Program Participation as Civil Disobedience

British comics writer Si Spurrier, inspired by Paul Cornell’s appeal for convention panel gender equality, surrendered his seat on a panel at the inaugural Super London Comic Con (February 25-26) reports James Bacon on Comic Buzz:

[Spurrier] sought out a female creator [Tammy Taylor] before hand, discussed it, and then not long before the panel, explained himself to the SLCC organisers and fellow panelists. In fairness, everyone seems to have been very cool, the crowd reaction as Si explained himself at the beginning and apologised for the disruption, was good, and the welcome for Tammy Taylor was superb.

Spurrier acted in response to the initiative Paul Cornell announced on his blog last month. Cornell declared:

I think there should be gender parity on every panel at every convention.  I’m after 50/50, all the time.  I want that in place as an expectation, as a rule.  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….

If I’m on, at any convention this year, a panel that doesn’t have a 50/50 gender split (I’ll settle for two out of five), I’ll hop off that panel, and find a woman to take my place.  

Spurrier took this step because he, too, worries about gender imbalance on panels at comics conventions:

A lot of people don’t think that’s a problem. The argument is that there simply aren’t many women working in the industry, so why should you expect them to be represented on panels? Which is… well, it’s a bloody lazy argument – there are loads of women working in comics – but, sure, okay, fine, let’s be blunt: there are fewer women working in mainstream superhero comics than men. True fakt.

Paul’s contention is this: if we comics-people want our industry to become a genuinely gender-blind place – that is to say, a place in which a professional is judged on his, her or its merits rather than the shape of their junk – then we need to do something about the elephant in the corner: the Where-Are-All-The-Women question.

Without suggesting America can’t furnish its own bad examples, it wouldn’t be surprising if Cornell and Spurrier have been influenced by dramatic news stories published in Britain over the past few years about extreme examples of gender disparity in the publishing field, such as the Guardian’s article ”British Fantasy Society admits ‘lazy sexism’ over male-only horror book” about a collection of 16 interviews with writers that neglected to pay any attention at all to the horror genre’s female authors.

Paul Cornell feels there’s a similar injustice in the makeup of convention panels. And he’s certainly right in thinking that a convention guest who’s in such great demand as he is has more clout to force a conversation and change the game than others do.

Civil Disobedience: Cornell’s chosen tactic means reneging on a program assignment made after he agreed to appear at a con, and then unilaterally drafting his own replacement. These acts are a type of civil disobedience, directed against the people who program sf conventions.

Cornell predicts,  

50/50 will be called, and is, all the following: ‘positive discrimination’; ‘tokenism’; ‘treating the symptom, not the cause’; ‘political correctness’.  Those words are just descriptions convention organisers are going to have to get used to, until the point, in a couple of decades, where 50/50 has become ‘the way things have always been’.

In saying 50/50 is something “convention organizers are going to have to get used to,” Cornell reveals his full understanding that controversy won’t arise from his goal of starting a ground-up examination of society that leads to equal representation of women everywhere – most fans already subscribe to the idea. It will come from his interfering with the prerogatives of conrunners.

Program organizers broker the assignment of people to panels which are intended to amuse fans, play to the participants’ strengths, and raise the profiles of those who benefit from publicity. Fans who put in hundreds of hours recruiting and communicating with pros and other volunteers, analyzing their responses, and tailoring their schedules, do not react with delight when their work is appropriated as a forum for someone to act out his agenda.

That being said, if it’s a source of controversy, I guess that’s too damn bad. We organizers are the people responsible if there are gender imbalanced panels. And weathering criticism is one of the requirements of doing this and, honestly, most any work for a convention.

My Own Lab Rat: Yes, I’m part of the establishment Cornell is rebelling against. I’ve run program at several Westercons and Loscons, and worked program at various levels for several Worldcons. My most recent assignment was organizing the 2010 Loscon program.

Do I need his wake-up call? I decided to put my latest opus to the test.

I consider myself someone who invests a lot of effort finding women participants. It may be the right thing to do but it’s also an easy choice — mixed panels are more interesting for me, so that’s my inclination when I create programming. My unscientific theory is that a mixed panel deters the male dominance games and posturing that bores my socks off, whether by actually modifying mens’ behavior, or through the intervention of women panelists who won’t accept being dominated by male participants. By avoiding what bores me I expect it’s more likely other fans will have a good time.

Loscon 2010 had 140 program participants — 91 men and 49 women. We ran 91 discussion panels. Thanks to Paul Cornell’s willingness to count 2-women-out-of-5-panelists as meeting the test I can say 37 of the panels were gender-balanced. That’s 40%. What a horrible percentage! Am I in denial? Or does that number tell me I wasn’t working hard enough? Not for the sake of achieving a number, but because there usually are women writers, editors, artists and fans capable and qualified to talk about any topic. I just have to find them and persuade them to come to the con.

Calm as that may sound, it’s also just an unforced self-criticism safely tucked away on my blog. It’s probable that on-site I (or any other conrunner) will be much more emotional upon learning Paul Cornell has just reshuffled my chosen panelists and cited my work as a bad example.

It may have been that mental picture of fans being blamed for the social injustice Cornell wants to overcome that led a commenter on Cornell’s blog to chastise him for taking this public:

[Why] would you not address the gender equality issue before the panel starts? If you know that the balance is uneven, show up anyway and then step down from the dais are you not just grandstanding under the pretense of calling attention to the problem?

Yet that is the one part I have no doubt about — Cornell is taking a stand to effect widespread change. Cornell’s first step is to take actions that change perceptions of women within the publishing industry by making them more visible at conventions through an object lesson that will be witnessed and talked about by other professionals and their fans. Cornell has to announce his policy publicly and act it out publicly. If he did nothing more than have a quiet conversation behind the scenes he might succeed in getting his own panels gender-balanced but who the hell would know, and how likely is it anyone else would profit from his example?

[Thanks to James Bacon for the story.]

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7 thoughts on “Program Participation as Civil Disobedience

  1. What if fandom isn’t 50/50? Do we accept a “norm” that a female fan is two or three times more likely per capita to be called upon to bore the audience from the front of the room? What if she doesn’t know the topic?

    While fandom’s gender gap has been filling, it’s still quite noticeable among writers and editors. Again, what if the pros aren’t 50/50? Do we draft someone from the audience to take the place of Greg Benford or Gardiner Dozois, just because the draftee wears a bra?

    Now me, I don’t much enjoy convention programming. I rarely attend it even when at a con, so I don’t have to worry about these things…

  2. Spurrier already replied to Taral’s question in the paragraphs Mike quoted. My initial reaction was to disapprove of panelists playing guerrilla theater with convention programming like this, but if people are going to respond to the legitimate concern behind it with dismissive phrases like “the draftee wears a bra” and/or think that some clever and witty point has been made thereby, maybe we do need such a policy until somebody, somewhere, gets a clue.

  3. My attitude is best summed up, I think, by “fandom should be descriptive rather than prescriptive.” It isn’t a cop out — fandom can be and should be “improved.” But not by losing sight of what it is.

  4. I’m not sure how a preference for the descriptive over the prescriptive matches to a desire to maintain the rights of conrunners to prescribe program participants, but whatever.

  5. Perhaps a different metaphor… I like not to fit fandom to a procrustean bed and lop off extremeties that I find inconvenient.

    At least in this context.

    There are probably a lot of present-day’s fandom I’d not hesitate to lop off… but that’s another argument.

  6. The bed of male dominance and reflexively assumed male superiority, when in fact all over science fiction there’s a sufficiency of qualified women on just about all topics, is procrustean enough, and it’s time we got out of it.

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