A quick word on gender parity at WFC2013

by Suw on August 28, 2013

There’s been a kerfuffle over World Fantasy Con’s response to an author, Tom Pollockwho stepped down from a panel because of a lack of gender parity and was told by the organisers that he had “just excluded himself from all panels”. The tweeter, Pollock’s wife, quoted WFC’s response in a later tweet:

Actual quote: “As stated… WFC does not subscribe to that policy, so I’m afraid you have excluded yourself from any programming.”

Said Pollock himself:

In practice, in this instance, anyone who knew enough about the topic and wasn’t a dude could take my place.

Indeed, Pollock wrote about the gender parity issue himself last year, and had pledged to step down from any panel that wasn’t 50:50. This is apparently the first time he has been put in a position to have to keep his pledge.

Now, the WFC has an interesting way of scheduling speakers, according to their site:

PROGRAMME PARTICIPANTS

Not Everyone Will Be On a Panel
It’s simple arithmetic. We will have more potential programme participants than slots available for them. And because we are limited by WFC rules as to how many panels non-Guests of Honour can participate in, we will try to take a number of things into consideration. However, the most important factor will be Are You the Best Person to Speak on This Subject. It doesn’t matter how many books you’ve had out, or whether you are a New York Times best-seller or not, our top priority is putting together informative and entertaining panels with the best participants available to us.

What You Need to Do First
• First of all, unless you are a Guest of Honour, you need to be a Registered Member of the convention. You can do that here.
• You need to register earlier than later. If we know you are planning to attend, then we can begin considering you for potential programme slots.

[…]

I know this is a convention and not a conference and that things might well be different with conventions, but it seems like a rather haphazard way of organising one’s speaker roster. Usually with conferences – and I’ve organised and spoken at quite a few so I have some experience here – one thinks about what topics are currently germane, who are the best people to speak on those topics, and then you invite them.

Gender parity becomes an issue in male-dominated areas like science and tech at least in part because, as a conference organiser,  your first instinct is to ask yourself, “Who do I know that would be awesome on this topic?” The answer to that question is usually, “Someone that I already know, have already seen speak, or who has already been recommended to me by someone I know.” That is the wrong answer.

Because a lot of conferences are dominated by men, and men get more coverage in the media, the first people to come to mind will be men. That doesn’t mean that a man is the best person to speak on a particular topic, it means that a man is the first person likely to come to mind as a speaker on a particular topic. The only way to combat this tendency is for conference and convention organisers to deliberately seek speakers from outside of their existing social and professional circles. This means putting some effort into finding women speakers whom you previous did not know about.

I know some people hate gender parity policies because they feel that it’s tokenism, that the women are only chosen because of their gender and that, therefore, objectifies them and devalues their participation. And if all the organisers do play the equivalent of Blind Woman’s Buff or Pin The Tail On The Female Speaker, then it’s fair enough to protest it as tokenism. But if organisers go deeper and seek to empower those women who are expert but who have had little or no exposure or coverage, then the policy is working as it should. It’s not about getting any ol’ woman on stage, it’s about encouraging organisers to look beyond the obvious male contributors and find the slightly more obscure but equally brilliant women.

As with many things, it isn’t the what, it’s the how that is important.

WFC2013′s weird way of programming, which essentially restricts them to either Guests of Honour, who are the big, important names and currently standing at six men and two women, or people who have already paid to attend, does rather limit their choices. I suppose this allows them to have their cake and eat it, in that they can totally over-schedule the convention to make it seem busy and exciting and not lose any money because the speakers have already paid to attend.

In the conference world, if you speak you get free entry. Indeed, when I have been asked to both speak and pay for my own entrance I have always turned the offer down because, frankly, you don’t have an event at all without your speakers, and asking them to pay for the privilege of working for you is rude and greedy. I’m less au fait with conventions, so maybe WFC2013 is normal and I just think it’s weird because I come from another paradigm.

But still, there is not a shortage of great women writers in the fantasy genre, especially if it’s extended out a bit to encompass horror and SF which, the last time I want to a FantasyCon, it was. I can’t see that there would be any significant difficulty in ensuring that women are well represented. But, more than that, I cannot see how it helps WFC2013 to punish a potential speaker because he wanted to see gender parity and decided to give up his spot on a panel so that a woman could take part, which is essentially what he did.

WFC2013 has also decided to dance around the issue of having a policy on harassment. It’s FAQ says:

World Fantasy Convention 2013, as with any other predominantly adult gathering, will have a number of rules and regulations for the safety of attendees. These will be clearly stated in our Programme Guide, which will be given to each attendee when they register. In the meantime, we refer you to the UK’s Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

Sadly, harassment at cons has come to light as a serious issue and many now have policies that make it very clear that harassment is not acceptable and provide the basis for action to be taken should harassment be reported. By not having an explicit harassment policy and falling back on the all too lame ‘we’re all adults and there’s a law’ position, the organisers of WFC2013 are adding to the perception, right or wrong, that they do not take gender issues seriously.

Recently, author John Scalzi stated that he would not go to a convention that did not have a clear policy on harassment. I admire Scalzi’s stance, especially as he does actually have something to lose by refusing to go to conventions. As an author, appearing at events is a key part of your job and not doing so could have a detrimental effect on your sales, so Scalzi is putting his money where his mouth is.

I wasn’t going to be going to WFC2013 this year anyway as I can’t afford it, but now I’m not going for the additional reason that I simply do not wish to support people who think that it’s OK to effectively punish someone for bringing up the subject of gender parity by banning him from appearing on other panels, and who don’t address the harassment policy issue head on and thereby demonstrate that they take the safety of their female attendees and speakers seriously.

But more to the point, I won’t go to any future WFC2013 or FantasyCon events unless the organisers take a more constructive attitude towards both parity and harassment. They won’t lose out, but I will, as cons are a great place to meet people and network, and at this stage in my career that’s something I really need to be doing, but I’ll find a different way and a different place to do it.

UPDATE: 29/10/13, 10:09. Sarah Pinborough has dropped by and left a comment in which she reassures me that WFC2013 isn’t going to be a massive sausagefest:

There are a huge amount of talented women attending WFC 2013 and having spoken to the Chair ( a woman) there will be absolutely no shortage of woman speakers. It’s the men who will have to keep up.

That’s good to hear, and deals with half my problem with the con. All they need to do now is produce a proper harassment policy and make sure that no other speaker who steps aside to let a woman take their place on a panel gets punished for doing so.

UPDATE: 30/10/13, 10:28. Looks like my upbeat response to Sarah’s insider info may have been premature after it came to light that Kameron Hurley was offered a ‘ladies panel’:

Unsurprised to be offered a “ladies” panel at WFC. About how ladies NEVER used to write fantasy(!?). Where did all these LADIES come from?

Note that this is a FANTASY panel. It’s not even a “Women never used to write SF!!” panel. But FANTASY. Oh lordy lord lord lordy my.

Cheryl Morgan posts the description of the panel:

The Next Generation: Broads with Swords. Once upon a time the heroic fantasy genre was—with a few notable exceptions such as C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett—the sole domain of male writers like Robert E. Howard, John Jakes and Michael Moorcock. Those days are long gone, and it seems that more & more women writers are having their heroines suit up in chain-mail and wield a broadsword. Who are these new writers embracing a once male-dominated field & how are their books any different from their literary predecessors?

Hurley says on twitter that she emailed WFC2013 to ask them to change the focus and language of the Broads With Swords panel, not least because it seems to ignore a vast swathe of women fantasy writers who’ve been very successful over the last few decades. She also requested that the panel not be made up solely of women. She tweets that she was told her request for a change pas been passed on to the programming committee, but that this is the only panel she’ll be offered.

Blogger A Little Briton, Pollock’s wife, gives us a handy guide to all that is wrong with these sorts of “Women In…” panels. And Jess Haines executes a particularly satisfying takedown. I couldn’t agree more*.

But wait! That’s not the end of it! Morgan also posts the description of a panel that she was asked to be a part of: 

The Next Generation We’re All Bloggers Now. Being a columnist or a critic used to be a skill, combining knowledge and the ability to write with insightful observations. These days it seems that everybody has an opinion and evolving technology has given us numerous platforms through which to make our views known. Have we degraded the true art of criticism to a point where it has lost all value?

There’s so much baggage there it’s hard to see how they’ll get that panel off the ground at all. This sort of thinking does nothing to help either writers or readers, it’s just snobby nonsense. They could have asked how the now complex relationship between traditional reviewers, publishers, writers and bloggers has changed reviewing and what impact that is having on how readers find out about new authors and books. But no, they had to make a judgement first and write the panel description once they’d decided what we should all think.

I’m left thinking that the WFC2013 programming committee really needs to listen to John Scalzi:

Dear WFC 2013: Please stop punching yourself in the face.

For fandom’s sake, please.

* I’ll note that I’m not against “Women In” panels when they provide an accurate and historically aware view of women’s contributions, or if they are focused on addressing the problems that women face in male-dominated fields, because we do need to have those conversations. But this sort of revisionist “Ooh, look at the girlies trying to do what us menz do” bollocks is not helpful in the least.

UPDATE: 30/10/13, 19:09. WFC2013 have responded to criticism via the medium of their FAQ. I’m not hugely impressed, I must say, but it’s time to go out for dinner now, so I’ll do a new blog post with further thoughts in due course.

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