We've Had Enough Manel Discussions, Don't You Think?

Seen any women speaking at a public event lately? And was that enough?

This piece was originally published in The Ladies Finger

Some weeks ago, the All Male Panel Tumblr popped up on our timelines and we all had a good giggle. There were lots of people saying “Let’s do an Indian one”, but as the conversation evolved, what became clear was that we needed more than that. What we need in fact is a guide to creating diversity in panel discussions and other public events. This must be discussed along several axes – caste and class for instance – given how hopelessly exclusionary and Old Boys’ Club the average Indian public event is. What we have done here is one that focusses on the gender axis.

Writer and director Swar Thounaojam talks of one incident that is a striking illumination of the resistance the Boys’ Club displays even to small shifts: “I think this promo video of ‘The New Voices Arts Project’ came out in 2013. Many of my theatre colleagues in Bangalore started sharing it. I watched it and was puzzled: it called itself ‘New Voices’ and sounded like a well-intentioned project but how come there were no women in this video. I was more puzzled because nobody seemed to have noticed the absence of women, including my women colleagues in theatre. This was absolutely bizarre. Urban theatre in Bangalore has survived on the labour of women. One example: other than making up the cast and crew of many theatre groups and productions, many male theatre practitioners have been and are supported by working female spouses. I commented on the Facebook post of a theatre colleague (a woman) who had shared the video, asking something likeUmmm yeah good stuff but where are the women? She was also surprised herself that she didn’t notice. Then one very prominent and famous male theatre director of Bangalore commented something like “Oh, now you are also going to ask who are Hindus or Muslims? Let’s count them …

This struggle has been on forever and ever – long, of course, before that wonderful tumblr came along to crack us all up. For some public figures, it’s a pain-in-the-neck on a weekly basis. Feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia, founder of Zubaan Books says, “I simply refuse to go to events where there are only men and I write and tell the people who are organising them. They probably think here’s a nutty old woman who’s losing it or lost it, but who cares. I find it difficult to believe people can actually, in this day and age, organise events and not think of women. And not only events, but create committees, organise delegations and so on. And a few days ago, while watching the eco news on television, I noticed how many of the anchors were women, and young women, and clearly they are savvy and knowledgeable but an economic discussion seldom has women.”

And here’s what Pakistani author and journalist Reema Abbasi had to say: “I have been the sole woman in a sea of suits on many occasions and one of many women in all-women conferences both in South Asia and in Europe. And neither made one feel completely at ease. In the former, it was the patronising, sometimes abrupt and condescending ones who, perhaps at a psychological level, overshadowed the many emancipated men on the panels and in the audience. This is largely because one felt compelled to address them in as many assertive ways as possible to dispel instant objectification as well as overcome dismissive attitudes. I was often told, ‘Perhaps we should wait till the next moot when you have more experience…that is if you stay in journalism and not opt for fashion,’ followed by chuckles. For the latter, what makes me uncomfortable is the fact that most women lose sight of solutions and of equality and descend to male-bashing or a pity party. This is just as sexist, but a feminist forum often refuses to see it that way.”

Real diversity is the way to go and it will make your events more robust, your discussions more fruitful and less ritual-like. So thought we’d put together a primer because we are so helpful that way.



1. Do you have at least one woman in your panel? What, you just didn’t notice?

Butalia says, “In the events we’ve organised, we have a simple rule: we look for the women first. And we don’t stop if some don’t spring up obviously because we believe firmly that they are there, and you just need to look for them. Because the men have dominated the public sphere all the time, the first names that spring up are theirs. So even the ‘best’ of our friends veer ‘naturally’ (basically lazily) towards men. I recall that some time ago when Dipankar Gupta left JNU and later joined the Shiv Nadar University, he organised a series of talks/lectures/panel discussions at the India International Centre. The first few panels were all men. I met him one day and asked him why, and he said, ‘Oh, I didn’t really notice’. And that’s basically it, because it does not spring to mind they don’t notice.”

2. You want to include women in your panel but it’s so hard to find women?

Rubbish. You aren’t looking hard enough. And you are doing that old thing of assuming that any woman you encounter must be automatically less of an expert/less meritorious compared to any man in the field. According to Butalia, “In the past, women’s groups have gotten together and written to media channels and others giving them suggestions for women experts – if you don’t know, we can help, here are a hundred names, that sort of thing. That way they have no excuses. One of the things we’ve found really useful is to draw up a list and keep it as a resource. I find it really interesting, for example, to read mags like India Today Woman, or Saheli (Hindi) or the biz mags when they focus on women because it shows me how many women are doing such interesting things and how little we know about them.”

Rashmi Dhanwani (who worked as Public Relations manager for the National Centre for Performing Arts), has this to say: “More often than not, it appears that we aren’t even conscious of the public sphere having many more men in positions of power and prestige than women, and when using talent to represent certain genres/concepts we think merit is a good enough parameter to evaluate. Many imbalances occur while using merit and excellence as filters, including not acknowledging other intersectionalities beyond gender – caste, class, sexual orientation – and upholding the safe and sanctified ideas of quality. It creates a blind spot where differences in representation, if they are ever pointed out, are vehemently denied, and in some cases even normalised. I did that on a number of occasions in my own releases – [announcing the] first woman conductor conducting the Symphony Orchestra of India, three plays written by women, and many more (embarrassingly so). It has to be acknowledged that sexism is often so institutionalised and internalised, that most attempts to tackle it is akin to merely putting band aids.”



3. Watch out for the dynamics on a panel with only one woman (and why is that again), even before the event is underway.

Novelist Meena Kandasamy says “The best we can do as Tamil women is to COMPERE (or whatever the shit that is), it’s all pretty under the surface too. We could post pictures of invites that even the most progressive assholes put out. ALL male, ALL male lists for political meetings here, and so on – except for the two, three token women who would be circulated to talk about the ‘women’s issues’ and also, women at the corner [on stage and in discussions].”

Kandasamy then pointed out this pattern which we will probably notice for the rest of our lives. “I used to do a lot more public meetings and events when I was younger. And in Tamil Nadu, the most important speaker speaks last. It’s an ascending degree of importance (that’s because people turn up to meetings late). And if you are a woman, you are always asked to go earlier, you know.

Writer Mridula Koshy says, “Most panels that I have been on follow a few pre-defined patterns. The most popular of which is the Old Boys’ Club. The men come from a space where they all know each other – even if not literally. They never want to meet and discuss the topic beforehand and prepare for the panel to make it an engaging, fruitful discussion. Ninety percent of what they say on stage is a continuation of a conversation they have had everywhere.

When I ask to discuss the topic ahead of time, say when I am introduced to my co-panelists by email, I’m most often told, “You’ll be fine.” That’s an early whiff of the kind of patronizing attitude I can expect more of on stage later. It ends with me on stage listening to men being men.

In other words being invited onto a panel is not the same thing as being part of an inclusive conversation. There is an already established narrative or discourse and views that come from the safe zone of patriarchal establishment.

The male panelists have had these conversations at some party, or at the bar the previous night, where they have established a point of view and once they get on stage, they behave as if the woman’s point of view doesn’t matter. And the token women are left there scrambling for a way to break the fortress of phallus.

When I was an unknown, promoting my first book, I was obviously not invited onto panels. My experience with male writers was of being on stage with one or another whose explicit role was to introduce me and my book to the audience. This they did. As I became a little better known and was invited onto to panels to discuss wider ranging topics, I rather naively expected that this earlier treatment of me as primarily a writer would continue. But the dynamic on panels is different, and if women are on panels, it is not necessarily so their work can be acknowledged, but instead as tokens. It is rare then for male panelists who never hesitate to expound about their cerebral struggles as writers to address women on the panel as cerebral creatures.”

4. Make moderators watch out for the fact that women are socialised to give way in conversation.

A Delhi-based feminist said that one evening after a recent event, there was a conversation between two authors, a woman who she described as “very confident” and a man she described as “very quiet.” “As it panned out, he took the bulk of the time, cut in on responses to questions she was asked and was generally much more “upfront” than her. She’s totally confident, but also respectful and therefore deferred to him in terms of time and I thought this is something to really watch out for, and I guess it is the task of the moderator, but sometimes there is none.”

5. Instruct announcers and male participants to refrain even if it kills them from commenting on women’s appearance/attire/cooking skills.

Don’t derail conversations about a woman’s work by talking about how wonderful she looks in a sari. Or what a wonderful mother she makes. Stick to the subject at hand, please. Kandasamy says, “Part of the drab-dressing, the dressing-down, sloppiness that activists adopt is also because if you are seen as a pretty-face then you are not the serious type.” Abbasi says, “Just like in reportage, the ‘language’ of these occasions should be addressed. For example, introductions cannot underline physical appearance, or any personal context. And the men should be called out, with humour or authority, each time their inner chauvinist makes an appearance.”

And Koshy recounts a few cringe-worthy scenes: “My experiences of being part of panels (or even of observing panels from the audience) is one of struggling to steer the conversation away from my sari wearing skills.”

Another one: “I remember watching a rather articulate woman writer on stage with a man. She was the moderator for that discussion. But the man took over the introduction and, turning to the audience, spoke at length about her tea-making skills, and how good she looked in a sari. He went on at length about them about his experiences of finding comfort in her house drinking cups of her great chai.

It wouldn’t have killed him to talk about other things about this respected writer and moderator. If it was important to him to get past his stage nerves by speaking about her as his friend he might have focused on their writerly friendship, that is on their collegiality, their relationship as peers. Perhaps they had critiqued each other’s first drafts in the past. That might have been more interesting to the audience than his attempt to turn her from a writer into some combination of girlfriend and mother.

Once on a panel in Jaipur, a wildly famous pop fiction writer – admired by young men across the country – shared the stage with three other women writers. Among the many rather ugly moments worthy of Bollywood scripting I observed that day, one I remember standing out as particularly egregious was when he turned to the very serious literary fiction writer on the stage with him and asked her if in her childhood spent writing she hadn’t missed out on playing with lipstick like other little girls. The assumption he operated from – that these are two mutually exclusive choices, even that these are the only choices open to girls and women – was immediately checked by the literary fiction writer. The male writer immediately recoiled into his little boy shoes. Though I don’t remember his exact words it was to the effect that you can’t even talk to this girl…etc.”

6. Don’t tell women participants what to wear, either to make them your sex appeal factor or to make them your “look ma we got culture” factor. Just don’t.

Chitra Ahanthem, who is based in Delhi and works in the social development sector, says, “I have never been able to understand why it is that girls/women, all decked up and in traditional wear are the ones who do the job of pinning on badges, handing over bouquets or carrying the jazz that goes towards lighting inaugural lamps/candles at events. Every time I was asked to host an event in Imphal, it was a given that I would have to weak the phanek (traditional Manipuri lower wrap) and the phi (diaphanous wrap for upper body) wrapped around me in a half saree mode. If I had a male co-host, he could be in suit and tie but poor me had to be in the traditional garb. When I ventured to make the point that I could host events in some other attire that gave me freedom of movement on stage, it would be shot down with a firm ‘no’.’

“I ended up making all sorts of excuses but they would always get their way. Their reply was that women look dignified in traditional wear. If I said I did not know how to drape the phi, they would have someone doing the job. If I said I did not have any phi, they would loan me one. The parleys drove me half mad and I decided to stick my neck out: “No compering if you want me in phanek” – that was my reply every time an event came up. Some grumbled, some sounded me off badly and some even asked me to do my announcements from the backstage area but no one ever allowed me to go on stage without the phanek and phi code. Gradually, the offers from organisers to host events dwindled and they found others who still continue to toe the phanek and phi line. Happily though, I was able to convince organisers of a theatre festival last year that I get on stage without the phi as a half saree. I ended up wearing a coat over the phanek which I didn’t mind as it was winter!”

7. Think about the language of an event.

Dhanwani has some pointers. “Use gender sensitive language in written communication, avoid stereotypical and exclusionary messages. Also, be cautious of what words you are using to describe works by men (powerful, dynamic, incisive) and women (beautiful, sensual, imaginative, emotional).”

Butalia says, “To me part of organising inclusive events is to watch out for the language we use. Sometimes we’ve been in the odd situation of having three women and one man and the entire vocabulary is male. Simple things, like everyone will say ‘the publishing fraternity’ (just as easy to use community no?) or they will refer to students as ‘boys’ – those are the straightforward things, but also for example, ‘internet penetration’ – why not just internet reach or spread? Or, always, ‘seminal’ – I’m often told how seminal my work on Partition is, it drives me round the bend! Then, I recall being in a room where we were discussing sexuality and LGBT issues, with a couple of transgender people on the stage, and we kept referring to ladies and gentlemen […] it’s worth being aware of [language] for that special situation. Plus [words like] chairman – so many women will use these words without thinking how exclusionist they are. So if you have three women and they are talking of chairmen and fraternity, we have a problem, don’t you think?”

8. No, women organisers are not in charge of assisting a man lighting lamps, vaguely shepherding winners off stage, or organising tea and snacks.

“I think the thing is not only the presence of men on panels as experts or speakers, but also the roles that are assigned to women,” says Urvashi Butalia. As Abbasi points out: “Women also perform airport runs, are on call round-the-clock to cater to queries etc, escort guests on tours/conference-related occasions, are responsible for anything from lost luggage to laundry, and many secretarial tasks. Where logistical details are imperative, their being shared by both genders is of equal significance – these duties play a huge role in framing a woman as a vulnerable, less competent commodity.”

Don’t get women to carry momentos/bouquets. Do a quick check: is it always a token woman sitting in a corner with the task of making notes on each session? And no, women don’t have to be in charge of organising the complimentary presents/gift bags. Maya Ganesh, Director of Applied Research at Tactical Tech, says, “I just organised the import of 75 shawls from the Mysore Silk Udyog [in Bangalore] to Berlin for a 100-person women’s event….but that’s also because I’m the Indian person.” And as many people we spoke to asked, why is it always assumed that a young woman will take care of X or Y important man’s wife/child/family when they arrive from out of town?

Ladies Finger editor Poorva Rajaram says, “In the second year of my MA in History in JNU, my department organised a student conference. It was nice for once to listen to peers, not just be lectured to by professors. But I was also nervous and on edge throughout. A day in, I knew why. As far as I could tell, the organisers of the conference who spoke at the podium – at least the ones that I heard – were men. Female MA students were requested to ‘volunteer’ (I refused). They had to carry mics around and sometimes help with lunch. Key background here is that women far outnumber men in this history course. And it’s not as if men didn’t help with food or ferry mics. As presenters in their own right, women probably outnumbered men. But, I still couldn’t deny the grating optics of the event – male organisers listening and talking while most often “younger” women in saris set up tech and ferried mics around. I knew this was my hindbrain acting up. But it did and does. If there is one sight that I still see all over academia that instantly sets my teeth on my edge, it is women in saris hovering near podiums that they never speak at.”

9. How about the women in the audience?

As lawyer and policy consultant Sowmya Rao – veteran of what she describes as “many a boring bloody convention /seminar on financial stuff where the man woman ratio is worse than at IIT K” – points out, make sure that it’s possible and easy for women to attend the event.

Brief your moderators so that they do not pick only on the men in the audience during the Q and A. Sometimes women are hesitant to speak or they don’t speak loudly enough and meanwhile some man has stood up to ask his long, rambling non-question in two parts. It’s important that moderators are pushed to juice out the conversation by encouraging a good cross-section to ask questions.

10. Diversity must be thought about beyond the gender axis too.

Dhanwani says, “Is inclusion enough? What about thinking of including and expanding on ideologies? Apart from having more women on panels and events, how about extending the debate to include programming on ideology – feminist questions in art, ways of seeing (caste questions), reservation questions. We are making a habit of running ‘safe’ arts events, while completely ignoring the ability of art to question status quo in the most incisive way possible.”

Maya Ganesh says, ““The things I actually see and face much more now are casually, unthinkingly layered with “hipster racism”, so the whole gender thing is something I notice less of, so I find it funny how white women are all over the all male panels thing. I get it, it’s neat etc, but I also see a lot of people inviting friends, calling the usual suspects to speak, all mostly white women.”

11. Even it it is hurting your tiny heart, accept that the woman hopefully women that you have on your panel are actual experts and will make valuable contributions to the discussion.

If there is a consultant fee or a resource person fee, don’t assume it’s okay to pay women less than you’d pay men. We will find out and then oh, the fun we will have with you.

Finally, The Finger Memo on the matter:


All graphic elements used to create the comics were designed by Freepik.

Read the original piece here.