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Opinion

Papa don’t preach – or tired of seeing the same men speak at Brussels events?

Corinna Hoerst / Sep 2015

Laurent Fabius, John Kerry  and Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Let’s face it, Brussels events could use some color! Red, blue, yellow, green – yes, I mean the colorful outfits of women. But what I really mean is that all these conferences, seminars, roundtables and discussions could use some diversity. Rather than listen to the same middle-aged white men in gray suits pontificate about our current policy challenges, it would be nice to see more women – and in fact also more young people, more people of color, ethnic minorities, and different religious upbringings - add to the debates and bring new perspectives, new knowledge and innovative ideas to the table.

In June 2015, the organizers behind @EUPanelWatch together with the European Women’s Lobby invited numerous organizations to join a concerted campaign to collect data on panels in Brussels covering different EU affairs sectors to create data proven evidence. The 100 foreign policy/international relations related events included in this survey revealed panel discussions consisted of only 25% female speakers. Throughout the year Brussels features numerous conferences, roundtables and seminars to educate and provide policy recommendations. Depending on the subject matter and size, the audience usually is a mix of EU, NATO and diplomatic officials, lobbyists and other interest group and private sector representatives, researchers, and journalists. So where are the women? Are there not enough women knowledgeable on the various subject matters? Do they decline to speak? Or are they just not invited? Does the phrase ‘we looked for female experts but just couldn’t find any’ really hold? Maybe, but not for much longer. In an effort to alter the status quo a group of women working in Brussels leading think tanks and policy institutions as well as like-minded representatives from EU institutions and civil society have come together to create a database of female experts.

Diversifying the policy debates in town by adding more women to infuse new perspectives and allow for different debates would bring new voices and ideas to ongoing policy challenges. It would mean greater intellectual diversity. Shifting the focus away from ‘the right people to speak’ (high-level, institutions) to ‘creating the right environment to allow for innovative debates’ (novel ideas, different viewpoints) would ultimately lead to a shift in the way policy debates are run.

The aim of the database of female experts is to create an effective tool to search for competent women by policy area (foreign affairs, trade, energy, etc.) and regional knowledge (Europe, Middle East, Africa, Russia, CEE, USA). The organizers of the database are currently working on setting up a website, identifying criteria for the content and looking for partners and financial support. The ultimate goal is to have a website that allows more easily to identify female speakers for events, and in turn opening the door to new more democratic and innovative debates in Brussels and Europe at large.

Encouraging developments in the area of gender diversity are already happening. At the European Commission, DG Connect took a concrete step to stop inequality by getting their staff to refuse to speak on all-male panels. The twitter account @EUPanelWatch allows people to shame all male panels and promote well-represented panels. It would be good if more organizations would develop principles aimed at promoting diversity at their own events. These could consist of, among others, having male/female parity on panels and in invited participants, encouraging male colleagues to refuse to speak on all-male panels and female speakers to refuse to moderate all-male panels as well as having a certain percentage of new participants at each event. By choosing to apply these principles and making gender equality one of their criteria, institutions can engage in putting together events that work towards innovation and progress.

It is not about getting rid of male speakers. It is not about not recognizing the accomplishments of male colleagues. It is about intellectual diversity, i.e. creating an environment that allows for new debates. It is about bringing discussants together that come with different experiences and perspectives. It is about creating the most innovative and thought-provoking discussions possible. It is about recognizing that there are different kinds of career tracks that lead to different sets of skills, experiences and expertise. Rather than having the usual suspects hold forth it is about bringing new voices to the table and making policy discussions reflective of societies at large and the many challenges we all face.

The author would like to thank Sidonie Le Youdec for her research and input.

 

Corinna Hoerst

Corinna Hoerst

September 2015

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