All-male panels may soon be a thing of the past. Now, feminists are calling out organisers who turn the dais into a manference
Over a year ago David Hasselhoff, the alpha male once-lifeguard from Baywatch, found himself a new (uninvited) career as the mascot of the ‘manel’ – the all-male panel. He appeared on a Tumblr called All Male Panels, started in Feb last year by Finnish feminist researcher Dr Saara Sarma. The Tumblr wanted to highlight the gender lopsidedness of discussion panels and other high altars of expertise and experience, like say, state cabinets and boardrooms. Sarma invited people to send in flyers or pictures of all-male events and seminars, which received Hasselhoff’s virile stamp of approval: ‘Congrats, you have an all male panel!’
The manel is being named and shamed worldwide, with memes, online petitions, boycotts and even spoken word poetry slamming it. ‘Group thinking turns into brain shrinking; humans seeking meaning and development, male-only panels are such an embarrassment’ raps Sofie Sandell, professional speaker and digital leader on YouTube. In India too, the stew’s beginning to simmer.
Last year, Sairee Chahal, founder of Sheroes and Fleximoms — career communities for women — was invited to a top tech conference in Bangalore. “It has typically been a bro affair, but the organisers wanted to do an all-women panel for the first time, alongside their regular all-male sessions, Chahal recalls, “They had no context for the panel – the organisers asked me to identify women panelists and a suitable subject. We didn’t do it eventually because the four other women I’d approached from tech felt there was no purpose to the panel.”
Companies and conference organisers who are inviting a lone woman to a male-heavy dais simply to avoid the label of sexism are now being called out. Ashwini Asokan, co-founder and CEO of the Artificial Intelligence company, Mad Street Den, has been challenging sexism in the tech industry and got trolled for it. In fact, sexist putdowns are often what hold women back from taking the stage. “Several women started conversations on Twitter saying they lacked the confidence because of bullies and trolls,” says Asokan.
She points out that India has more female engineering and computer science graduates than most countries (30- 40% of college seats), giving the lie to the specious claim that suitable women experts simply cannot be found. “It’s why I pick up the phone, find them and push them to these panels,” Asokan says.