Conrunners React to Cornell Initiative

Paul Cornell and Si Spurrier have called for a 50/50 male/female balance on all convention programs.

I am terribly prone to complacency, therefore, regardless of my initial skeptical reaction to the implied criticism, I think anybody who puts himself out there trying to raise the bar for con runners is doing me a service just by making me think about why I do things the way I do.

Although I don’t believe in being ruled by a canned number, I do believe in getting more women on programming. I was willing to ask — how well am I really doing? (See “Program Participation as Civil Disobedience”.)

Next, I wanted to know how other convention program organizers feel about Cornell’s initiative. Will it make any difference? Should it? How practical is it? I reached out to a dozen experienced conrunners (plus fandom’s best-known program reporter) with these questions:

  • What is your approach is to gender parity on panel programs?
  • Do you think Cornell’s initiative will change or has already changed your approach?
  • Do you have any comments on Paul Cornell’s and Si Spurrier’s actions?

Responses came back from Emily Coombs, Janice Gelb, Evelyn Leeper, Jim Mann, Craig Miller, Priscilla Olson, Arlene Satin and two fans preferring to remain unnamed. Most of their comments were so deeply thoughtful I decided to run them in full. That makes for a long post, of course, so I have placed their views after the jump.

Arlene Satin: I obviously can’t speak for any other programmer but, when I program Loscon, Westercon or any other con I do not gender bias. My panelists are chosen based on guest invite response, their expertise, and guest schedule availability. For example, if guest John Smith suggests a panel. I program it for Friday at 12pm because that is when Mr. Smith is available. Now Mary Jones who is also an expert in that field is not available for Friday at 12pm I accommodate John because it is his panel idea. I look for common ground but if the schedule does not work out it does not work out.

For example, Science is predominantly male. So, I do my best to invite as many female scientists as possible. Again, if my response ratio is 80/20 then I have no choice but to work with that ratio. 

As far as Paul Cornell and Si Spurrier’s actions go I can’t speak to British programming but it seems to me that if you keep walking off panels at some point you will no longer be invited to speak at all. As you know Mike it is hard enough to do programming without the added stress of guests disrupting things. After all, it isn’t just the panel idea that attendees go to, it is the panel participants as well.

As a female programmer I strive for 50/50 on invitations as well as scheduling but as a programmer I can not force female invitees to accept the invite. I work with what I have and do my best to balance the ratios. I add new writers, scientists etc.. both female and male to the official Loscon invite list constantly. I also add new guests based on other guest suggestions.

So, my question to Mr. Cornell and his followers is have you taken the invite response and guest scheduling issues into consideration. Have you also considered that pulling yourself off panels might not be the right way of approaching this issue? Perhaps, when you respond to an invitation you might suggest other female guests to be invited? Also, have you considered that just because an invite is sent out to your suggested female guests that they might not be available to attend?

In conclusion, I can say for my part as a female programmer I do what I can to bring about a balanced program by inviting as many diverse and interesting people as possible but, I must also work with what I have.

Emily Coombs: [Responding on behalf of Arisia.] While I understand the good intentions of the civil disobedience you and Paul are encouraging, I find myself deeply saddened by the idea of it in practice if the convention in question is making an effort.

I know that I personally have spent more than 1000 hours working on the programming for Arisia this past year, and that was with a team of highly motivated and passionate track managers each looking to make the best set of programming items that they could. Our programming season stretches from March to January to make the best programming schedule that we can, and I will emphasize we are all volunteers working for a non-profit convention.

The idea of abdicating from a panel at run time in favor of an unvetted person because it violates an arbitrary and externally decided 50% seems very disrespectful to those on the programming staff and to the other panelists.

We do not make a specific effort to have a 50/50 gender balance in each and every item in our programming, because we prefer to focus on diversity and qualifications. Balanced is not just a matter of gender. While your proposed action of stepping down at a panel in favor of a woman from the audience seems gallant on the surface, it rejects all the work the programming staff have put into providing a variety of view points in addition to gender.

For example, I know that we have had panels on religion in the past where we have looked to have representatives of all different genders, religions and social backgrounds. I can not think that sacrificing one sort of diversity for another is the right thing to do.

Working out of the Boston area we are blessed with a wealth well-educated and life-experienced program participants. And looking at the numbers from this past year, literally 50% of our panelists who were able to participate self-identified as female.

Perhaps a more productive tool is to help conventions look at the makeup of the panelist pool that they have and raise awareness that this pool be representative of the population. In the end a convention’s overall programming is more important than that any given panel, as long as there is representation of the major perspectives, including gender. (Heck, if the panel was on gender itself I know that I would want to have a representative of those who identify as gender-queer as well, for example.)

I know that we have 2 months of revisions of our programming schedule in which we work with the panelists and are responsive to their input and feedback about all aspects of the programming. Another productive avenue might be to encourage panelists to communicate such concerns before the convention.

Again I respectfully appreciate the spirit in which you are promoting this. As a woman, a graduate of a women’s college, and now an educator at in a women’s undergraduate system, I am entirely aware of the fact that there is often a bias in society at large. But I feel that doing such an action unilaterally is both a disservice to women and to fandom itself.

Jim Mann: I think Paul’s idea of trying to achieve gender parity is a good one in principle, since panels work well with diverse points of view. However, where I disagree with it in practice, as applied to individual panels. It works better as a goal applied to the broader program, but trying to implement it on a panel-by-panel basis — especially at larger cons — is impractical (and at times not even a good idea) for a couple of reasons. 

First off, in creating panels, you are often constrained by who wants to talk on what item. At Boskone, we had a panel item looked at the works of Jack Vance. We had three people who wanted to talk about Vance, all of them male. That may be an extreme case, given how specific the topic was, but it really applies to a lot of items across the program.

Moreover, when you are looking at a large program, such as you have at a Worldcon (and I can speak to Philadelphia, Reno, and the most recent Glasgow Worldons from direct experience), you have many further constraints, given that the person you may want to add to a program to give it balance may already on a program item (or otherwise unavailable) at that time, and enough is scheduled that moving one of the items becomes really hard.

Which leads met to the second of my reasons: practicality of doing this on a large program, given the volunteer nature of our endeavors. A large program such as Worldcon is already an extremely complicated and time consuming endeavor, usually done by people on top of their real-world jobs. Adding another “rule” to what must be considered really adds to the work, especially late in the game, when a lot of this kind of balancing has to be done. Look at the mechanics of it: we create what looks like a great item, but then see that it has 3 men and 1 woman on it (or 3 women and 1 man, as we have those also). At this point, do we need to look through our lists of participants at all women in interested in this general topic, then for each see how many items they are already on, then make sure they can be scheduled at this time, and so on. Now multiply that by hundreds of items. And then what happens when we later have to shuffle the schedule a bit to fit in other key items, and we have to drop someone off an item because at the new time, he/she has Hugo rehearsal or lunch with his/her agent or is now on 4 items in a row? 

And in some cases, even if we achieve gender parity on a particular item, that may not survive the first schedule mailing, as participants write back saying they don’t want to or can’t be on a particular item.  And at that point, re-balancing can be a nightmare. 

Again, I think this is a great goal, and I think it’s something we should strive for on a convention-wide basis. But making it into a hard and fast rule is, in my opinion, not a good idea and not feasible. 

As to whether it’s changed my approach: I haven’t run program since Renovation (I was on staff at Boskone this year). I think I’ve been aware of issues of balance, but Paul’s initiative will probably make me even more aware of the issue as I create program items. But I don’t see it causing me to try to do this on every item individually — though for some I’ll certainly try more. 

Priscilla Olson: I adore Paul Cornell. I’ve seen him on program items, I’ve been on a program item with him, and I’ve even dined with him. He is a charming man. However, I think he is amazingly wrong-headed about this whole program gender gap thing.

First, if there is a gender gap going on, it’s probably with the whole field. That’s everything from the professional (writing, editing, publishing) through the fannish spectrum. Starting this initiative from the convention program level up seems a weird way to address the issue.

And – I think Paul Cornell’s solution assumes at least one of the following:

  • Convention programmers are deliberately attempting to exclude women.
  • Convention programmers are ignorant.

Whereas either or both may in fact be true with some conventions, I doubt either is true with most. Especially at the Worldcon level (where I have a bit of experience*), the program staff works its collective butt off to provide interesting and balanced programs. If a possible program participant on a particular program item is the right person for said program, then why should it matter what they have between their legs? Most of us have done our homework, and know the field, and will (even!) take polite (especially) suggestions and corrections in order to put together better programs.

Granted, perhaps some conventions are anti-women. Don’t go to them. And, some convention programmers may be ignorant. Educate them. Help them. The suggestion of either leaving the program item hanging (well, it’s not a legal contract, after all) may well hurt the program item, the convention, or even you, the protesting no-show. Adding someone else in your place is just plain wrong on so many levels! For one thing, there might well have been a compelling reason not to put someone on a program item that you simply don’t know. And, it’s rude, too…..

Now, many conventions send program participants preliminary schedules, which include the slate of the other people who might be on a specific program item. Instead of waiting for the convention and grandstanding, would it not be better to work with the program staff ahead of time to reach the desired “gender parity”? Paul, you might be pleasantly surprised to find that, ahead-of-time, the program staff would love to have your help improving the balance of a program item.

Walking off of a program item at con (not to mention picking someone else to replace you) is a potentially useful attention-getting performance; it is not necessarily the solution to a possible gender-bias issue. Work on the real issues and forgo the performance – it will be better for everyone.


*For the conventions I’ve worked on (too many Boskones, a World Fantasy Con, Noreascons 3 and 4, MagiCon, Interthingies, Renovation, and a host of other recent worldcons), I’ve always tried to get a good balance – and gender sometimes comes into the stew. Depends on the program item. I very much doubt Paul Cornell’s initiative will change my approach; I know more about putting together a convention program than he does, after all.

Craig Miller: I’m not currently actively doing programming for a convention but I’ve run programming for Worldcons, Westercons, and Loscons and may well again in the future.

My feeling on reading Paul’s comments is that they were an excessive reaction and forcing parity — particular from the position of a panelist — is inappropriate.

I certainly believe in attempting to have both men and women on a panel but that doesn’t mean there have to be exactly the same number of each. (I suppose, one could look at it that if you have to make a point of having two and two or three and three, then you aren’t achieving equality; you’re making a show. Equality is when you just automatically put the best and most appropriate panel together and it happens to regularly include both males and females and you didn’t have to think about it.)

It’s particularly wrong when handled from the panel on the fly because a given panelist doesn’t know what balance of ideas the programming staff was attempting to achieve (truly more important than a balance of genders), whether there’s someone on the panel who specifically requested not to be on a panel with the person who’s pulled up from the audience, or other issues that might make the audience-grabbed person an inappropriate choice.

It’s also not an issue that should be taken in a panel-by-panel matter but overall. Remember, the programmers aren’t putting together just one panel. They’re putting together tens or even hundreds (in the case of a Worldcon) of program items. The amount of time and effort it takes is enormous, especially for volunteers who have jobs and lives outside of the convention. It’s hard enough putting together a good slate of programs, without worrying about achieving an exact gender balance on every single item. Plus, even if there are people of the out-of-balance gender who are knowledgeable about a given topic at the con or even in the room, it isn’t the case that the programming staff knew they were coming, would be interested in being on programming, and would be available for that given panel. Programmers are far from omniscient. If Person X doesn’t make themselves and their interest known, it isn’t a failing of the convention that they didn’t end up on the program. And when you’re trying to fill out a hundred or five hundred panel items, searching out people who you don’t know to be coming isn’t always possible. Having similar numbers of men and women on the overall program — and even most programs — is a fine ambition but it’s impractical to try to achieve it on every item.

Yes, having men and women both on program items is something that programmers should strive to achieve, but forcing it for every single item isn’t really reasonable.

So, no, Paul’s actions won’t change my approach. I’ve always made an effort to get both men and women onto panels (as well as others who aren’t necessarily well represented in convention programming) so the idea isn’t new to me. But I won’t be making an effort to force the balance on any given item to be exactly equal. 

Janice Gelb pointed me to the reply she’s already posted on Cornell’s blog:  Although I think you [Cornell] mean well, I very much disagree with this approach and this mandate.

You say “Now, to make that happen, what really should be done is a ground-up examination of society, huge changes at the heart of things which would automatically lead to women being equally represented everywhere, not just on convention panels. Well, we’ve all wanted that and worked for that for decades, especially those of us in fandom, and it just hasn’t happened.”

Personally, that’s not what I’ve been fighting for, and I don’t think that it’s really what many people have been fighting for. I believe what we’ve been fighting for is that women are considered equally for all positions, and when they are among the most qualified people, they should be equally represented.

I, for one, have not been fighting for a system that would put women on a panel who are not as qualified to speak on the subject as a man who steps down from a panel. Nor have I been fighting for a quota system that would require an exact gender balance for all panels always.

I think the answer to this problem is to raise the consciousness of programme creators for all cons and remind them to make a special effort to put qualified women on panels: send them a note with your participant survey, drop an email to the programme committee of cons in your area, urge qualified women to volunteer as programme participants, etc.

A 50/50 quota requirement is not in the best interests of either the audience or the panelists, or of some of the women who will be uncomfortable tokens to prove a theoretical point.

Evelyn Leeper: > What is your approach is to gender parity on panel programs?

It is reasonable as a general goal, though I suspect there are panels where it would not be desirable, especially those specifically dealing with gender. It is also not achievable to the degree of precision Cornell wants (see below).

> Do you think Cornell’s initiative will change or has already changed your approach?

No, but then all I do is report what happens. (Oh, I suppose if I saw that Cornell was listed on a panel that was unbalanced I might figure that the result after he unilaterally decided to put someone else on it would not be optimal.)

> Do you have any comments on Paul Cornell’s and Si Spurrier’s actions?

As civil disobedience, they make perfect sense. But as civil disobedience, they also involve taking the consequences. In this case, that would probably include never being chosen to be on panels in the first place. Why should a committee work to put someone on a panel if there is a good chance that not only will they drop off the panel at the last minute, but that they will also put someone on the panel that the committee had possibly already decided not to.

One may also argue that while dropping off a panel is a reasonable form of protest, attempting to put someone else on is not, since that is coercing another person into your protest, perhaps without their actually realizing it.

In addition, there are any number of reasons why Cornell’s approach can make things worse:

– What happens when person A says they don’t want to be on a panel with person B and this is respected by the committee, but then Cornell decides to drop off and invites B to replace him? Person A is likely to stop volunteering to be on panels at that convention.

– Why (and how) is the convention supposed to know the gender of all the panelists? There are a lot of popular authors, artists, etc., who have pseudonyms. Even if one person knows their genders, it is not clear that the person tweaking the schedule will.

– If the committee has to have all balanced panels, they will have even more problems than usual with the difficult time slots: early morning, the first few time slots of the convention, and the last few time slots of the convention.

– Even if the convention puts together a balanced panel, what happens when some panelists fail to show up? Is the convention supposed to try to re-construct a balanced panel on the fly? Let the panelists do it themselves?

– Not to mention that applying Kant’s Categorical Imperative, if all the men on the panel do what Cornell suggests, then you end up with a really unbalanced panel!

If someone wants to see a different demographic on panels, he has several options:

– he can volunteer to work on programming

– he can send suggestions to the convention for people to put on panels to achieve a better balance

– he can look at his panel assignments when he gets them ahead of time, withdraw from whatever panels he wants, and even suggest to the convention a replacement

Civil disobedience is supposed to be one of the last tactics used, not the first. Is there any evidence that Cornell has tried any of these alternative approaches?

Panels are small enough that one would not achieve parity even if the genders were selected by coin flips. On a four-person panel, there is a 1-in-8 chance of a 4-0 split, a 3-in-8 chance of a 2-2 split, and a 4-in-8 chance (or 1-in-2) of a 3-1 split.

Anonymous commenter #1: In general, I find Cornell’s draconian approach to be rather distasteful, as it assumes that it is more important to have complete equality of numbers no matter how that might affect the quality of the panels under consideration.

While I believe it is necessary that we embrace and encourage a sense of parity in conventions and in convention program, this isn’t the way to do it.

Anonymous commenter #2: The single most important point should always be: Who can speak best about this topic?

Once you figure that out, then you need to take into account:

 Who will have an intelligent conversation on this topic?

Is it possible to balance along gender/race given who has agreed to appear at the con?

[Cornell’s approach is] too extreme and disregards the months and years of work that volunteers do.

4 thoughts on “Conrunners React to Cornell Initiative

  1. Imposing abstractions on real life provokes more than it illuminates.
    Agree with the goal, not the means.

  2. While it is a great goal, it is not practical and can prevent some excellent panels.

    I attended a conversation between Joe Haldeman and Robert Silverberg discussing their experiences in the 1960’s. Given Paul Cornell’s requirement for gender parity, that wonderful panel would never have taken place. A very different panel could have occurred if say Elizabeth Moon had replaced either Haldeman or Silverberg. It could have been equal wonderful, but it would have been very different.

    I can also think of several panels where there were only 2 women including one with Gay Haldeman and Elizabeth Vonarburg that also would never happen with a requirement for absolute gender balance.

    Another problem is that many panels, for whatever reason, end up with an odd number of panelists. Some conventions prefer panels with 5 people.

    A requirement for all balanced panels would end many GOH presentations, artist slide shows, art demos, and anything else that has only one person.

    Realistically, a more achievable goal is overall balance. That allows for some all female panels, some all male and the vast majority of somewhere in between.

  3. Like many others, I agree with the intent and kudos to Cornell for helping to raise/continue awareness.

    And also like many others I agree that the implementation may do more harm than good.

    My vote is to move the bar just a little bit.

    The convention as a whole should strive for parity. In doing so, it should appoint moderators in rough parity, panelists in rough parity AFTER considering the experience and appropriateness of speakers and the subject matter of the presentation. There are special interest groups that should determine their own mix and there are subjects where ‘differing views’ may be inappropriate or distracting to the subject at hand.

    If, at the end of the event both headliners and attendees feel that the event achieved equality or a close approximation thereof, the goal will have been achieved.

    FYI: Worldcon probably ought to take a look at its history of guest of honor. By rough count this morning, the pro GoH ration is 94 male and 13 female (counting those identified as ‘pro’ on the long list). Perhaps more problematic, a large percentage of the female pros appeared along with a husband or paired with a male GoH.

  4. Without taking issue with any other points raised, at the moment, I wish to note that I’ve just returned from FOGCon where all panels had either gender parity, or more females than males, and while one might point out that this is a currently small con (it’s the 2nd) of only ~250 attendees, and it’s my understanding that Wiscon has done this for many years, with 1000 members, so while granting exceptions for ultra-specialized panels, I think it’s less impossible than some are suggesting. I suggest it’s a matter of priorities.

    One is certainly entitled to argue that gender parity shouldn’t be the top priority, but I don’t think one could argue that it isn’t possible.

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