The man-only panel is bad, but the token-woman panel is even worse

The average manel – a men-only panel of experts – really does not want to be a manel,  it’s an awkward, backwards-looking creature and it knows it

Grace Dent
Tuesday 19 May 2015 17:56 BST
The “manel” is just men sharing manly wisdom with an audience, almost always on a subject that affects both sexes
The “manel” is just men sharing manly wisdom with an audience, almost always on a subject that affects both sexes

As summer approaches, brimming with festivals, conferences and official gatherings, one will no doubt find oneself in perilous proximity to a “manel”. The manel – for the non-acquainted – is a men-only panel of experts. Don’t be coy, we’ve all enjoyed a manel at some point recently. It’s just men sharing manly wisdom with an audience, almost always on a subject that affects both sexes.

Sure, it would have been smashing to have a female entrepreneur, venture capitalist, scientist, political thinker, comedian, author and so on behind that foldaway portable conference table, contributing to the penis-heavy banter and blue-sky thinking, but for many reasons it just didn’t happen. Wonderfully, a Tumblr blog called “All Male Panels” has began awarding prizes – ok, sarcastically shaming – such events.

“Congrats, you have an all male panel!” they chirp merrily to the Sonic Acts Festival in Holland, Minneapolis Comic Book Association and the TriBeCa Film gathering. And three cheers for the Bank of America, the Geneva Composition jury and Harvard Business School for running absolutely womb-lite speaking events, where men can espouse and women can either listen or serve coffee.

While I can’t help but cackle loudly at this blog, I can’t solely blame men for the existence of manels. Both sexes are to blame. The manel’s longevity is a murky, complex affair and it would help if we could all discuss it without fighting and slamming doors. Perhaps someone – with or without a penis – could organise a panel about it.

First of all, I’d argue that the average manel – the poor thing – really does not want to be a manel. It’s an awkward, backwards-looking creature and it knows it. Manels would be more than happy to include “a woman”, if they could find one. The emphasis being “one”, singular. Not two women. Jesus Christ, no, two women would be too much. They’d probably want to talk about similar things. But one woman, well, that would look totally progressive.

“But we’ve got a woman!” organisers will be able to say each time someone noticed there are 38 male speakers, seven of whom are doing a manel at 10am on “Diversity in the Boardroom”, chaired by another man.

Women: if you are happy to be “the woman”, you can sneak yourself into all sorts of places that women aren’t usually invited. I have been “the woman” on many, many occasions. But then that’s unsurprising being the over-ambitous, pushy, career-minded bint that I am (which are all cheerful terms “the woman on the manel” will hear bandied about if she insists on speaking publicly).

Manels are ripe to be broken into, even if it’s a largely thankless task. Manel + 1 woman talks will be mainly from a male perspective. At very best, the woman will look like an exotic, whimsical creature with esoteric thoughts. At worst she will resemble Millie Tant from Viz dragging the chat back to boring things like equal pay.

More gravely still, she might be overcome by the reality, mid-chat, that most panel talks are a massive exercise in time squandering. They’re simply hot air being spouted for hot air’s sake. At this point, a woman might think she could be spending her time more efficiently getting her actual job done, visiting her aging mother, picking her kid up from school or using her free time staring at a mountain.

But no, instead she is “the woman” on the industry manel and it’s in a conference in a sludge-coloured facility in Vienna, Dudley or Dussledorf. And after the event one of the manel, the one with Donald Trump hair, will decide he’s in love with her, while another will treat her like a rookie in her field who must be chuffed to be out of the house. No one in the audience will remember anything she said – most panels go largely ignored – but there will be chatter on social media about her pretty dress. In her budget hotel room she will sigh into acrylic pillows over how it was no fun at all being “the woman” but at least she was there “representin”, as Queen Latifah used to say. But she will not feel remotely like Queen Latifah as she’s in a Schiphol airport hotel and the complimentary handsoap has given her dermititis. At this point the ambitious woman might check her email to find she been invited to be the obligatory pair of tits on several other mostly-male panels, unpaid, although they can offer an economy return flight as recompense.

And she may then, quietly, slip away from the speaking circuit. I’m quite sure men have their own multitude of private hells when it comes to public speaking, but nothing which seems to stop them en masse coming back for more. Perhaps many women just don’t need or want to be heard as much as men at these sort of events. They don’t clamour to sit on a raised plinth being half-listened to by conference-goers with hangovers. Maybe they don’t want their quotes misinterpreted then relaid across a giant screen with a stupid hashtag. Maybe they’re flattered to be asked, but the reality is that it is a stressful, pointless mini-break in a mostly male-only environment.

We are too patronised, too bored, too scared or too busy to get involved with tedious panels but we’re irate when the latest sci-fi, hospitality or white goods conference is another sausage-fest.

The answer is to keep calling out dinosaur organisers on male-only public events, but also for women to call other women out when they say no when they’re invited. To go all macho: if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

The really annoying thing about equality is that a lot of things men love doing are really very dull.

Twitter: @gracedent

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