Why I asked why there were no women on a panel

Last week I tweeted that at a conference I challenged the chair of a plenary panel with a question why there were no women on it. Here is what happened and an account for my challenge.

The conference I attended was probably the conference in the social sciences in Poland (as I don’t want to ‘name and shame, it probably does not matter what it was and I will mention no individuals by name). The panel was an invited plenary panel on the future of the social sciences (well, one of the disciplines). So, basically, the panellists were asked to offer some reflections on their discipline. I tend not to like panels like that as more often than not they serve to boost the panellists’ egos, still as I had nothing better to do….

Let me describe the scene. It’s a large auditorium – no idea how many people, but easily a few hundred, with women making up about half the audience. On the podium a panel of 7 men (apart from one all middle-aged or older). I didn’t know anyone by name, apart from  one who had a significant international publication record. And so, they were musing on the future, one after the other, with some of their reflections more uninteresting than others. You could see the audience was rather politely interested.

Finally, they ended and I was the first to raise my hand. A microphone was provided and I said I had one question and said:

Why is there no woman on the panel? Judging by the audience, there are quite a few around.

To be honest, I had no idea what the reaction would be (which didn’t worry me much) and I was somewhat surprised to hear quite a few people cheering and quite a few more clapping (it did get quite loud for a moment or two), with the rest looking at me (which didn’t bother me in the slightest, either). The looks were interesting in themselves. Some were curious, some were reproaching, some were astonished, some gave me a ‘How dare you challenge the eminences?’ look. I must admit that those last ones made me think that I had done something good. Anyway, the audience did wake up.

The chair responded with “I don’t know.”, to which some women shouted: “We can tell you’”. Then he said something I will not repeat here as it was too crass to repeat and was greeted with booing. That was it.

After the session and then throughout the rest of the conference I was approached by quite a number of women and, yes, also men who thanked me. Most women told me that they were wondering whether to challenge the panel but decided it had to be done by a man. They all said they had feared that a challenge from a woman might have been perceived as sour grapes. Indeed, this was precisely my thinking and that’s why I said what I said. Interestingly, some women and men told me that they had not seen the gender imbalance and only after I asked my question, it became painfully obvious.

But that’s not the end of the story. On the evening of that day, at a social event, I was approached by a man probably 10 years my senior who challenged my challenge. Basically, I was asked why I didn’t stand up for bald people, people who ride bikes, whether I wanted to introduce lower standards for women. I responded that it’s not cyclists who are discriminated in Academia, and that discrimination of women in academic life is quite well known, including being passed up for Nobel prizes. And it’s not about lowering any standards, but about access. He got more and more irritated, probably because I was smiling calmly, the conversation lasted a good 10-15 minutes. He was dismissing one argument after another saying that it all didn’t matter, and on my request to tell me what actually did matter, he decided that there were actually no women fit to sit on the panel. To which I said that there was no point in talking (I also said a couple more things which I will not repeat here, either, as I stopped smiling).

Before I say why I did it, I’ll tell you a story. One of the professors from whom I learnt the most during my university studies was the great Polish linguist Krystyna Pisarkowa. I would say that she was (perhaps not single-handedly) responsible for introducing discourse analysis to Polish linguistics. She showed us linguistics which was interesting, engaged, language was social, a means of communication, not only a system of words and rules how to put them together (as we learned as students of philology). I became a linguist because of two women and she was one of them. And she was also probably the only professor in Krakow at the time who was prepared to endure my, as she called it, intellectual impertinence. She was great and I miss professors like her.

But she was not only a very brilliant academic, but also a very colourful persona, always prepared to tell yet another irreverent story. One of the stories she told us (or me only, I can’t remember) was that when she talked linguistics, for example with her husband (also a professor of linguistics and media studies), they not only used the polite form (Polish “Pan”, “Pani”), and so didn’t use the familiar T-form (i.e. ‘you’), but they also only used the masculine version of the form. In other words, the husband would address her as if she was a man! In English it would be like calling your wife ‘Mr….”. Only then, she felt, was she an equal partner in an academic conversation.

I have no idea whether the story is true or whether it’s just a story with a profound message. Today, I suspect it might have been the latter. To be honest, at the time, I thought it was a bit strange and over the top, and it was somewhat later that I started to appreciate how important was what she said. In her way she told us that only “as a man” can she have full access to the academic debate, to creation of knowledge and to academic discourse. That was about 30 years ago, she was way ahead of the time, at least in Polish Academia.

So why did I challenge the panel? Precisely because of what Prof. Pisarkowa told us. Because I challenge the idea that it is only men who create disciplines, results, ideas that are worth listening to. And the panel was about the discipline and it was constructed by men for men to speak for the discipline. Yes, especially a panel which is tasked with ‘reflecting’ on the discipline should include representation of the half of social scientists that over the years have been excluded from that reflecting. Or, shall I say, their reflecting was not ‘worthy’.

In other words, the whole issue is about access and not about academic standards. And, to be honest, it pisses me off (do forgive me!) that a social scientist does not understand it.

  1. Thank you for doing that. If they could have given you a good answer, then fair enough – case closed. But the fact that there was no answer is very telling; there was no ideology behind their choice of speakers, it was just the usual academic laziness. We ‘know’ what eminent speakers look like, so let’s fill a panel with them. And because those are the people who always fill panels, they define what eminent speakers look like. It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be challenged over and over again, preferably by people who look as much like the eminent speakers as possible. Well done.

  2. I would have loved to read an unpolitic version of the events, sugar coatings are a to familiar censorship and do the subject matter no favors. If the actual event was stimulating then an exect retelling could be as well, but I’m only left with this luke warm bland flavored “nice” story in it’s place.

    1. Dariusz Galasinski

      Usually, ‘unpolitic’ means ‘one I agree with’. I’m afraid I cannot help.


    Because it’s fashionable to do so?

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