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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Or maybe sometimes Equality MIGHT Mean Half… [the Paul Cornell Parity Project Edition]

February 16th, 2012 at 22:15

Why does this stuff always happen in Galactic Suburbia’s off week?

A few days ago, Paul Cornell, a very popular and well regarded SF, television and comics professional writer who regularly appears on panels at conventions around the world, made a bit of a splash with his announcement about how he plans to address the problem of parity on said convention panels.

Much like the male SF and fantasy authors (like Charles Stross) who have pledged publicly to step aside from appearing in SF anthologies which perpetuate the bad SF tradition of not including nearly enough work written by women, Paul Cornell has pledged to step aside from panels that do not offer at least 2/5 female participants. Naturally enough, responses to this are mixed.

It’s a gimmick. Obviously it’s a gimmick. It’s also a stunt. It is a great big, messy, epic gimmicky stunt. It’s going to make some people angry. It’s going to make some people embarrassed. It’s going to make a whole bunch of people complain loudly on the internet. I’m sure plenty of them already have, but I’ve become better and better at avoiding that kind of thing.

But, and this is important, it’s unlikely that Paul will receive the same degree of anger, dismissive language and abuse that a woman would receive, should she pledge to enact some kind of public protest at conventions that do not offer equal numbers of male and female panellists. It’s irritating, but true.

His plan is not going to fix everything. It’s not going to heal the world. It may not even make much of a difference to a whole bunch of conventions. But that is not a reason for him not to do it. Because Paul can get away with it. He’s a lovely guy, good-humoured and presents well in public. If he does end up having to do this piece of comedic pantomime, physically stepping down in front of an audience and finding women to take his place, then people will remember it, and they will likely forgive him for it. He’ll make it entertaining, and the point will be made, with far less fallout than would occur (sadly) if a woman was the one trying to make the same point.

[there are a lot of potential problems with his proposed system of course - such as the potential embarrassment of female audirnce members called upon without preparation to take his place, and the pressure on such women to be brilliant and witty to justify the choice - it's an awkward position to put them in, and I think Paul may have to relent on his current plans not to make prior arrangements with potential replacements. Often there are quite sensible reasons why particular women are not sitting on a particular panel, such as having ALREADY been overloaded with a bunch of panels at a convention because programmers are often desperate to try to reach something close to parity, and once a woman is known to be good value on panels, she will often be massively over-scheduled. Unlike many other critics, I don't think the possibility that the female replacement might be less qualified or interesting than Paul Cornell is actually a reason not to do it - I have sat on far too many panels with dull and uninformed male participants to worry about that. But of course, a boring male participant is not seen to represent his entire gender if he fails in public... so, yeah. A lot of pressure.]

If it makes some conventions think differently about their programming, if it makes some women feel more confident about volunteering for panels, and if it makes some more men think seriously about whether they’re really the most (or only) qualified person for the topic they’ve been asked to speak on, then it’s worth doing. And if that means that Paul Cornell stops being invited to speak at conventions (which seems unlikely) then at least he’ll have more time to write! A plan with few drawbacks!

Maybe it will be a helpful stepping stone in the process of making these events more inclusive of women, and maybe it won’t – but at least it’s getting us talking about the issue, and it’s one worth talking about.

Farah Mendlesohn has some thoughts about Paul’s plan, and about positive discrimination being at times a, you know, positive thing. As ever, she speaks good sense. I also very much enjoyed Cheryl Morgan’s witty and energetic response to the Paul Parity Plan (it needs a catchier title, yes?).

Sometimes you have to stop worrying about the little details that might go wrong, and appreciate the joy that comes from a glorious, messy, gimmicky consciousness-raising stunt. While eating popcorn.

EDIT: MORE ON GENDER PARITY IN THE UK:
On the Gollancz blog.

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18 Responses to “Or maybe sometimes Equality MIGHT Mean Half… [the Paul Cornell Parity Project Edition]”

  1. Kaia Says:

    If I remember correctly, at the con I went to they realised just before it started that the feminist panel had 2/3 (or possibly half and half) men on it. Their solution: Getting a mostly unprepared Elizabeth Bear to sit in on it!

    Which is not great, but at least they amended it at the last second.

    (And I totally missed the first few minutes, so I hope this is what happened…)

  2. tansyrr Says:

    Yeah there are some people who are brilliant at and comfortable at speaking off the cuff about particular topics. I’m kind of banking on Paul Cornell being friends of lots of women and being aware of their abilities, special subjects and comfort levels, which is quite a lot to be banking on.

    Maybe there needs to be some sort of t-shirt distribution or badge for women to wear if they’re happy to be panellised at the last minute! A ‘happy to volunteer’ hat that they can then take off if they’re tired or in a bad mood, or if they really don’t want to talk about that particular topic.

  3. Grant Watson Says:

    My one big, *big* issue with the plan is that the time to step out of a panel when the gender parity isn’t there is when the programme is being assembled, not when the panel itself is supposed to be starting. As a regular past convention programmer, a stunt like this would make me tear my hair out in frustration because I’d likely have spent months carefully making sure the balance of panelists was appropriate and considered when I invited people to talk in the first place.

  4. tansyrr Says:

    This is very true and to be fair to Paul I do think that’s a big part of what he’s trying to achieve. Otherwise he wouldn’t have blogged about it upfront, he’d have just gone ahead and done it at a big name convention (as China Mieville did at the SFX Weekender recently). The idea is to change the way the system current works.

    Also I don’t think conventions when *you* do the programming are the problem! From what I hear, there is almost an endemic anti-feminist attitude in UK SF fandom which has not been getting any better, [EDIT: it's been brought to my attention that this comment is unfair, and I apologise for it - leaving it here so the ongoing conversation in the comments makes sense] and a lot of the cons Paul attends are the big fanfare-y media types which involve huge amounts of money and very few women.

    I am assuming that if notified ahead of time, he would have the class to let the con know about the gender balance requirement.

    And… yeah, it might lead to a bit of hair tearing. But I think he’s banking on the fact that he’s high profile enough that he wouldn’t have to do this very often, because word will get around. It will be interesting to see, in any case. Sometimes shaking things up is the only way to enact change.

  5. SF Tidbits for 2/17/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog Says:

    [...] Tansy Rayner Roberts on Or maybe sometimes Equality MIGHT Mean Half… [the Paul Cornell Parity Project Edition]. [...]

  6. Niall Says:

    From what I hear, there is almost an endemic anti-feminist attitude in UK SF fandom

    This strikes me as an overstatement, and specifically, if I see people attributing Eastercon’s panel participant balance to Paul’s post I will get very cross; the programme team has been working hard for months to develop a balanced programme.

  7. Kari Sperring Says:

    I’m a long-standing UK female fan, as well as an author. The issue is *not* that there’s a longstanding anti-feminist attitude at our conventions — or the fan-run ones, anyway — but that some of the commercial ones have tended to focus on big male names, who are deemed to be more of an audience draw. Eastercons have worked long and hard (to my personal knowledge for 23 years) to be more inclusive of women. But, as in other places, we still face a wider social context that has socialised women not to put themselves forward, to undervalue themselves and to be diffident about their achievements, while supporting and encouraging men to speak up, stand out and value themselves. So fewer women volunteer for programme; audiences react to women speaking on panels as ‘dominating’ when they are still speaking less than the men, and so on round the same issues facing women anywhere in a public arena.I honour Paul’s pledge and I appreciate what he’s done, but it tends to address the issue from the wrong end — the harm has already been done lower down and earlier on, and what’s needed is a more supportive environment for women — less harassment, less policing of ‘strident’ or ‘stroppy’ women and so on. I’m hoping Paul and others will be speaking out to support women in these areas, too; will be making space for women to speak and will be encouraging their female peers to feel safe in speaking out.

  8. tansyrr Says:

    Hi Niall & Kari

    Thanks for your responses – I have put an edit note next to that particular comment, as I agree it was unfair, speaking of something where I have no personal experience.

    I think this is a very muddy issue, with no simple solution – but we definitely need to all work towards making panel attendance a more supportive environment for women. Sadly this is not a problem confined to the SF community. I’m always delighted to hear about cons making an active attempt to balance their program – and I know from the inside that it’s not an easy job to do!

    I am hoping personally that the amount of geek cred that Paul has will help to popularise (or make “cool”) the idea that, well, of course we should have balanced panels, and of course women have interesting things to say. I don’t think it can be emphasised enough how important it is to have men with high profile supporting women in that way, and I hope that the publicity surrounding the gimmick will help promote that idea in amongst the bickering, bitching and legitimate critique.

    Is anyone else REALLY hoping he’s going to the next Comicon?

  9. David McDonald Says:

    When I read this I could see positives and negatives in the stance Mr Cornell has taken, but I think the important thing here is that he is actually trying to do something to make a difference in what he sees as an area of inequality, rather than than simply talking about it. He has obviously observed this disparity, and felt convicted and unable to remain inactive in response.

    I do agree with Grant and Kari in that things need to be done earlier on, before you even get to the actual convention. But, I can only assume that Mr Cornell has seen this as a specific area where he can make an impact, even if it is simply to get people talking. Sometimes, when confronted by an issue of such size and complexity, it is hard to see how you can make a difference as an individual, so I can understand why he would leap at a chance to do something, anything, even if it isn’t the perfect solution.

    I can appreciate this because as I have become more aware of these sorts of issues (thanks, Galatic Suburbia) I find myself thinking, what can I actually do to change things? The fact is, I don’t know. I try and treat women as equals, to write strong female characters, to make my displeasure known when in all male environments other guys say things I think are inappropiate, to call people on behaviour in my workplace that is discriminatory.

    But, I am far from perfect, and I am constantly wondering whether I am doing enough (I’m not), or the right thing (no, not as much as I would like). I am not saying all this as a “look how hard it is to be a male” type comment, I am very aware of the fact that as a white, middle class man I have a lot of privilege and that as challenges go, the ones I face are pretty minor. I am merely saying that I can understand if Mr Cornell has similar thoughts and has been searching for a way to make a difference, and I can see why someone with the “clout” to make a bit of splash might choose to do it – hoping for the best.

  10. Sean the Blogonaut Says:

    This parallels what I observed happening with Skeptics conventions in the US a couple of years ago. Convention organisers were alerted to or became increasingly aware that their panels were heavily gender biased. Part of the problem was being able to find experienced women to talk.

    Various women in Skepticism formed a speakers bureau where they could list their contact details, experience appearance arrangements etc. I am wondering if that sort of approach is not worthwhile in this instance ie An organisation that maintains a lists of female speakers, in addition to perhaps sourcing personal development courses (public speaking etc).

  11. tansyrr Says:

    Thanks for your comments, David and Sean!

    i think the idea of a database of female speakers is a great idea – and would be a valuable resource for convention programmers.

    Something else I just suggested in the comments over at Paul’s blog – the easiest way for those of us who support the idea of panel parity, regardless of what you think of his specific plan, is to spread the word when you see awesome women doing well at public speaking on conventions.

    Sometimes the big problem, apart from women not pushing themselves forward, is that female candidates are often not the FIRST people thought of to cover particular topics. Just as women’s work is reviewed less often in various media outlets, sometimes women’s successes in public speaking could benefit from more positive word of mouth.

    Which is not to say you should talk up women who aren’t that great – defeats the purpose! But when writing con reports or even chatting about them afterwards, checking that you have actually mentioned some female presenters would be great. Often people get invited to cons a) because of previous performances and b) because someone trusted by the committee has vouched for them being a good speaker/knowledgeable on a particular topic. This mates-in-first kind of system makes can lead to the same people always being asked to talk about the same things, which is boring for everyone, but it is also understandable – because someone whose abilities are unknown could turn out to be a disaster.

    So when you see really good female panellists, make sure to mention it on your blog, or whatever social media, or just keep them in mind to recommend to people in person. The same goes for people of colour. Sometimes even a very proactive programmer can struggle to find appropriate people for a panel who aren’t all white men, and recommendations HELP.

    There were some comments at Paul’s blog that showed how unfriendly geek audiences can be to female panellists, too, which I found quite confronting and awful. Definitely don’t do that!

  12. Claire Corbett Says:

    Fascinating discussion. Thanks for posting this. The real issue is that challenging the status quo is not comfortable (I can feel how reluctant I am to engage in discussions about feminism especially on the web where things can become so vitriolic) and the response is often to shoot the messenger – ‘you’ve made me uncomfortable by pointing out what I would prefer would remain unconscious therefore you are a vicious, humourless harpy’.

    I particularly take Tansy’s point that it is so much easier to take this on, in some ways, as a man because it doesn’t look like special pleading.

    Case in point: I am on a panel on 8th March, IWD, with Kirsten Tranter and Tara Moss for the Stella Prize which is a response to the largely unconscious bias against women in awarding literary prizes such as the Miles Franklin. We have to explain many times over why this is not special pleading. Tara’s post after Sisters in Crime really ignited debate around these issues:http://thestellaprize.com.au/news/post/the-kind-of-privileged-whining-that-annoys-the-crap-out-of-me/

    The question we are debating is whether women write differently from men. I will certainly be arguing that in some ways women read differently and I am thinking about how this affects speculative fiction. Any comments or thoughts on this topic would be welcome. It seems to me a lot of women have a powerful, reflexive hatred of SF – wonder if it’s due to outdated perceptions of ‘the Rotary Club on Alpha Centauri’ mentality?

  13. Sean the Blogonaut Says:

    “The Rotary Club on Alpha Centauri” – Claire you crack me up :)

    I just commented on Cheryl’s blog about the assumption that whenever you replace a man through positive discrimination there appears to be an assumption(based on what i don’t know) that the woman is going to be deficient. Through my general observation the depth of knowledge contained in the female SF&F community is more than enough to cope.

  14. tansyrr Says:

    Hi Claire!

    I absolutely think that – while there are many people who have a kneejerk/reflexive dislike of SF for various reasons, many of which are entirely legitimate – many women have that response because of actual evidence that the genre is not for them, not welcoming to them, or has an old school sexism. Which is not to say that is true of the genre as a whole, but you can certainly see how particular books, films, TV shows and experiences at conventions might lead women to think that.

    The same can be said for gaming and comics – while there are some great works out there which are very inclusive of or appealing to women as a whole, there are also a LOT of aspects of the cultures around both media that, if it was your introduction to that media, would make you run a mile.

    What has fascinated me about the Stella Prize debate is realising that this doesn’t just happen in SF or comics or the worlds I know about. It happens in BOOKS FULL STOP. It happens in culture all around us. Boys and girls alike grow up (for the most part) unthinkingly believing that works by men must somehow be more important, and that male voices automatically have more to say. We don’t even realise that we’re doing it – until we do, and the whole world of culture starts to unravel around us.

    I do think women write differently than men, sometimes, and in some ways, but also that women write differently from other women, which is where the discussion gets complicated – so hard not to over-generalise and end up with a bunch of people complaining that you’re not representing their individual opinions! I also think that women read differently to men, and men often THINK they read differently (with greater variety of authors, for example) than they do.

    One of the exciting things about Galactic Suburbia as a podcast is how many men have responded positively to it, as regular (communicating) members of our audience, and shared not only their reading habits with us, but actively tried to change those reading habits once they realised how many more male authors than women they read, unintentionally.

    The importance of bringing awareness to these issues is not about making people feel bad, it’s about pointing out how much unfairness and gender bias happens unconsciously, and how hard it can be to redress that balance, even when you’re trying very hard. But it’s impossible to redress that balance if you are NOT trying at all, and letting nature or whatever take its course.

  15. tansyrr Says:

    Wow, my comments are getting way too long. I should be a blogger or something, huh?

    Sean, you are SO right. It drives me nuts when people act like any form of positive discrimination automatically means you’re getting a raw deal – instead of one perfectly qualified person being swapped out for another just as qualified person.

    As if somehow, the world where the man is talking is automatically a better world than the one where the woman is talking.

  16. Thoraiya Says:

    Just so future con organisers know, I find Tansy and Claire to both be extremely interesting and engaging panel speakers. Make them do more! Ellen Datlow, Justina Robson, Juliet Marillier, Cat Valente, Toni Weisskopf, Helen Merrick, Alex Adsett, Glenda Larke and Nicole Murphy pop up in my head when I think of awesome women on panels from Swancon last year and Aussiecon the year before. I’m sure there were others that I can’t recall just at this minute.

  17. Thoraiya Says:

    ZOMG Pamela Freeman, almost forgot how funny and clever she was at the Sydney Writers Centre thingie. ALSO MORE PAMELA, THANKS ;)

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