I was invited to speak on a panel last week in New York. It was unwieldy, seven people, each of us with more than enough to say. Nonetheless, the event went smoothly and played out as expected: introductions, moderated discussion, self-deprecating jokes, a few thought-provoking facts, a couple heart-warming anecdotes and, of course, the mandatory reference to the “Internet of things.”
Then the audience was invited to ask questions. The second of these was “Why are there no women on stage?”
I hadn’t noticed. But it was true. On my left and right — no women. We looked at each other, then we looked at the audience, which was about half women, and suddenly our charming garrulousness was gone. It was an excellent question. But we had no answer.
I am not a feminist. When Vanity Fair breathlessly announces that Emma Watson has just given a game-changing speech on women’s rights, I roll my eyes and turn the page. I don’t have much to learn about equality from an undergrad with a talent for playing make-believe. The politics of tokenism does nothing for me and I have little time for those who claim they lack opportunity.
And yet, there were no women on that stage.
Born in the 70s, I grew up believing that Jill was just as likely as Jack to become an astronaut. In college, my cohort was among the first to be outnumbered by women and at graduate school I was heavily outperformed by them, too. My industry is dominated by women and in my organization I am outclassed by my female colleagues daily.
And yet, none of them were asked to join that panel.
In the West, we take pride in our enlightened views. We laugh at the Saudi fear of women drivers. We are indignant at female genital mutilation in West Africa. We are outraged at yet another Pakistani bride disfigured by acid. Here (we smugly tell ourselves) in the 21st century, women are treated as humans and equals.
And yet, we couldn’t find any to speak that afternoon in New York.
I am an unapologetic member in good standing of the old boys club. I believe men and women are different. I don’t trust quotas or tokenism. But I am also practical. I recognize that if you ignore 50 per cent of the population, you’re never going to achieve what is potentially possible. It is absurd to suggest any enterprise that intentionally excluded half the talent pool could thrive.
And yet, there I sat, with six other men and no women.
As the audience patiently waited for us to answer the question, “Why are there no women on stage?” I thought of my friend Owen Barder, a well-known economist and a world-class mind. He once told me that he refused to join all-male panels. At the time I smiled, thought to myself, “The English can be very eccentric” and carried on. But now, with a room full of women waiting for an answer I did not have, I understood what Owen was doing.
There is no topic that cannot be discussed by women. There is no circumstance that would prevent one from inviting women. There is simply no rational excuse for excluding women. And, if you are invited to join a panel with no women, you must conclude it is being organized by fools.
I do not perform for fools. So, I am taking Owen’s pledge, and I will never speak on another panel that excludes women.
The next time you are attending a conference and listening to yet another all male panel, ask them “Why?” And then patiently wait for their answer. They won’t have one.