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It’s a “boys’ club” after all

Another conference on Polish foreign policy, focusing on the so-called post-Soviet space. Another embarrassment. Again – an all-male panel. Not a single woman, although there are plenty of female specialists, experts, journalists and former and current employees of the diplomatic corps in Poland. Not only are there more women than men graduating with degrees in politics, international relations, European studies, Eastern studies and so on (not to mention that they tend to have higher academic achievements), but in the leading analytical centres and magazines there are plenty of female specialists in the region, who can make serious arguments and ought not have to sit in the back of conference rooms, waiting to be allowed to ask their male colleagues proudly sitting in the panel a polite question during Q-and-A.

August 10, 2016 - Iwona Reichardt - Articles and Commentary

meski panel

Irritated with yet another (and another and another) “boys’ club”, which I am listening to without much interest, I ask the organisers during coffee break why we again have a conference with such an unrepresentative panel. The organisers apologise and make foolish excuses that they had good intentions (they invited, they tried), but the circumstances were unfavourable (women did not want or could not come to the conference – the organisers were not sure). And here is the puzzle: as I mentioned earlier, there is enough empirical evidence for the public involvement of women in Poland. They are there. They can be seen with the bare eye. It will suffice to check who is competing for the highest posts and who writes reports for serious governmental institutions. Why did they not want to (could not?) take an active part in a specialist conference? And is it not the organisers’ fault? Do they really so eagerly invite women who refuse in such high numbers? I do not deny there are refusals. I do not deny that women in Poland (especially working ones) usually have more responsibilities than they can possibly handle. Yet – if I can make an intuitive guess – if any of those women were invited to a prestigious expert panel, even an obstacle in the form of an overload of duties could turn out to be manageable. The problem does not exist only when such an invitation is never issued.

The problem is probably elsewhere and relates to something we do not so eagerly admit – especially for the afore-mentioned organisers. My observation of expert panels (those with no female participants and those that invite few women – kudos to those organisers who do make the effort) allow me to claim that unfortunately, the visible disproportion in the composition of panels (in favour of men) is still the effect of male domination. To simplify, alpha men (and there are plenty of them) organise conferences for other alpha men, all proudly calling each other experts and specialists, as they are most comfortable talking in such company. Body language tells us more about their attitude than the content of their speeches. It is a pity that we still have not realised that. At the same time, women (in large part still beta) sit in the corners or behind desks silent as mice. Remember, shouting is bad manners.

“We are to blame for the situation,” female colleagues, analysts in one of the leading Polish think tanks, tell me independently from each other. “Why?” I ask. According to them, the reason is our “mousiness”. And the fact that a female analyst, an expert in international relations, has to prove herself far more (it is easier to forgive errors and cock-ups made by men, they have the right to make mistakes), to show their male colleagues that despite being a “chick”, she knows about energy policy, Russia or militaries. Are they right? I wonder after a few such conversations, still searching for the answer, unable to hide my fury and embarrassment when I read another programme of another conference, how the organisers managed to invite 45 men but only four women. And yet, I have a feeling that the problem of “mousiness” (psychologists may call it “the lack of assertiveness”) is one thing, and the awful domination, traditionalism and the lack of culture of respect – is another. And, by the way, the same men who do not let us sit with them in panels still eagerly kiss our hands.

In order to reverse the trend, I propose a total revolution: “Dear women! Let us begin to form expert panels without men. Let us put them – at least once – in the corners of full rooms or, alternatively, let us ask the female moderator that out of courtesy she could let them ask us one – maximum two – questions. And let us not feel obliged to answer them.” I quietly believe that such a social experiment, no matter how controversial it may seem, could help to eliminate at least one “boys’ club”. And that might be a good beginning…

Iwona Reichardt is the deputy editor in chief of New Eastern Europe

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