Many of us heading to Labour party conference this year received our passes in the post last week. A brief flick through the fringe guide and it is quickly clear that, once again, we have an all-male panel problem.
What is wrong with all-male panels? After all, men do dominate in all areas of public life, and any conference that debates the issues of the day is likely to reflect this. All-male panels are damaging because they sustain a political environment and culture in which women are excluded. Ending gender inequality is more important than having the people with the best titles on your panel.
We need to take women’s representation in politics seriously, and this means having women represented in all of our debates and policy discussions, whether that is in debates in the House of Commons, or fringe discussions at conference.
Women have had the vote for nearly a hundred years, and yet you are still lucky to hear a woman’s voice in the big political debates. That is not because women do not have a strong opinion on the economy, politics and society, but because we live in a world where we teach girls from birth that their voices and opinions are less welcome than that of their male peers. We then reinforce this systematic exclusion by not giving women the platforms to speak later in life.
Putting women on panels is not tokenistic, as critics argue. It helps to break the cycle. It gives women the experience and exposure to start breaking down the barriers to their progression.
It helps to equip women with skills and confidence (although we bet we can find plenty of women who are already more skilled than many of the men down to speak next week). The wider impact that visible female representation has in providing role models for future generations should also not be underestimated.
There is simply no excuse for panels full of men. The idea that anyone organising an event does not know of at least one woman who is as qualified and engaging as the men they have given the platform to is ludicrous. Do not tell us women do not know about defence when we have Gemma Doyle, Alison Seabeck and Yvonne Fovargue leading the way for Labour on our shadow defence team. Do not tell us that women do not know about economics when Catherine McKinnell, Shabana Mahmood and Cathy Jamieson are doing fantastic work in our shadow treasury team.
Last year at conference, Labour Women’s Network launched its panel pledge, which saw men promising not to participate in all-male panels. The first question any man invited to speak on a panel should be asking is whether any women have been invited. If not, suggest some women (if you are, for some reason, struggling to think of any names, LWN has even created this handy speakers panel of women who are willing to speak at events, complete with their areas of expertise). It should be made clear that, in the situation of an all-male panel, you will pull out of the event.
Women deserve representation in every debate. In a world where we earn less for the same work as men, we take a disproportionate burden of childcare, and one in four of us are likely to suffer gendered violence at the hands of a man, women’s voices desperately need be heard.
The continued problem of all-male panels is one we will be raising in our respective roles on the NEC and the Labour Women’s Network committee. We are proud of the progress our Labour party has made in advancing gender equality, but we are sadly still a long way off parity and we can always do more. In the emails and conference packs going out to fringe event organisers, it should be made clear from the start that all-male panels will not be tolerated. We want a firm commitment from the Labour party that by next year’s conference all-male panels will be a thing of the past.
This year, when you spot an all-male panel being advertised, tweet the organisers asking why women’s voices are being left out of the debate and contact the speakers asking them to pull out if no woman is allowed to share the platform with them. Let us show the organisers of these events that we take women’s representation seriously by not attending them.
When we open our fringe guides in September 2015, we do not want to see any all-male panels, and we will be working to achieve that over the coming year. In the meantime, we will be doing all we can to ensure women are given the platforms they deserve at next week’s conference. We hope you will join us.
Bex Bailey is youth rep on Labour’s National Executive Committee. Jacqui Smith is a former home secretary and sits on the Labour Women’s Network management committee
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.