Women and talks panels- the frustration of only getting half the picture.

Last week I started reviewing for local southern Tassie newspaper The Mercury.

My first gig was Dark and Dangerous Thoughts– the ideas mini festival held before the internationally acclaimed Dark Mofo.

I’ve been to quite a few ideas summits, conferences and talks programs over the last few years and I’ve started playing a bit of a game. I’m curious about the presence of female achievement at these kind of shindigs.

Being the kind of human who is interested in a diverse range of contemporary thinkers, I’m quite often looking in the program to see if there are women speaking (sadly it’s still a thing that they’re not) This issue has been highlighted in recent years through all male panels and the people who have signed up not to be the only female on a panel. I’m one of them, and I decline to be on any panel as a token woman.

But I’m also curious about the ideas and leadership of women. The presence of women in the conversation and in what context they are brought up.

I’ve observed that female panelists don’t have a worry at all referring to men who have played a role in the topics they are talking about. However, it’s a very different picture with male panelists.

So this is the game:

The game is that I listen out and note when male speakers, particularly key note speakers mention women.

After all, they are half of the population.

I note the context of how they reference women, do they know the names of other pivotal women in their topic, do they speak of them in a generalised way, or do they only refer to women in the context of them being wife, mother and daughter? Do they include the women who are just as successful as men, who have made breakthroughs, changed history, added to the conversation?

The thing about the game is that once you play it, you can’t unplay it and the results are often kinda depressing.

I watched male key note speaker Stan Grant talk across politics, Indigenous identity, sports and philosophy at Dark and Dangerous Thoughts. He’s a writer and a broadcaster and quite the knowledgeable man about town with access to a plethora of information sources.

He never once mentioned a woman’s name. The closest he came was saying the word ‘Thatcherite’. He also genuinely lamented that he wished he spent more time with his wife and daughter and he loved his mother. He did not mention them by name.

But most devastatingly, not once did he mention any women who had contributed to Australia’s narrative on Australian identity, human rights or culture. In fact he didn’t mention a woman’s name at all during his 2 hours on the stage.

Not Cathy Freeman, not Lindy Burney, not Marcia Langton, not Truganini, not Gail Mabo, not Pat O’Shane, not Nova Peris, Anita Heiss, Rachel Perkins, Bronwyn Bancroft, Mum Shirl, Eleanor Harding, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, Ashleigh Barty, Samantha Harris, Jessica Mauboy, Leah Purcell, Deb Mailman, Frances Rings or Sally Morgan, not Gladys Elphick, not Fanny Cochran Smith or Joyce Clague.

None seemed to come to mind.

When he delved into international human rights he couldn’t bring to mind any women either. Not Rosa Parks or more recently Malala Yousafzai.

Women’s achievements in the public sphere were simply invisible.

I would like to say that this doesn’t happen very often, but I’d be lying. It happens less when a panelist or key note speaker is a woman or a younger man, but it still happens then too.

Sure, there is an unconscious bias at play and sometimes women’s achievements or female experts don’t come first to mind because they are often not profiled as heavily in the media.

But seriously– we can all do better.

If you’re in a position to bring together a panel or you’re going to be on one, here’s some quick tips to help undo the unconscious bias.

1. Read up on journalists and writers that profile women and follow them.

2. Use your social media contacts and ask the question ‘who are some kick ass women working in that space?’

3. Use the word ‘women’ in your google search of the topic. Otherwise you will likely get 80% of results being men.

4. Play the game at your next conference, summit or talks festival. Reflect on what the results are. Ask yourself -who is not being spoken about?

5. Celebrate when it’s done right, and contribute to the normalisation of women being included in the conversation and profiled as essential contributors.

It should be completely normal.

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