Over the past few days UK newspapers have been full of stories about how poor Christian people are being evilly discriminated again. There is, the Daily Malice informs us, an Attack on Christianity! The government has sent an envoy to Rome to ask for help. Something must be done.
If you have been paying attention, you will know that what is actually happening is that Christians are being told that they are subject to the law of the land just like everyone else. You don’t get a “get out of equality law free” card by just waving a crucifix around. That can be hard to accept if you are used to wallowing in privilege, but the way things go in a multi-cultural society is that each group of people has the same rights as every other group. If one group, for historical reasons, has enjoyed special rights, unwinding that is not “positive discrimination”, it is just making everyone equal.
Of course, as portraying yourself as a victim is the most successful political tactic in this Internet age, lots of people are going round yelling about how they are being discriminated against, and not just the Christians.
Yesterday a well known Christian, Mr. Paul Cornell, caused a major stir by saying that he was no longer prepared to participate on convention panels that did not have some degree of gender balance (he’s looking for 2 out of 5, or 3 out of 6, women). It is a personal decision of his, apparently inspired by a similar act of principle by China Mièville at the recent SFX Weekender. Nevertheless, Paul is being accused of “positive discrimination”.
At this point, dear readers, you might want to get out your violins and handkerchiefs, so you can be properly sorry for those horribly oppressed male fanboys.
Positive discrimination? Why of course! Some poor, innocent male who was expecting to enjoy an all-male panel featuring Mr. Cornell and several other (probably straight, white, middle class) men will find himself having to look at, and perhaps even listen to, a woman. Oh noes! The poor fellow may catch Girl Cooties! Look, he’s having an attack of the vapors at the mere thought. Sad panda face, everyone, please.
Hopefully, now we are all pre-warned, we can avoid going to any panels with Mr. Cornell on them. Wise conventions will, of course, decline to use him as a panelist, so as not to risk exposing their attendees to unwelcome surprises. But what if they don’t? What if they actually start asking women to be on panels? As all right-thinking fanboys know, when you are putting a panel together it is important to pick the right men for the job. And the right men, are, pretty obviously, men. Look, if women had anything interesting to say, surely they’d be on panels already. The fact that they are so rare proves just how stupid and irrelevant they are, right?
Where might it all end? If women are allowed onto panels, whatever will we see next? People with brown faces? Gays? People like me? Oh dear, the poor fellow’s having an attack of the vapors again.
Equally, of course, we have the other side of the argument. It is not enough that Paul should take this pledge on his own behalf. All other male authors must sign up to it as well. All conventions must guarantee gender parity on all panels, otherwise we should boycott them! And this, of course, is no more helpful than our fainty, fanboy friend. Indeed, if there is some sort of fannish campaign to demand gender parity on all convention panels, all the time, then I shall be rather annoyed, and lots of people who used to give their time running programming for conventions will start to drift away. Real life is not black and white. Here’s how it really works.
Conventions come in all shapes and sizes. Some, I guess, might want to be all testosterone, all the time. Good luck to them. But most want to attract lots of members, and as half of the population happens to be female it makes sense to make them feel welcome and wanted in some way. Also, good program designers know that having a variety of different people on panel tends to make for interesting discussion. Often you don’t know a lot about some of the people who volunteer for panels, and getting gender balance is a useful way to choose between them. Smart programming people, then, will want to put women on panels. But getting that done can be hard.
To start with there are some panels where the participants pick themselves. If you are running a comics convention, and you have Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in attendance, you might want to try to get them to do a panel about Watchmen. If you are running a Doctor Who convention you might have a panel about playing the Doctor with panelists who have actually done it (and no Joanna Lumley on your guest list). Equally if you are planning a panel about lesbianism in fantasy you may well end up with an all-female panel. Having a 50/50 rule for all panels just constrains the type of panels you can put on.
Also the darn women make it difficult. They’ve mostly been socialized from childhood to be shy and retiring, and some of them still don’t like putting themselves forward. You are proposing a panel on archaeology in fantasy. A bunch of men who have seen one or two episodes of Time Team and fancy themselves as Indiana Jones volunteer immediately. The woman with a degree in archaeology quietly excuses herself with a comment about not being sufficiently qualified for such a panel. They need encouragement and cajoling. Call that “positive discrimination” if you like, but it is also a case of picking the right person for the job.
Then there’s the problem of audiences. Just as many men seem unwilling to read a book by a woman, so many men are likely to avoid program items that have all-woman panels. The way to avoid this, however, is to have mixed panels. If there really are men who won’t go to a panel that has a woman on it then I feel rather sad for them. Most men appear to be much more reasonable.
Of course audiences do like to see the big stars, and if the publishing industry doesn’t have gender balance then you might wonder whether popular panels should be all men. Certainly if you ask major publishers who to put on panel the chances are that they will push their male writers first. But you don’t really want to have all of the big names on the same panel. You want to spread the attraction around so as to get good crowds to all of your panels. Paul Cornell might be a big draw (except now to gynophobic fanboys), but you don’t want him on every panel, and he won’t want to do all of them.
So convention programming is a complicated business. You want to have interesting and varied panels. You want to mix potentially interesting alternative views with big names. You want to drag intelligent women, shy and retiring though they may be, onto panels. But there will always be some panels where it makes sense to have them mono-gendered, and you’ll always be fighting a whole bunch of other issues, including getting people scheduled. Sometimes a panel participant will call in sick on the day, and wreck your plans. Despite this, most conventions that I go to manage reasonably well. Looking through last year’s BristolCon program, we had only one multi-person panel that didn’t have a woman on it. We weren’t 50/50, but if (ahem) we’d known in advance that Tricia Sullivan and Freda Warrington were going to turn up we would have done better. I’m partially to blame myself as well, having only volunteered for one program item.
What Paul is mainly concerned about (and I gather that the SFX Weekender was a prime example of this, though I wasn’t there so I can’t confirm it) are conventions that have plenty of intelligent women in attendance but manage to pack most of their panels with men. I suspect this applies mainly to commercially run operations, because they are much more likely to be mired in an “only boys read SF” mindset. The primary benefit of what Paul has done is that it will get convention programming teams to examine their assumptions. If they put on more interesting panels as a result, all well and good. If they decide not to use Paul on panels so that can have them all-male, that’s their choice.
The important point here is that Paul (and others like him – I understand that Adam Roberts has taken the same pledge, while Charlie Stross has done something similar with regards to anthologies) is doing this as an individual. He’s not forcing conventions to do anything. And I’m sure he’d be willing to talk if someone had a really great programming idea and was having trouble finding women for it. As long these personal decisions don’t evolve into some sort of fandom-wide campaign to pillory any convention that fails to achieve exactly 50/50 on every panel then I don’t see how this can be described as “discrimination” of any sort.
And if someone does still want to call it discrimination, I will happily explain to them what life is like for trans people. Then they might begin to understand what that word really means.