The cure for all-male, all-white panels

NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 13:  Adam Kornfeld of AGI, George Jenkot of FireKeepers Casino Hotel, Laura Ishum of Pinnacle Entertainment, and Nate Herweyer of Paradigm Talent Agency speak on the Casino Entertainment: Trends & Solutions panel during the IEBA 2015 Conference - Day 3 on October 13, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for IEBA)

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)