Budging the male bias

It's time to end the sausagefest.

Katherine Trebeck
19 January 2018
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Four incidents happened this week that illustrate just how difficult it is for women to be part of public debates, to get their voice heard, to share their views, and to be listened to. Some were in full public eye, some were hidden in private emails, and another a mix. But each of them are in themselves vignettes of wider circumstances that give rise of a situation in which women are still, despite massive progress and some wonderful exceptions, all too marginal to debates about issues that matter to the economy, society, and the environment.

And that is a problem because the extent to which the economy needs to be transformed for our society and planet to survive is massive and it won’t happen with the same old (often literally!) voices dominating the conversation.

So here is a snapshot of what change is up against.

Male bias in the blogosphere:

  • What became termed as ‘#sausagefest’ was triggered on Wednesday when the blog FP2P published Stefan Dercon’s list of top ten thinkers in development. Almost all were men (and Dercon critiqued their limitations). Readers pointed this out and noted some of the many amazing women doing great work on a range of development issues. So Duncan Green (who runs FP2P) asked Alice Evans (who enriched all our vocabularies with the indelible term Sausagefest), to write a complementary blog to fill obvious gaps. Evans’ excellent blog and the related twitterstorm led to a remarkable list of remarkable women. A good part two, but why aren’t they household names for Dercon and others?
  • Male bias on the podium

  • That same day I helped suggest names for a high-profile speaker for an event later this year. Fortunately, the organisers, after hosting male speakers in 2017 and the year before, are trying to ask one of my favourite economists to speak who happens to be a woman. But the list of alternatives they had to hand as a back-up were almost all blokes. The woman who drew up the list sheepishly admitted that she hadn’t even noticed that she’d suggested so many blokes. Another sausagefest.

  • Male bias on the ‘Beeb’

  • That day I also opted not to dedicate time to the multifaceted application process for BBC Scotland’s women’s expert panel. I just didn’t have the hours in the day, but like many other women, was pretty peeved that women had to go through such a process while often rather un-expert blokes seem to get invited onto BBC Scotland all the time without having to jump through Beeb hoops. This point was nicely made by journalist Kevin McKenna – with Esa Aldegheri powerfully pointing out the practical flaws in proposed process, given the reality of most women’s lives. Doubly burdened to prove our equality.

  • Male bias on the airwaves

  • And then, this Sunday, BBC’s flagship radio show, Good Morning Scotland, played another long form interviews with – no surprise – another man given 20 or so minutes to opine on his career, thoughts on business and politics and the state of the world. Back in May 2017, after hearing man after man after man featured on this segment, I tweeted to the host that they might want to consider talking to some women. The reply? ‘We’re trying’. Putting aside my ‘FFS, it’s not that hard – there are many fascinating women out there’ reaction, I offered to help and emailed over a list of 25 interesting, accomplished, articulate women. The reply? ‘Thanks’, just that one word. And while I haven’t managed to listen to every single episode since then, from what I can tell, none of them have been interviewed and sausagefest continues.

The commonality across all these small instances of male bias is a lack of thought – the default position is ‘ask X bloke’. And so that man gets asked and he becomes more well-known and hence gets asked again.

It’s more complex of course –  time constraints are just one barrier that many women struggle to get around and hence can’t be available at a moment’s notice or constantly offer themselves up to appear on public platforms. That reaffirms the need for a conversation about policy and shifting social norms: shared parenting, shared household work, shared parental leave, and so on. And beyond gender lines, where are Southern voices, those from non-Northern framings?

But clearly it is a lack of thought – let alone effort – that constrains a rebalancing of views and voices away from the constant stream of baritone. Fortunately, this is something that can be sorted quickly and easily. We shouldn’t have to remind people of the existence of women experts. The women are there – they’ve got ideas, they’ve got perspectives, they’ve got insights, and they’ve got passion. Every now and again it might mean a platform needs to give someone other than a ‘big [ie established] male name’ a try, but we’ve been trying the apparent wisdom of those big names for too long, and look at the state of the world.

An easy start would be for more blokes to take the Pledge; for conference organisers and media producers to ensure 50:50 in all conversations (or at least across an entire show); and when taking questions from the audience be conscious to begin with a woman, given that doing so has been shown to ensure balance in subsequent questions.

With a bit more thought the Northern white male bias might just begin to budge.

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