Too few women at the table: 5 ways to improve gender balance in EU policy debates

When was the last time you attended a policy conference in Brussels? How many female speakers were on the panel? Were there any at all? Did you even notice?

Women are still dramatically underrepresented in panel discussions in the European Union, according to a report by Open Society Foundations. Based on the study, which reviewed 23 policy conferences in the EU, women average only one in four invited speakers.

Several EU initiatives have been launched to address the issue. One of them is The Brussels Binder, an organisation calling for more female voices in European debates. In January last year, the group introduced the first fully European free online database of female experts from various fields. The website serves both as a space for female experts to promote themselves and as a tool of reference for event organisers. 

“Women improve intellectual diversity in discussions.”

Quality of discussion is of utmost importance in policy conferences. And for The Brussels Binder, being open to diverse ideas and views is one vital component of a good-quality debate. “Women improve intellectual diversity in discussions,” says Paola Maniga, co-founder of The Brussels Binder. She points out that if panels are exclusively male, the audience may end up relating only to men. “Manels” also propagate the false notion that there are more men with sufficient expertise than women.

So what can be done to improve gender balance in panel discussions? “Each of us can play a key role in addressing this issue,” says Paola. Whether you’re an event organiser, speaker, audience member, or just a concerned individual, here are some ways to get involved.

1.    Awareness is the first step

Oftentimes, gender is an invisible issue in policy conferences. Event organisers are only concerned about finding the best experts on a given topic. But they often end up inviting male experts by default for a number of reasons: men have more visibility, particularly in media interviews and news articles; men are more likely to occupy high-profile positions; and in some subject matters, there are more male than female experts.

“If women are not included intentionally, the system will unintentionally exclude them.”

“People are not necessarily always aware of the issue, they are just used to all-male panels. It’s not always a matter of discrimination. The issue is that sometimes event organisers tend to think about existing names without looking for new speakers. Even members of the audience don’t always notice there are no women,” Paola explains.

If women are not included intentionally, the system will unintentionally exclude them, as Australian human rights commissioner Elizabeth Broderick once warned. “And that’s why it’s very important that we make a new normal, that we change how things are,” says Paola.

An all-male panel discussing gender balance?

2.   Event organisers can do more to include women in their panels

“We couldn’t find a female expert,” is a common excuse given by event organisers.

“They need to try harder,” says Katja Kneževic, a member of The Brussels Binder, who organises events for economic think tank Bruegel. “There are women in every field. They may not always be available or interested or they may be too shy or too humble, but it’s a complete untruth to say that they don’t exist or that there aren’t female experts in certain fields.”

“Women need to be more active so they can enable other women.”

The Brussels Binder was created especially to give more visibility to women. At present, there are more than one thousand female experts registered on the database. Event organisers no longer have an excuse for not including women in their panels.

But while there is no shortage of female experts, sometimes there is a problem of availability. Invited women are either already swamped with speaking engagements or busy taking care of the home. “What some organisers do is to provide some facilities or accommodations so women can bring their kids along. It may be more expensive, but some organisers do have the money to do that. If they can afford huge speaking fees, maybe they can devote some of it to childcare,” Paola suggests.

3.   Women, speak up and own your success and expertise

A study done at Cornell University in New York found that men are more self-assured and confident about their abilities compared to women, even if there is no difference in the quality and quantity of their actual performance. Another study showed that two-thirds of women in the United Kingdom suffer from “impostor syndrome,” a pattern of doubting one’s accomplishments and feeling like a fraud.

In her experience as an event organiser, Katja says invited female experts often shy away from speaking in conferences. “Women are likely to be more humble and assess their level of expertise as lower than the reality is or as lower than a man with the same level of expertise. They will turn down an invitation because they feel they can’t contribute or they don’t believe they are expert enough.”

“It’s simply not enough for women to empower themselves, the environment also has to change.”

But it’s not just about being more assertive or confident. Katja also underlines the importance of promoting and building an environment that welcomes and supports women. “It’s hard for women to get into this kind of closed boys’ circle, this special club of experts knowing each other and recommending each other. It’s simply not enough for women to empower themselves, the environment also has to change.” 

For Paola, women also need to be more active so they can enable other women. “Female experts can serve as a role model for younger persons. They can inspire younger women in their career fields.”

4.   Men, show some support

Men are often in a position of privilege, and privilege is often invisible to those who have it. According to American sociologist Michael Kimmel, making gender visible to men is the first step to engaging them to support gender balance and equality.

“It’s important to engage men in this battle. They can really play a key role to bringing this cause to another level,” says Paola. At present, men make up only about 20 percent of the thousands of people supporting The Brussels Binder. “We need more male allies,” Katja says.

One way men can support the cause is by refusing to speak in events where only male experts are invited. Or if they don’t want to decline, they can simply point out the lack of gender balance in the panel.

5.   Everyone and anyone can help by spreading awareness of the issue

“You can make a difference by making people around you aware of it. You can tell the people sitting next to you that there are no women in the panel. You can signal events that have all-male panels,” says Paola.

Anyone can participate in the cause by reporting all-male panel discussions to EU Panel Watch, another Brussels-based initiative championing diversity in European debates. The group names and shames “pale, male, and stale panels” on twitter.

“What we need is more people to question what they consider is normal.”

“What we need is more people to question what they consider is normal,” says Katja. For Paola, the ultimate measure of success would be that one day, perhaps in 10 years, an initiative like The Brussels Binder will become obsolete “because gender balance will have become the new normal in society.”

The women behind The Brussels Binder

But for now, more public engagement is needed. The Brussels Binder’s next project is to build a pan-European community of like-minded organisations that can work together to advance diversity and gender equality in the EU. The group recently received grants from the European Commission and Open Society Foundations.

“The beauty of this project is that it is a result of an amazing collaboration between different women working in different think tanks in Brussels,” says Paola. The Brussels Binder will celebrate its first year anniversary with a big event on February 26.