A couple of weeks ago, I spoke at the Women on Ireland Network annual conference. This year’s theme was Women and Irishness, and it was easily the most useful conference I’ve been to in years. In addition to hearing some great papers, I met some really wonderful and inspiring women. The event drew to a conclusion with a roundtable on gender equality within universities and beyond. It was very relaxed, with members of the audience regularly joining in with the conversations started by the panellists, Dr Mary McAuliffe (UCD), Revd Dr Christine O’Dowd-Smyth (WIT) and Dr Joanne Malone (WIT). Academic Manel Watch has been doing great work identifying and calling out panels that are all-male or heavily weighted towards men. This is important work. I sometimes wonder, though, if initiatives like this — similar to ‘gender quotas’ and the insinuations that the chosen female candidates are somehow lesser than their male counterparts — mean that women get invites just so that organisers don’t end up being highlighted for gender imbalance. During the discussion, I asked the panel and the audience how they felt about being the token woman and if they would decline an invitation knowing that it was extended for that reason.
I shared a recent experience with them. Shortly after the Waking the Feminists campaign highlighted the lack of female playwrights chosen by the Abbey Theatre for its 2016 Waking the Nation programme, I was asked to speak at an event. “We can’t have another ‘waking the feminists'”, I was told. Whether it was intended that way or not, I felt I’d been reduced to being the token woman. My initial reaction was to tell the organisers to stuff their invitation (I’m usually quite polite and reserved, but I was very tempted!) Then I got angry, because the paper I was asked to give was on a topic about which I have published widely. Why hadn’t I made it on to the original line-up? A quick google of the topic would have thrown up my name. And finally, with a degree of resentment, I agreed to do it because if I hadn’t, there wouldn’t have been any female representation.
When I shared this story, some of the audience seemed shocked, while for others, this was all too familiar. The conversation that ensued was really useful. I want to share some of that advice now, and ask if anyone has anything else to add.
- Mary McAuliffe was straight to the point: always say yes – and be the best that you can. It reminded me of advice given at one of the Women on Air meetings that was extended to include, ‘and if you can’t do it, always recommend another woman in your place’.
- Be visible! All too often, organisers are quick to claim that there were no women available or that they couldn’t find a suitable female speaker. Usually, this is just down to laziness. But let’s not give them an out. Making ourselves visible (through social media, etc), means they have no excuse not to invite us.
- If you’re asked last minute, insist that another woman is included on the programme alongside you. This was the most intriguing piece of advice I heard. It came from a member of the audience who had become fed up with last minute invitations and no longer wanted to share the stage (so to speak) with an all-male panel. As she pointed out, last minute invitations are usually a sign of desperation or an effort to shield an event from complaints about the lack of gender parity. If they really want you, they’re probably open to you accepting the invitation on your terms. There’s nothing to be lost by asking.