is indeed bad behaviour. So is lazily phoning up four of your best mates every time you decide to set up a conference panel. Both of these are reprehensible for the same reason: both imply that you’re just treating the whole thing as an excuse to hang out with a few of your mates, both demonstrate that you are lazy as heck and both demonstrate that you’re not exactly trying to push the boundaries.

    To event organisers: action like that Mark describes is intended to make you put in a bare minimum of effort, to get you to think a little bit about whether you are just lazily propagating the status quo. Which, if you regularly return to the same old same old every time you decide to put on a panel, you are. I know how it is, conferences become an excuse to meet your old mates, you go every year and you submit something because, hey, you usually do. You work with the same people because, hey, you know them. You know you can have a great discussion. They’re fun, they’re safe – and they’re comfortable. Do you ever think: am I acknowledging the breadth of opinion in this room? Am I really doing everything that I can to broaden my own thinking here? If not, here’s the thing: you should be asking yourself that on a regular basis because if you are not doing so you are failing yourself and the organisation with which you are involved, whatever it is.

    This isn’t just about gender. Certainly it isn’t about token women – in the domain in which I worked until fairly recently this discussion was about whether it was okay to have so many all-female panels or whether we wanted token men. It’s really about whether we are inclined to peek out of our little fishpond of our own disciplines or preoccupations and pay attention to the world outside – or whether we’d rather sit there and wallow in our comfortable , familiar mud.

  • Miranda

    I remember a younger Jo Swinson saying exactly the same thing and helping to kill off zipping. Sure enough the European parliamentary Group is slowly but surely going male. Liz Lynne was replaced by a man (not his fault he was second on the list) and Elspeth Atwool stepped down and was replaced by a man. When Rebecca Taylor steps down in 2014, top of the list will be another man. If we retain two seats in the SE one of them will be a man. So the number of women in the EU parliamentary group will be DOWN by four since 2009. Not a single man has been succeeded by a woman, except when MEPs stepped down mid-term and the next on the list was a woman. You still believe that women succeed on their own efforts? Do you seriously believe that we will get more women parliamentarians under the present system?

    Jo can of course speak for herself, but I think she and many of the other young women who supported her then have changed their minds.

  • I don’t really see where Mick above is coming from – both Liz and Elspeth were elected as female MEPs and voluntarily gave up their seats. You can’t really generalise from two cases but their being replaced by the next person down on the list was a consequence of their individual decisions not to serve out their terms, not any failing by the party in putting women forward for election.

  • daft h'a'porth 16th Mar '13 - 12:21am

    @Ian
    “both Liz and Elspeth were elected as female MEPs …”
    One presumes that both Liz and Elspeth were elected as MEPs. Male, female or neuter, an MEP is an MEP; unless I’ve been misreading the ballot form I am not sure what the word ‘female’ brings to that sentence — or do I get to vote for a female MEP and a male MEP?

    I think Mick’s point is probably that ‘the list’ from which replacements are drawn is blatantly full of male candidates, which suggests that the list compilers are exhibiting a selection bias since that result is unlikely to happen by pure chance. Either women aren’t able or willing to get on this infamous list, or they are – but the compiler(s) aren’t very good at picking female candidates. HTH.

  • Two wrongs don’t make a right.

    I’m fed up of being patronised this way. I don’t care whether panellists are female, LGBT, purple, Welsh or Martian, as long as they’re knowledgeable and interesting.

    Likewise a woman MP wouldn’t represent me or understand my “needs” any more than she would the bloke next door.

    I frankly think it’s puerile to think we’re achieving something just because we achieve “x” number of breasts in a given group. It’s what’s inside the head that matters.

  • Helen Dudden 16th Mar '13 - 8:22am

    I agree, when you are a woman you expect to be treated the same as your male colleagues.

    I read law, and I like family law, it is often said that women have a better understanding of some situations. I think I would agree but I hope I bring something positive into the world other than being simply another pair of breasts.

  • Mark Blackburn 16th Mar '13 - 8:29am

    We’ve often found it challenging in this respect when organising SLF events. We could ask say six men and six women, and chances are maybe four men would accept and one woman. Why? Well, maybe more women have a life outside politics, or more of a work/life balance . They seem more reluctant to give up evenings and weekends, when such events typically happen, and who could blame them? I think this whole issue is fundamentally more to do with the unreasonable demands of a political life, and that culture is what we need to change, by any and every means possible.

  • Helen Dudden 16th Mar '13 - 8:45am

    Surely you could find enough women to have input on a panel?

  • Lee Chalmers 16th Mar '13 - 9:08am

    This is a fascinating discussion and encouraging in some ways. One of the reasons I left the Lib Dems was the frustration at their gender blindness, or lack rather of an awareness of what might need to happen, at the level of the system, to bring about the true meritocracy that we all want. The authors of the article fall in to the trap of believing that wishing it were a meritocracy makes it so. It does not. We have systemic discrimination against women in public life and systematic discrimination against men in private life. This is not up for debate. This is a well research fact, just go to a gender studies unit in a University as ask for references. The LSE is a good place to start. If you do not believe this it means you are under-educated, not that your opinion is correct, I’m afraid to say. The question really needs to be ‘how do we start to shift the systemic gender discrimination both sexes face?’. Marks panel idea is a start. Until the Lib Dems take this question seriously they are not going to get women elected and they are not going to attract a serious percentage of women’s votes (nor the men that understand systemic gender issue either.)

  • Daisy Cooper 16th Mar '13 - 9:44am

    PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE can we move beyond this false argument of merit vs diversity!

    Women constitute 52% of the population. There are women experts in every profession.

    The problem is a vicious cycle: men are more likely to be seen on panels, so those same men are more likely to be invited on to panels, women are more likely to feel like “imposters” because they don’t see other women on panels and not put themselves forward, and thus the cycle continues…

    We need ‘circuit breakers’ to break this lazy and ingrained cycle of behaviour.

    If event organisers invite the first woman they can think of, irrespective of merit, then of course it will look and feel tokenistic.

    The incentive that this pledge should create however is for event organisers to go out and find women EXPERTS – and they exist, on every subject, in every sphere!

  • Chris Greaves 16th Mar '13 - 11:17am

    The question for me, and it is addressed to Mark and others who make the pledge, is: What happens if a full search for the best panellists, on whatever subject, is made, and the answer is three, say, or four men? What happens if hard evidence is presented that a number of women were approached, and it transpires that all were either demonstrably less well qualified on the subject than the men, or were as well, or even better, qualified but unavailable?
    And what happens if the organiser of the said even was a woman? Or at least one of the organisers was a woman?
    Let me immediately say that I absolutely support the bringing on of women in our party, and the creation of the new group that was created a year or so ago, and remain one of the supporting members. I made it clear at the time, though, that we need to encourage and support women so they could be the best and compete on a level playing field, But I am absolutely against so-called “positive discrimination”. Its as bad as negative discrimination.
    There has to be a better way to achieve the objective than by making a pledge not to do something. Not only does that potentially eliminate oneself from arenas where one can make a genuinely needed contribution, but it also seems to smack of inflexibility, and I wasn’t aware that LibDems are known for being dogmatic.

  • My point is simply that in the absence of zipping, when it was a requirement that half the regional lists should be headed up by a man and half by a woman and that the lists should be alternately men and women, the European Parliamentary Party from the UK is becoming less gender diverse than it was in 1999. This is especially marked in Scotland and Yorkshire where the 1999 rules ensured that a woman was elected at the top of the list and now both lists are headed by men. My guess is that when Sarah steps down in London, she will be replaced by a man too.

    Of course, we may lose a lot of seats unless we start taking European elections much more seriously and actively seeking out pro europeans to support us in which case it will be a mute point anyway.

  • Jane Brophy 16th Mar '13 - 5:30pm

    Nearly every time I witness an all male (and pale) panel in the Lib Dems I inwardly groan for two main reasons. Firstly, because I can nearly always think of individual women who are equally knowledgable , qualified or worthy to be on that panel. And if mentioned to the organisers , they nearly always agree that there are worthy women who were overlooked. Secondly, because of the messages we transmit to the people we are representing and communicating with when we have a high proportion of all male panels. In the 21st Century all male and pale panels make our Party look dated and old-fashioned. Role models are important and we all get to be where we are by modelling ourselves on the best. Strong women role models in all Parties have massively influenced my political career.

    To change the world for the better we need to take small steps. I commend Mark Pack and others who have signed up to this positive step towards representing the diversity within our party. In the Lib Dems men can choose whether they decline a place on a all male panel. The decision is voluntary, so it is unlikely that all male panels will disappear in the immediate future. Even if the women chosen as substitutes aren’t initially the best, they will be ‘good enough’ and everyone has to start somewhere to get the experience needed to be on more panels. To become the best we need lots of practice. I would like to promote this opportunity to be the best, if they aren’t already, to our Lib Dem sisters and daughters.

  • Nicholas Smith 16th Mar '13 - 5:50pm

    Discrimination is wrong! So called positive discrimination, I believe, can do more damage than negative as I believe it breeds resentment, it’s patronising and it demeans the status and ability of the person ‘getting’ the discrimination.

    Top marks to Ruby Kirkwood for standing up against this at the Conference yesterday – I’m proud of her.

  • Yes, Nicholas, discrimination is wrong. The problem is that certain people only perceive gender discrimination when it is, as they see it, directed at men. Show them an all-female panel and they cry “positive discrimination! tokenism!” But show them an all-male panel, and they shrug “obviously there were no interested or qualified women speakers.”

    I have a difficult time understanding how anyone can be insensitive to that. Discrimination is wrong, and the question here is why and how there is so much self-evident discrimination against women at fringe events, and what we are going to do about it. If your first reaction is to deny that a problem exists, then presumably your answer is “nothing.”

  • Positive discrimination leads to poeple like Baroness Waris being in government, I feel that argument in itself should be enough to end this debate about whether arbaitory decision pledges and caps and quotas are a good thing.

  • Positive discrimination leads to poeple like Baroness Waris being in government, I feel that argument in itself should be enough to end this debate about whether arbitrary decision pledges and caps and quotas are a good thing. I also not think that disagreeing with one measure for overcoming this issue means I am against change.

    While I do not agree with forcing rules and quotas on parties and organisers, I completely respect Mack’s decision not to go on a panel if he personally feels that those picked for the decision are the best people to represent the debate.

  • Positive discrimination leads to people like Baroness Waris being in government, I feel that argument in itself should be enough to end any debate about whether arbitrary decision, pledges, caps and quotas are a good thing. I also do not think that disagreeing with one measure for overcoming this issue means that I am against change.

    While I do not agree with forcing rules and quotas on parties and organisers, I completely respect Mack’s decision not to go on a panel if he personally feels that those picked for the debate are not the best people to represent the debate.

  • Sorry, it seems my internet went loopy and my comment got posted three times. I would delete my comments, but there does not appear to be anyway to do that on Lib Dem Voice.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 19th Mar '13 - 7:59am

    As Daisy Cooper correctly highlights females make up the majority of society, so personally I would like to know why males complain about positive action or positive discrimination, when they as a minority are clearly benefitting the most from this?

    In the real world, which has moved on considerably from that within the Liberal Democrat Party, people got over the debate about gender balance, and having a reflective panel on interviews etc, years ago. As the Party that claims to desire to “Build a fairer Britain” I ask when are we internally as well as externally actually going to start to “walk the talk”?

    The equality and diversity agenda must move on from being merely a favored topic of the Left of the Party, and manifest itself in all that we say and more importantly do. I would ask the critics whether they genuinely wish the Party to progress beyond being the eccentric cousin in Politics, and have widespread support so that it can not only think up wonderful policies, but actually bring life to them for the benefit of the nation?

    If the Party truly wishes to remain the white, male, middleclass, heterosexual, graduate club please have the decency at the next totally exclusive Conference to pass a motion to this effect, and then the rest of us, will formerly know that we should leave. But if the Party wishes to change then allow those of us who can assist it to do so, but this will mean that some people will have to accept that everyone should have a right to ‘sit at the table’ and be able to decide the future, and that they will have to give up their unearned positions of priveledge.

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera
    English Party Diversity Champion

    Ps. Apologies for any typo’s as this was bashed out whilst traveling .

  • Ok. I think I need to explain the practical implications of this movement by giving an example from my fringe organising experience. The fringes I organise are campaigning fringes. I am campaigning within the party to change our drug policy for the better, a campaign I know Mark Thompson is particularly enthusiastic about and would not want to jeopardise. What might have happened to my campaign if I had discriminated based on gender?

    Let’s take the fringe I organised for the 2010 Autumn conference: http://ewansliberalmusings.blogspot.co.uk/2010/09/its-time-we-talked-about-drug-policy.html
    There are two major campaigning drug policy organisations that share my views in the UK: Release and Transform. I invited a speaker from both and got Danny Kushlick from Transform and Niamh Eastwood from Release. I also invited Julian Huppert because I knew drug policy was an area he was interested in. Now please imagine that Niamh was not Niamh but Neil. I would have had an all male panel on my hands, and knowing that all the male MPs had pledged to boycott all male panels (clearly Mark Thompson’s goal on this given his twitter activites), I would have been faced with the option of rejecting one of the speakers from the campaigning charities (and the funding for the fringe event that came with it) or changing my choice of chair to a female whose views on the subject I could be less sure of.

    It would be natural to change my choice of chair. Since that fringe event in 2010, I have invited Julian Huppert to chair another in 2011, and he subsequently requested their be a Home Affairs Select Committee enquiry into drug policy. This enquiry reported back late last year, communicating some very encouraging progressive conclusions. Nick Clegg subsequently came out in favour of a Royal Commission on the subject in December.

    There has been an incredible amount of progress in the discussion of drug policy in the UK in the last year. A significant amount of that progress might be attributable to Julian Huppert’s attendance at that fringe event in 2010 and his subsequent assistance in drafting the 2011 drug policy motion and bringing about the HASC drug policy enquiry.

    I invited the usual suspects to that fringe event in 2010. They were experienced drug policy advocates presenting excellent, reasoned cases for reform. One of those usual suspects happened to be a woman. If we had been living under the undemocratic imposition of gender discrimination in panel members at that time, and if Niamh had been Neil, much of the progress we have made might have been lost.

    For the sake of passionate campaigners for unfashionable causes everywhere, I’d like you to drop this misguided campaign.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 19th Mar '13 - 10:45pm

    Personally I wish for nothing more than a truly equal society as Jade suggests, but sadly this does not currently exist, but positive action can assist in dismantling the barriers of intolerance, and will assist the Party in changing the enviroment and culture that still means that members are held back from fulfilling their true potential, merely because they are female, gay, considered as disabled or ethnically diverse, etc.

    Although some people do not judge others on grounds of an individuals diversity, unfortunately the majority of society appears to. Whilst this is the case, vigilance, legislation and positive action are required.

  • daft h'a'porth 20th Mar '13 - 12:20am

    @Jade Holden
    “I don’t know if anybody’s noticed, but 2 of the 3 authors of this post are women so this isn’t a case of males complaining about ‘positive action’ – in fact, it’s my view that the original proposals reek of men asking other men to let women sit with them to make them all look a bit less sexist.”

    It’s my view that, at best, your post ‘reeks’ (sorry, but the fastest way to show you that your language is unacceptable is to use it right back at you) of naivete – people who have not themselves been bitten by this problem and therefore have decided that the issue must therefore not exist. Not the most constructive way of dealing with it.

    I am amused that at the suggestion that female gender is a get-out-of-the-patriarchal-mindset-free card, incidentally. The whole POINT is that your gender is totally irrelevant to your contribution and should therefore be disregarded. R Uduwerage-Perera perhaps should not have made the male-complaints point but I don’t think you should be involving the gender of the authors either :-)

    The gender of the authors aside, this opinion post is very annoying indeed because it is so firmly grounded in the idea that everything should be about the (apparently easily wounded) egos of potential conference participants. If potential participants are such fragile flowers that the mere thought that an element of the decision to include them might be their value as token participants is enough to cause them to lose all interest in taking part, then they have no future in the public sphere anyway because if they are even somewhat successful, they can expect far worse attacks on their egos very shortly thereafter.

    Any attempt to paint ANY large organisation as some kind of fantastic social meritocratic utopia is a complete waste of time because such organisations are invariably full of cliques, bias and the like. Your original post seems to deny this, which is interesting. This bit, “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” is particularly unrealistic. Why would you assume any such thing? I suggest to you that organisers regularly invite speakers for reasons like: they know the guy well and think they’ll get an acceptance, they want to hang out with them, they need a favour from them, they owe them a favour, they’ve been doing this for years and it’s tradition, the other guy can only get their travel paid for them if they are speaking at the event, etc. Am I wrong? I know this is how it works by default in at least two domains because I have been involved in organising many events, but it’s always possible that political conferences are magically exempt from, er, politics.

    Also, do you realise that you are accusing Mark et al of internet white knighting on this subject solely in order to make themselves look better? You cannot see how that could be construed as offensive?

    “Speaking against tokenism (which I wholeheartedly believe is at the core of this agenda) should not result in claims that we are in any way anti-ANYONE!”
    Don’t you think that your predilection for seeing insincerity in this ‘agenda’ should, though?

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 21st Mar '13 - 10:44am

    Jade, I appreciate and hear your concerns, but whilst intolerance is so obviously a daily experience for so many women, and others in society, and the power and influence remains unjustly within the hands of an elite few, then I am committed in my belief in the benefits of positive action to level the playing field.

    As a mixed heritage member of society with a number of other diversity attributes, I do not see myself as a victim, or lesser than anyone else, but frankly at times this is an irrelevance for I am very aware of the unnecessary extra barriers that are, and have been placed in my path, and quite frankly, at the very least these are tiresome. As a male, middle class and educated member of society, I am actually able to counter balance some of these negatives, but others less fortunate cannot.

    Along with others, including Nick Clegg himself, I am committed to bringing about changes to our Party and society that will mean that we are more relevtive of society at all levels, and positive action is a tool that I suggest would be beneficial to consider.

    Positive action is first and foremost not charity. It does not exclusively benefit the minorities (or in the case of women, the majority) concerned but makes very good business sense, be it in politics, manufacturing, in retailing, in the police or elsewhere, and it positively affects everybody’s working and living conditions.

  • daft h'a'porth 21st Mar '13 - 11:36am

    @Jade Holden
    We all agree there is a serious problem and it needs dealing with. Therefore, is it not necessary to come up with some positive – in the sense of not just sitting around going ‘gosh, it’s all a bit messed up, isn’t it, what a shame’ – way of doing something about it?

    I would say that the approach that was proposed does some harm and does some good. The harm is that some people will be too lazy to engage with it and will therefore in some cases prefer to seek ‘token women’ on the basis that it’s the path of least effort/most visibly contemptuous approach. The good is that the gender balance of activities will improve, at least in the short term. If the alternatives are a) to do nothing or b) to take the proposed approach, I would suggest that it’s worth going with b) and mitigating the damage by taking other firm positive action, such as reinforcing the message to persistent old-boy network abusers by taking the lazy little sods out for a quiet conversation. One politely but firmly explains that this is not 1975 and that it is no longer acceptable to reduce one’s interaction with half the human race to McCain’s ‘binders full of women’. Sooner or later the message will sink in.

    ” If some of the people that you’re trying to stand up for are unhappy about it then I think that’s worth noting.”
    See, I am not sure that the original proposal is meant to be ‘standing up for women’. Again, that’s the internet white knight interpretation coming out, the ‘poor little women need my help’ interpretation, which I don’t think is the way this should be seen. It isn’t so much that the men need to be standing up for the women. It’s more that anybody of whatever gender who is involved in event organisation and consistently fails to invite anybody other than the usual suspects is letting themselves and their organisation/colleagues down. The organisation/colleagues therefore need to politely but firmly get that point across. If you feel there’s a better way to do that, please make a suggestion… One of the harder lessons for me to accept is that it is not always enough to be able to point out the flaws in a proposed action. It’s the difference between being right and being constructive :)

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