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.