The cure for all-male, all-white panels

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to be on a panel about the suburbs. It’s a subject that fascinates me, so I thought about it over a few days and then rejected the idea.

The very last thing the suburbs need is an old, white guy representing them in any capacity. It would shore up a stereotype the suburbs are trying to break.

I don’t do panels anymore. I enjoyed doing the TPT Almanac media panel for the several times I did it, then got tired of having brilliant comments dismissed because I’m the “old, white guy.” Same with a few news panels in house at MPR.

Clearly, that’s a selfish reason, but it still provided an opportunity to begin to listen to other voices, especially more ethnically and racially diverse voices.

I’ve watched what happened with a few panels that I rejected to see what the organizers would do to alter their makeup. In many cases, women were added. In some cases, non-whites were added. In too many cases, young white guys were added. But some diversity took root where there wasn’t near enough.

This, Hans Schulz, vice president for the private sector and non-sovereign guaranteed operations of the Inter-American Development Bank, writes in the Washington Post this afternoon, is how it’s going to have to work if the organizers of panels themselves keep gravitating toward all-male and/or all-white voices.

I’m not alone in this mission, and the problem is not limited to international development circles. The Atlantic’s Rebecca Rosen suggested two years ago that men should refuse to participate on all-male panels at tech conferences.

Tamara Cofman Wittes and Marc Lynch wrote in The Washington Post in January about the absence of women from Middle East policy events in Washington. And Owen Barder at the London School of Economics has been recruiting men to sign a pledge: “At a public conference I won’t serve on a panel of two people or more unless there is at least one woman on the panel, not including the Chair.”

As David Rothkopf, who signed Barder’s pledge, humbly stated: “What I do doesn’t matter. But how high-profile global gatherings like the World Economic Forum choose to act does.”

I echo that sentiment. If my male colleagues and I keep participating in all-male panels, we will continue to do ourselves and our field a disservice. The timeless tradition of group-think has failed to solve our biggest development challenges.

Incorporating more diverse perspectives, including those of women, offers the best chance of devising new and more effective approaches. And we can actually begin to address the gender inequality we profess to care so much about.

All of this sounds far more noble than it really is. But the conclusion is the same. If white men are really interested in supporting diversity in the public space, the very best thing they can do to achieve it, is to sit down and be quiet.

Related media: Millennials in public media want to be heard (Poynter)

  • Patrick

    As a white male I should stay out of public discourse because I’m a white male? This might be the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever read.

    • If you’re on a panel of white males, yeah, probably.

      • Patrick

        As a white male I should bad enough about my gender and race that I should “sit down and be quiet” – this is what you call equality? This is literally the opposite.

        • Kassie

          What he is saying is that if the entire panel is white males, and it isn’t a panel on “what white males think about X” then someone should step down to make room for someone else. And if you care about diversity, that someone should be you.

          He isn’t saying there is no room for white males. He’s saying, there needs to be room for everyone.

          • Patrick

            Someone should step down if they are no longer of use to the panel, or whatever position they hold.

            No one should be pressured to not take initiative, or participate in society, because of their gender or skin color. That is true equality.

          • Jerry

            You can’t just say equality exists. Steps must be taken to achieve it.

          • Patrick

            I’m not saying true equality exists. I’m saying that telling someone they shouldn’t participate in an aspect of society, as critical as the democratic process, is the opposite of equality.

          • A media panel or a professional conference panel isn’t the democratic process.

          • Jerry

            I think Bob phrases it badly. You shouldn’t sit down and shut up. You should stand up and say “let’s hear what this other person has to say”.

          • Which is what you’re doing when you sit down. :*)

          • Jerry

            Yes, but people tend to respond better to positive exhortations than negative ones

          • Khatti

            But negative exhortations are much more fun to deliver than positive ones.

          • But what Schulz is pointing out is the problem rests with organizers. He’s not holding a public demonstration; he’s trying to get organizers to understand the value of a different perspective. It’s very much behind the scenes and doesn’t involve any grandstanding.

            The real problem, it seems to me, once you get to the point that he obviously wants to get to, is also making sure the “new” voices that replace the “same old voices” isn’t just the new batch of same old voices. (I use to refer to this as the “Golden Rolodex Syndrome” although I suppose that’s an outdated term now.)

            You probably know the type on a smaller scale in the Twin Cities. Media, in particular, use their go-to people to the point where you wonder how a state of 5 million people (I’m guessing) can only seem to consistently come up with the same political analyst that everybody else has, the same tech people on panels, the same media people etc. etc.

            I often wonder why some panel subjects keep drawing large crowds when the people on them are the same 3 people all the time?

          • Khatti

            “I often wonder why some panel subjects keep drawing large crowds when the people on them are the same 3 people all the time?”

            And people generally do not discover a whole new meaning of life every few weeks. What they say this time is just not going to be that different from what they said last time.

          • Patrick

            Ok. If you want new voices encourage others to get engaged. You shouldn’t be telling someone to sit down and be quiet for being white or for being male. That’s literally the opposite of what you, as someone with a voice, should say.

            And I actually agree with your points that the same people are saying the same things over and over again, but that’s not a problem of being one specific gender or one specific race. It’s more a problem of the public wanting a familiar face, and the media (or organizers in this case) giving them what they desire.

            It seems the points you made in this ^ comment differs in both tone, and substance, from the actual article.

            I apericiate the back and forth.

          • Patrick


          • Khatti

            Having had some time to ponder sins of omission as a problem in debates I’m now going to voice my primary pet-peeve: not introducing new and different disciplines into debates.

            For years I’ve thought it a good idea to include psychologists and psychiatrists into discussions of politics because so many of our political problems have a psychological dimension. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to consider the psychological vacuum the Tea Party fills in the life of many of our fellow citizens (seeing as how they’re going to remain our fellow citizens)? Global warming may be a problem that was brought to life by climatologists, but it is going to be solved by psychologists or storm troopers–and I’m sentimental enough to prefer the former.

            This is my favorite example, but I would think everyone reading this could think of an instance where some professional who is usually not part of a particular conversation might add a new perspective to that discussion.

          • Spasmolytic

            Equal opportunity most definitely exists in our society. What we don’t have is equal outcomes. There’s a big difference between the two.

          • Jerry

            What society do you live in where equal oppurtunity exists, because it certainly isn’t this one.

      • Spasmolytic

        Should a black man do the same if a particular panel consists of all black men? What about a panel of all women?

        • Kassie

          It would depend on the topic. If the topic was “black men in classical music” then no, they shouldn’t step down. If the topic is “classical music” then someone should step down and look to make the panel more diverse.

        • Evan

          The silly part of this “what if” scenario is that it’s exceedingly rare in most professional arenas and/or disciplines to find panels that aren’t predominantly white male.

    • crystals

      To every white male reading this and getting angsty: It’s not about you.

      It’s about people like Bob, for example, who are in positions where they’re asked to be on panels and share their opinions publicly in spaces where those opinions are given unusual weight. It’s about those people pausing to think about whether they are the best person to be sharing their opinion, or whether there are other people who should be given a chance to share theirs. It’s about the systemic factors in our society that tend to provide opportunities for certain identities and voices to be heard more than others.

      No one is telling you that your opinion doesn’t matter, or that you’re not entitled to it. Some of us are just asking that you consider whether your opinion has more opportunities to be heard than others, and that you ask yourself what you can do to help the voices of others be heard.

      • Patrick

        Absolutely. And that is a discussion I would gladly have. But the actual article tells white males to sit down and be quiet, essentially to stop participating because they are who they are. like I told OP this is literally the opposite of what should be said, to anyone for any reason.

        Regardless of the points that were trying to be made, the phrasing and headline made it something completely different.

        Regardless if you comment back, I appreciate the reply. Have a good rest of your day.

        • There’s really no need to change the words I wrote. Do you participate on panels, Patrick? Are they all male/all white panels? If the answer to either question is “no”, then nobody’s telling you anything.

          If the answer is “yes”, then tell me what you’re afraid of when it comes to giving up your spot to someone who might offer a perspective that the panel otherwise wouldn’t be able to offer?

          Schulz’ point is also for people who espouse the value of more diversity of voices on these panels. If that also doesn’t describe you, then what exactly is the problem? He’s not talking about you and his message isn’t directed at you.

          • Fred, Just Fred

            Martin Luther King dreamed of judging people by their character, not by outward appearance.

            But he was never charged with seating a panel, probably. Whole different gig, panels.

      • Jerry

        I don’t think most white men realise the advantages they have in life merely by virtue of being white and male. So when they are asked to give up one of those advantages, they feel like they are being pushed back a step instead of letting someone else come forward one.

        • Spasmolytic

          Riddle me this: Who determines which one of these ‘advantages’ I should give up? Is it something I can decide as an individual or should I let others tell me when I need to step aside?

          • Schulz clearly answers that question in his essay.

          • Jerry

            Thanks for proving my point

      • Spasmolytic

        As a white male, should I consider limiting my 13 yr olds sons participation during class discussions if too many white boys are already involved?

        • Obviously not. That would be more akin to audience participation. That’s not a panel at a professional forum of “experts.” Nor is it the work of organizers to determine which experts should appear.

          Now, if the teacher were directing the conversation in a class of wide experiences and only called on the same four kids for an hour, then, yeah.

          I would encourage you to view the situation with some different lenses. You see it as “too many white boys involved” where you might approach it from the question of “not enough non-white boys involved.”

          You’re not sacrificing anything here. You’re also giving yourself the opportunity to learn something from someone else. That’s not a negative.

  • Jerry

    This seems relevant:

  • Khatti

    …And time not spent on panels is time that can be spent flying the plane!

  • Fred, Just Fred

    Shame they stopped making hair shirts, in’t it Bob?

  • Rob

    Privileged white guy here, who totally gets how privileged white guys are. AWESOME POST, Bob C. We need another panel of all white guys like we need a hole in the head.

    • Spasmolytic

      When you look in the mirror, do you see an oppressor?

      • Rob

        Assuming you’re white, Spaz, if you look in your mirror and don’t see a privileged white guy, you aren’t apprehending the concept of privilege.

        • Spasmolytic

          You didn’t answer my question.

        • Spasmolytic

          I don’t deny the logic behind white male privilege just like I don’t deny the fact that each person’s existence is unique which means not every white male has an easier life than a black male.

  • Spasmolytic

    I have a 13 year old son who recently signed up for a science contest at his junior high school. Do you recommend telling him to withdraw if there’s too many white boys already entered in the contest?

    • No. And that’s a really irrelevant analogy.

  • blindeke


  • Col. Leopold Swindle

    I really don’t understand the people who live in white neighborhoods, in white towns, in 90% white regions of America, and then act surprised when everyone is white.

    If you moved from Minnesota to rural Mississippi you would have a chance to appreciate “non white perspectives,” or whatever it is that y’all half-heartedly claim to care about. But you don’t. I wonder why that is.

    • I’ve never met anyone who is surprised by the fact that whites dominate the culture and institutions. So I can’t answer your question since your experience doesn’t mesh with mine.

      One of the things I do find fascinating by the ensuing discussion is how people have attached themselves to the racial makeup of a panel and ignored the gender and age makeup of it, which was the point of Schulz’ essay. He actually said nothing about race.

      I brought up race but you and everyone else has missed an important point about what motivated me to stop doing panels. I’m wasting my time doing them because what I had to say was filtered out by an audience that dismissed it as “old white guy stuff.”

      That’s not anyone being surprised; that’s people being tired of hearing — again — from old, white guys — or ONLY old, white guys — and wanting to hear from someone else for a change.

      I don’t see how that’s not a legitimate request. Nor do I see how that’s a threat to anything except a very narrow perspective on a topic.