Journey Planet Tempts Fate

If there were any triskaidekaphobes on the editorial staff of Journey Planet would they have dared fill issue #13 [PDF file] with arguments about sexual politics?

Guest editors Emma King and Helen Montgomery rounded up nearly three dozen fans to discuss gender parity on convention panels, a topical controversy ever since Paul Cornell announced his personal plan to do something about it, and the 2013 Eastercon made it a policy.   

A few writers uphold the 50/50 side of the argument against all comers, and a good thing they’re able to do it because most of the contributors oppose a fixed male-female ratio of panelists.

As Carol Connolly frames the question:

After all, this is the 21st Century! It’s not as if anyone is deliberately keeping women away. Surely as long as the con has a generally welcoming environment towards women, they’ll just turn up on panels. Like mushrooms in a field (translation for city folk: “like Starbucks franchises”).

Except that hasn’t happened, has it? Although women make up over 50% of the population, that fact is not mirrored in panel demographics.

That fundamental disparity is always on my mind as a program organizer, even if I am not a 50/50 advocate.

Opponents of 50/50 make forensic arguments about whether panels should mirror the population when the community of pro writers does not, and logistical arguments about the difficulty of aiming for 50/50 amid all the variables of assembling a convention program. Several women even argue that 50/50 would not advance feminist principles. For example, Emma Jane Davies feels 50/50 might be an impediment to dealing with the genuine issue:

Panel parity effectively makes a genuine problem invisible to fandom and the rest of the world. Are we so ashamed by the paucity of female SFF writers that we must deny the disparity, even to ourselves? Would the truth not act as a better motivation to those who wish to correct the real problem?

Certainly the zine will be must reading for conrunners because so many of their colleagues are in it and it’s a great way to see some of the other players’ cards.

(Full disclosure: I wrote for #13, too. Was that good luck for the editors, or bad?)

Monahan: Olympus 2012 Eastercon Report

By Jacq Monahan – TAFF Delegate 2012: From April 6-9, Olympus 2012 attendees convened at the Radisson Edwardian Heathrow for the 63rd Annual Eastercon (National British Science Fiction Convention). The venue lived up to its labyrinthine reputation by confusing everyone who checked in after they’d received their key card. I myself thought that I’d been given a gag room number that didn’t really exist. Then again, I’m a Yank, and that’s both a noun AND a verb.

All of the action (panels, bar, Art Room, Ops, Gopher Hole) happened on the third and fourth floors, accessible by marble staircases, elevators, and accident. It seems that one could find their way around by not looking for anything in particular and simply stumbling across the place they were looking for.

The four Guests of Honor (George R.R. Martin, Cory Doctorow, Paul Cornell, and Tricia Sullivan) were introduced at an Opening Ceremony where they shared the stage with Eastercon organizers and two Fan Guests of Honor (Margaret Austin and Martin Easterbrook).

Membership got attendees a badge with the descriptive name of their choice. Somehow I got the moniker TAFF Jacq, perhaps to differentiate me with fellow con-men FLAP and CAR. Other creative badges held names like Crazy Dave, Lost Car Park, and THE Anders.

A heavy bag accompanied the lanyard, and it contained two large paperback books, an Olympus mug and pen, programme books (two) and various flyers touting future conventions and publications. Locals were thrilled. Travelers wondered how they would stuff the extra 10 lbs. into already crammed suitcases for the return flight.

An entire third floor wall was dedicated to various other-con information. Most of the third floor, however, was taken up with the popular bar area, a place I christened Wasted Space. The name suited the activity that went on there – pints poured, shaved, and consumed at 4 pounds each – but the name was also quite literal. Most of the square footage was consumed by a large pond full of ceramic animals and fish, good for no other purpose than to gaze upon while being forced into closer proximity than one would like with fellow con-panions.

False indoor bridges gave the inebriated an extra sense of danger in maneuvering their way around the crowded-though-spacious, area.

The Dealers’ Room was full of books, jewelry, Beeblebears (at 29 pounds each, all 20 of them sold out) weapons, dragons, and even more books.

The Art Room featured a Fiji Mermaid, paranoid signs forbidding photographs, requisite female-only nudity in more than one painting, and fantasy sculptures left uncaptured for this report because of paranoid signs forbidding photographs.

The Green Room was where you’d go before your assigned panel to order a drink. The Gopher Hole was where you’d go if you suddenly lost your mind and was looking for frenzied organizational tasks to complete.  Lost was a place you found yourself several times during the first two days and it was always in a different location each time.

Ops was where you’d find people who eyed you warily as you entered. Were you heaving yet another complaint their way? Urgent problem? Logistical nightmare? These were the people with the Big Printout, who could unravel any mystery. One could virtually wither under their laser-like gaze and their heard-it-all-before pronouncements.

Panels – there were scores of them, covering fantasy, television, film, REAL science, GOH interviews and readings, a fan programme, and one constructed just for kids.

Of course the hotel’s largest meeting room, the Commonwealth, was reserved for the well-attended Opening and Closing Ceremonies, the George R.R. Martin and Cory Doctorow interviews and readings, and the notorious, traditional spoof that is Ian Sorenson’s play.

This year’s offering was Oliver, with a Twist, and starred Ian himself (in a dress) along with Yvonne Rowse, Julia Daly and Doug Spencer. There were parts for the TAFF and GUFF delegates, too, although it was rumored that Charles Dickens himself lobbied to have his name taken off the credits. Those brave enough to attend got enough laughs and groans to approximate a drunken revel, and soothe entire affair was deemed a rousing success by all.

GRRM, as he’s known, dominated the con with his reading of an excerpt from his unfinished The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in his popular Ice and Fire series, telling the crowd that it all came to him “in a vision.”

Canadian Cory Doctorow was interviewed by his longtime publisher Patrick Nielsen Hayden (TAFF ’85) and opined on world affairs and the stoicism of Brits. Seems sometimes even the urbane Doctorow likes a good rant – he just wishes he’d get a little sympathy from his English counterparts.

Panel names ranged from the whimsical (Imaginary Gripe Session) to the uber-serious, real science-oriented (MER Rover Mission to Mars, Geo-engineering to Save the Planet, The Science of Rocket Science).

Gender Parity was a hot topic. Were females being equally, even adequately represented on panels? For example, Sex and Fantasy on TV featured five male panelists and only one female to fend off comments like, “I’ll never object to nude women on television” and “why do they have to show male full frontal?” These last two utterances were made by men. Surprise!

A Fan Programme introduced Fan Fund delegates to interested attendees and also offered an auction and Tombola Table for eager chance takers who seemed to toss their pound coins into the till for a chance to win the set of Dr. Who figures – 11 in all.

A Kids’ Programme featured Balloon Modeling, a Beads and Origami Workshop, How to Knit a Dalek, Parts 1 and 2, a Beeblebears’ Picnic, and Clay Creature Composition, in addition to an Easter Egg Hunt.

Panels on Film and TV were augmented by an eclectic group with titles like Training Horses for Film Work, Tips for Playing Scrabble, Podcast Workshop, and Sufficiently Advanced Magic.

A movie room screened Minority Report, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, Galaxy Quest, and assorted shorts (not the wearable kind, mind you).

There was a Disco, a Masquerade (the Wirrm from a Dr. Who episode won the Award), a Red Planet LARP, hours of Filking, and even dance lessons for the incredibly brave or alcohol-fueled.

BSFA Awards were announced (Chris Priest controversy aside) and Hugo Nominations netted congratulations for attendees Claire Brialey, Mark Plummer, and James Bacon.

The con sold out before it opened – a rare occurrence – with nearly 1,400 souls meandering about the confusing corridors of the Radisson at any given moment. You could say that the experience added to the exploratory and discovery experience of the event if you were so inclined.

You could say that Eastercon Olympus 2012 was a smashing success and you’d be correct, if only you could find the right hallway to take you to tell someone about it.

James Bacon: 2013 Eastercon Adopts
Gender Parity Policy

By James Bacon: 8squared, the 2013 Eastercon Bid, announced they would be going for panel [gender] parity. Simon Bradshaw in charge of programme also advocated avoiding having all/majority moderators being male while achieving this. 

Meanwhile Satellite, the 2014 Eastercon bid, said they would prefer to follow what they normally do, so if four  women are the best speakers they’d be on the panel. After reviewing previous Satellites (local cons) they did well previously. When pressed they said they would not follow panel [gender] parity and one committee member subsequently said they want the best participants regardless of gender. This seemed a popular approach, but passions ran high at this stage from those who see that attitude as failing to enable gender parity. 

Both conventions were voted in. 

The question of  Panel Parity appears alive. One national con, here in the U.K., has embraced it.

More Feedback on Cornell

Steven H Silver organized the 2000 Worldcon as well as other convention programs. Here is his commentary on Paul Cornell’s initiative.

Steven H Silver: I’m aware of Paul’s idea and certainly have some opinions about it.  Not sure I can crunch complete numbers to give you anything specific, although I quickly ran the first few hours of Chicon 2000 Programming (because I have them on-line and the Windycon programs I’ve done aren’t as accessible) and came up with the following:

Of the first 35 Panels…

Men outnumbered women on panels by more than 2 on 8 panels
Women outnumbered men on panels by more than 2 on 6 panels
Perfect parity on 3 panels
Men outnumbered women by 1 on 6 panels
Women outnumbered men by 1 on 5 panels
The remaining items only had one person on them

My approach is to look at the people I have available as panelists, understand their strengths and weaknesses and assign them to panels where I think they have something to add to the topic and will be interesting.  I try to avoid using people to simply fill quotas since people’s skills and knowledge sets are not interchangeable.

I have real issues with people tampering with my programs because they (probably) don’t understand the personalities involved, the concepts behind the panels, and the reasoning given for including the people who are included.

Some panels, by their nature, are going to be heavily slanted towards male or female panelists. Others will be slanted because the panelist pool for the convention is limiting.  I’d love, for instance, to have a panel on women writers in the comic industry, but first I need a convention which provides me with enough women who write comics who will be in attendance.

Paul’s approach would certainly make me less likely to use someone who feels that they have the right to create a scene and mess with programming.  The proper approach would be to contact programming with concerns when the program is set up and open up a dialogue to, perhaps, understand why certain decisions were made, rather than issuing ultimatums.

I spend a lot of hours each time I create a programming schedule to try to get a good balance of people, by gender or interest or experience, depending on what any given panel topic is.  For a panelist to unilaterally change a panel indicates that the panelist doesn’t understand what goes on behind the scenes and seems to think that all panelists are created equally, which, if it were the case, would mean that we could simply toss names into a hat and pull them out at random to determine who should be on a panel.

If Paul were to attend a convention where I was running programming, I would most likely treat his request the same way I would treat a panelist’s request not be be put on a panel with Person A or schedule them for a panel before Noon.  It would be something to strive for, but I wouldn’t do it to the detriment of a panel.  If I had a great panel idea and Paul was a potential panelist and the other four panelists who fit the theme were also men, my choice would be to put together a panel of four without Paul or of all five and worry about Paul becoming a panelist vigilante.  In that case, I’d choose the four-person panel.  Paul wouldn’t have achieved parity for that particular panel and the attendees may find themselves with a slightly weaker panel in the process.

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.

Continue reading

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.]