Positive Discrimination

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.

31 thoughts on “Positive Discrimination

  1. I haven’t been asked to be on any panels regarding archaeology and fantasy despite the degree in archaeology, but if asked I’d turn it down on the grounds of knowing bugger all about fantasy.

    I do get asked rather a lot to be on panels at conventions, and with few exceptions, it’s been things I’ve been singularly unqualified to talk about (monorails and beer, that’s what I know about). Sometimes I think they do it just to up the count of women and, when they succeed, I get the embarrassed admission that they can’t think of anything to say about me that doesn’t mention my spouse!

    In summary: please invite more women to be on panels but please don’t ask *me* unless it’s about batshit transportation, beer or if I’m needed to interpret for Fluff the Plush Cthulhu.

    1. I suspect that the main thing we can learn from that is that many convention program departments have very little idea who would make a good member of a particular panel, so the idea that we get all male panels because we are choosing the best people is totally busted.

      And if I were going a panel about beer (or about elder gods) then you would be the first person I’d pick.

    2. Maybe we should try and get you and me on a panel about trains, monorails, and SF at Chicon. I know other people who could be on it, and the gender mix would be at least 50/50, despite the “trains are for boys” mentality.

      I was on a panel at Anticipation that basically consisted of me talking for an hour about train trips I’ve made around the world, and to my amazement there were twenty or thirty people who came and sat through the whole thing. And I didn’t even have slides or anything.

      1. I’ve had some amazing train trips and would love to be on a panel with you and Cheryl. But also like Cheryl I wont be seen any time soon in the US of A. You’ll have to get yourself to a con over here.

  2. First let me say to Paul, China and the others who are willing to put their reputations on the line to support better representation of women on panels – BRAVO to them ALL.

    I would remind you of last year’s Eurocon, where nixed gender panels had no difficulty drawing large enthusiastic audiences. The organisers even let me onto a panel with the Bear and Amanda Downum. The room was packed.

    I wish I could afford to be at Eastercon this year but money won’t stretch that far. I will be at Finncon – thanks to an unexpected teaching position. I wonder what the gang is planning for the panels there. Do you think they need any volunteers?

    Women rattling their cages to obtain those things that are rightly theirs (the right to vote, control their own money – have bank accounts, be equally represented in professional forums) have always been crapped on by the current iteration of gynophobic fanboys. ‘Positive discrimination…my backside! If we let them stop us we’d still be laced into over-tight corsets and having fainting fits!

  3. I absolutely agree on every point. It’s weird that I grew up reading a genre in which a significant proportion of the major authors were and are female, and joined a fan community in which women were at least as well represented as men if not more so, and I’m still seeing this boys’ club mentality among people who must have had the same kind of experiences. It seems as if the idea “only boys read/write sf”, like the one about sf being devoid of humour, propagates itself from mind to mind and blocks the receptors that might otherwise notice that the real world isn’t that way.

    One niggle.

    “the way things go in a multi-cultural society is that each group of people has the same rights as every other group.”

    Wouldn’t that mean that if Sikhs have the right to wear the turban instead of the regulation headgear for their job in circumstances where such headgear would otherwise be mandatory, so does everyone else?

    Equal rights, yes. Equal responsibility to obey the law, certainly. The same rights…not necessarily.

    1. For it to be the same rights, someone else would have to prove a long-standing tradition of head gear wearing. Simply deciding to wear something on a whim is not the same thing.

  4. OMG! Next they’re going to want to wear PANTS!

    Cheryl, you marvelously understated the Church/institutions that are used to privilege and the difficulties in unraveling that privilege. You can hardly discuss the issue in the states directly. Rachel Maddow (MSNBC) is about the only news pundit who has given it some thought (if you get into business in the US, you have to follow the same rules as everyone else) – and no one seems to be following.

    But anyway. Not intended as a political statement, merely the result of happenstance (though I am trying to bring balance into my life): the Amazing Stories Project will soon be featuring a round-table discussion with 14 authors from Book View Cafe – 13 female name-sounding authors and 1 male name-sounding author, edited by 1 male quasi editor (I can say with certainty as I am that male).

    It will be, I am sure, a decidedly unsausagey discussion.

    Diversity is a good thing.

  5. One not-so-minor nitpick: You say “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.” This is an unfairly biased description of the decision process.

    Most male genre fans I know have no problem whatsoever reading female authors or listening to female panelists. Nor do I. But given the fundamental limits of time and opportunity — you can’t read every book and you can’t go to every panel — the simple fact is, men (like women) will choose their *entertainment activity* based on what they think they’re *likeliest to enjoy*, not on what they think they “should” choose out of moral obligation. It is the positive pull towards something they like that is the strongest factor, not an imputed negative repugnance of something they’re assumed to dislike or fear — and the strength of the positive pull is, in nine out of ten cases, set by the panel’s *topic* rather than its panelists. Your average hard SF fan is going to pick “New Developments in Space Propulsion” over “Characterizing Women in Alternate History” every time, however many women are on the former panel or men on the latter.

    Which goes neatly back to the point I feel necessary to make every time something related to this issue comes up: If people started selling representational parity as an entertainment positive rather than pounding on its lack as a moral negative — if they tried to figure out how to win audiences over by appeal rather than browbeating them into obedience with moral shame and (call a spade a spade) grandstanding — such campaigns would get much better results. If you want men to read more female authors or attend all-woman panels, *make the stories or panel topics interesting to male audiences*.

    This also has one handy side-effect: in learning what is interesting to an audience, you also tend to learn *why* it’s interesting, which helps you stop assuming (and making accusations about) the worst possible motives for audience preferential choices.

    1. I’m sorry, this is nonsense. It has been proved time and time again that men are reluctant to read books by women, but much less vice versa. Trying to deny it doesn’t help anyone.

      And that’s not to attribute bad motives to anyone. It is simply the way kids get brought up. If you live in a society that appears to value to work of men far more than the work of women you’ll probably acquire those attitudes yourself.

      Really all you are doing here is repeating the line that women can’t be interesting because men don’t find them interesting. Except for their boobies, of course.

      1. And all *you’re* doing here is repeating the line that if male audiences don’t like women’s work, it must be because they’ve been brainwashed to dislike the woman and can’t possibly have decided for themselves that they simply don’t like the work.

        (After all, clearly the only reason most male readers don’t like the *Twilight* series is that Stephenie Meyer is a woman — just as the only reason Laurell K. Hamilton lost huge chunks of her male audience around Book 7 or 8 of the ANITA BLAKE series, but gained an even bigger female audience in the process, was because her male fans had only just realized Laurell was a woman’s name.)

        Trying to dismiss the role of content and subject matter in how audiences decide what they like doesn’t help anyone, either. But as you have every interest in believing there’s a practical political solution to this issue that lets you choose people’s entertainment for them based on your moral principles rather than their aesthetic preferences, all the while telling yourself you’re doing it for *their* good rather than yours while you reap the economic rewards of that compulsion, I rather doubt you’ll consider that possibility.

        1. More nonsense, I’m afraid. You appear to be entirely happy to make up straw man stories about what I think and then complain about them. When you decide to come back to the real world and engage with what I’m saying rather than what you would like to think I am saying I might take you seriously.

          But seeing as you mentioned it, no, I am not saying that male audiences are not capable of deciding for themselves what they like. I’m saying that mostly they don’t think to try. Most humans are like that. They stick with what they know until someone introduces them to something different, and then they decide whether they like it or not.

          Unfortunately, if you continue to serve up a diet of male only panelists then men are unlikely to ever get the chance to decide whether they like listening to women or not. If you give them a few women to listen to, they might change their minds.

          I wouldn’t know about Meyer and Hamilton. I’ve never read any of their books. Does that mean I am not a woman in your eyes?

        2. Sooo. . . you ARE saying that women write worse than men and that men do not read women because their work is inferior. Thus, by extension, they cannot contribute to anything but “Women in Alternate History panels.” Got it!

          And thanks for using two egregious examples of women authors writing badly instead of the hordes of excellent female writers out there who some male readers figure out a way to enjoy, clearly because we “dismiss the role of content and subject matter in how audiences decide” their preferences.

          Oh, oh! Maybe we’re just girly and not masculine enough! Thus we are clearly letting our choices be determined for us. Or, maybe we’ve decided for ourselves that we simply like the work.

  6. @Stephen J,

    I am inclined to agree with Cheryl if you had asked me 12 months ago if I was biased against women writers I would have said no but a survey of my reading (in direct contradiction to my perception) indicated the gender split in my reading at around 85% in favour of male writers.

    There’s an implicit gender bias that operates.

    So I would go with men and women will “choose” their *entertainment activity* based on what they think they’re *likeliest to enjoy* and that will be heavily shaped by cultural bias, some explicit and some implicit.


    Can you tell me why that when anyone speaks about positive discrimination that it is assumed that the women who will replace the men will know less than or be less qualified?

    1. Thank you for that last question. The issue in a nut shell that the (….’s) screaming positive discrimination have not bothered to address

      1. I think its the assumption that a meritocracy exists, that the men who got on the panel have earned their place.

        This is a joke when you look at employment (government employers in my country are subject to EEO policy – easily circumvented in my experience) in the less regulated world of conventions I can’t see it being any better.

    2. Well there’s an assumption of an existing meritocracy, but that’s just an excuse for justifying the prevailing inequality. When I hear the cry “positive discrimination” my immediate assumption is that this is people with entrenched privilege who is unhappy about having to treat people whom they despise fairly. All else is window-dressing.

  7. A while back I was attending a con (I don’t, normally) and decided to put my name forward for the programming committee in case they had a panel which could use me. I have pro credits, run a small press, have won and been nominated for a couple of literary awards, and this was a small con where I would have been a big fish, etc. Well, I wasn’t asked to be on any panel. Fine.
    Later I saw they had a panel on writing minority characters. With no minority writers on the panel. Guess what? I’m a minority. I also have put a lot of effort into getting international writers and minority writers into my pub because it’s Lovecraftian and let’s face it, that has never been a very multicultural niche. I also happened to have more experience and writing credits than the other people on the panel.
    Like you say, people have very little idea who would make a good member of a particular panel. *shakes head*

    1. If it is any consolation, some people don’t think I’m worth putting on panel either. There is a view that the only people you should put on panel are big name writers, because they are people an audience will want to come and see. Celebrity trumps all. And sometimes with a small convention half of the attraction for those putting it on is that they and their friends can be on panel with big name writers.

    2. Well I know both of you (Silvia & Cheryl) and I think you would be great on any panel you cared to volunteer for.

      I can only repeat what I have been saying. As women writers and critics, minorities or any other discriminated against groups, We need to keep on rattling our cages.

      Yes we’ll get criticised. ‘Why can’t those lippy wimmin learn their place and shut the F. up.’ But we won’t and we are making progress.

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