When I first started speaking at major European events two decades ago, my invitations to be on a panel were few and far between — usually they only arrived when a man had failed to turn up. A male moderator would usually bark at me to “keep it short!”
Things have improved since then — moderators are more often women. Yet the speakers on top policy panels still average three men for every woman. This male dominance of Europe’s most important policy conferences has ripple effects on our policies and, as a result, national laws and European regulations. If we want our policies to reflect our diverse population, it has to change.
Decisions may not get made in conferences in Davos or Munich — where politicians rub shoulders with business leaders and think tankers — but the discussions that take place in these forums influence the choices lawmakers make.
Politicians and policymakers float new approaches, test reactions and hear new ideas. It’s in places like these where ideas on how to steward the economy, enforce justice, guarantee security and address migration are shaped.
When one group is allowed to dominate, it is likely they will act — consciously or unconsciously — in their own best interests.
These are all issues that affect women just as much as men, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at a speakers list.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, for example, panels only include one woman for every four men. And that’s far from the worst performing conference. The Munich Security Conference has featured 85 percent male speakers over the past five years. At many conferences, it’s not at all uncommon to see several all-male panels.
Excluding female experts reduces the range of viewpoints and life experiences that will shape and influence important debates. This is a problem, because when one group is allowed to dominate, it is likely they will act — consciously or unconsciously — in their own best interests.
Researchers have found that male and female economists take different approaches to key issues such as minimum wage, labor standards and health insurance. Men and women also have very different explanations for the gender wage gap and equal opportunities in the jobs market.
Europe is a diverse place, and our policies need to work for everyone. If they are shaped predominantly by one gender, they’re unlikely to do so.
Elite events may never reflect the complexity and diversity of societies, but gender is one dimension that can be improved rapidly. Chatham House’s successful effort to increase female participation in its London Conference shows how much of a difference can be made in just one year.
Given women constitute more than half of our society, let’s be more ambitious.
Thanks in part to the #MeToo movement’s revelations about men’s abuse of power in a number of institutions, Brussels finally seems to be waking up to its gender problem. European Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis this week tweeted that there would be no panel without women at the High Level Conference on Sustainable Finance. Other commissioners — including Mariya Gabriel, Cecilia Malmström and Corina Creţu — are spearheading a #NoWomenNoPanel campaign. They’re pledging not to take part in, or hold, events without women on a panel.
That’s a good start — and a principle all EU institutions should embrace for their events. But given women constitute more than half of our society, let’s be more ambitious.
Governments and businesses sending delegations to conferences should insist that their speakers sit on a gender-balanced panel. To do so they will have to address their own gender gaps: women make up fewer than a third of European ministers, MPs and company boards.
We need to change the false perception that women without seniority can’t contribute expertise. In my experience, the threshold for female participation in policy events is much higher than it is for men. To be considered “expert enough” to speak at the top conferences, women need grander titles, more experience, more publications to our name and more media exposure than our male counterparts.
Let’s make this decade the one when the European elite fully recognizes women’s right to speak.
It’s a self-reinforcing dynamic: If you appear on a panel alongside high-ranking politicians, you’ll be considered important, and other organizations will invite you to speak. If young women don’t get the chance to participate early on, they won’t rise up the ladder on the conference circuit and they’ll miss out on opportunities throughout their careers.
To address rather than reinforce this inequality, event organizers should work harder to find female potential. Initiatives such as the Brussels Binder — a directory of female policy experts set up this year — can act as a resource to organizations looking to give a voice to female experts.
It’s been a century since European countries started recognizing women’s right to vote. Let’s make this decade the one when the European elite fully recognizes women’s right to speak.
Heather Grabbe is director of Open Society European Policy Institute.