30th Jan 2023


Female moderators are great - but not to cover up a male panel

  • Often, panels reflect the fact that more men are in positions of power. But if you already have two CEOs, don't add a third - add someone from the workfloor

"Can you send a female moderator, because all our speakers are men?"

As collective of moderators focussed on 'the Brussels bubble', we get this request a lot. Now that we get ready for to get 'back to normal' with countless events on EU policymaking, with all their inevitable panels, it is good that there is attention for gender equality.

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  • An example from the 'allmalepanels' Tumblr account - with added approval of David Hasselhoff

But too often a woman moderator is requested as a token for real diversity. As a band-aid for the underlying problem: all speakers are men. That shouldn't be fixed with a woman moderator, intermezzo or grid girl, only to prevent a snarky post on ("congratulations, you have a manel").

It should be solved at its roots: diversify your line of speakers. It's great if the questions get asked by someone other than a cis man, but it is even more important that the people who answer those questions get more diverse.

If the opinions of all ages, colours, backgrounds, experiences, stances and genders are included, the conversation gets more interesting and relevant. And if new voices are added, new answers will be provided and more people will feel represented.

The root core, of course, is a lack of gender balance in high positions.

As long as many seniors, executives and other representatives of organisations, institutions and think-thanks remain middle aged white men, it will be hard to increase diversity in conferences too. But we don't have to wait till that problem is solved to reduce the problem of all men panels.

Think 'diverse quotes', not 'diversity quota'

Setting quota (no manels) help setting a minimum level.

But rather than designing a panel like you'd always do but now with quota, rethink your event: how do we get a rainbow of opinions? If you take diversity of opinions as starting point, the search for more diverse spokespeople will be much easier.

Let people speak because they are relevant, not because they are important. What if instead of going for the hot shots, you opt for the interesting voices? If you already have two 'inside voices', enrich the discussion with an outsider.

If you have two hot shots, enrich the discussion with a challenger. If you already have two CEOs, don't add a third but add someone from the workfloor. If you do this, you are much more likely to stumble on more diverse persons.

We once moderated an election debate about biodiversity. Of course, the three (middle-aged, white) directors of the lead organisations had to do a welcoming word. But after that, instead of having them talk their policy talk, we interviewed a farmer, a volunteer and entrepreneur. Not only did we have a more diverse panel, we had a more concrete, relevant and lively debate.

Stop saying 'there aren't enough women'. They exist. If you organise events, check out websites such as Brussels Binder or specifically ask for woman experts. If you are a male speaker, and realise the panel you are invited to is far from balanced, suggest a woman colleague's name.

If you invite 50 female doctors to speak at a medical conference, 49 will say: 'I'm not the expert on this specific field'. If you ask 50 male lawyers, bankers or garbage collectors, 49 will say 'sure, I have been to a doctor once so I can talk about it'. Of course, this is a slight caricature and you don't have to mansplain women that they are too humble, but do reassure them to step forward.

If you work in an organisation, a think-tank, a university: empower your women experts. Provide training, support and recommendation. And as women: claim your space.

If an invitation to speak means a speech in a very formal atmosphere, it is not easy to say 'yes' if you are not accustomed to it.

If discussions are high-testosterone where speakers try to outrank each other or are full of inside jokes, when speakers are announced as 'authorities' instead of 'fresh voices', outsiders will hesitate.

If we make our conferences more relaxed, less about statements and more about dialogue, not only will they be more inclusive to non eager speakers, they will also be more relevant, fun and productive.

Hopefully in two years from now we won't get requests for female moderators anymore, but a request for a moderator that fits the event and compliments the panel. Regardless of their gender. And if we then propose a non-male, it is because of their added value as moderator, not as token.

And instead of the same panels but now with women, we have truly inclusive and diverse conversations.

Author bio

Rogier Elshout (he) and Beatriz Rios (she) work for, a European moderators collective.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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