The ethics of conference speakers

Helen KaraDr Helen Kara has been an independent researcher since 1999 and writes and teaches on research methods.

She is the author of Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide (Policy Press, 2015). She is not, and never has been, an academic, though she has learned to speak the language.

In 2015, Helen was the first fully independent researcher to be conferred as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. She is also a Visiting Fellow at the UK’s National Centre for Research Methods. Her latest book is Research Ethics in the Real World: Euro-Western and Indigenous Perspectives (Policy Press, 2018).

Helen’s webiste is helenkara.com and she tweets at @DrHelenKara. Her ORCID is 0000-0001-7348-0963


Photo by Luke Michael | unsplash.com

Photo by Luke Michael | unsplash.com

In March 2018 Stanford University in California held a two-day conference in applied history. There were 30 speakers. Every single one was male and white.

Like most academic fields, applied history is dominated by white men. However, there are also many women and people of colour who work and study within the discipline. No doubt there are also queer historians and historians with disabilities. To be fair to Stanford, three female historians had been invited to take part in the conference, but each of them declined due to previous commitments. To be fair to women, I’m sure that more than 10% of historians are female. Stanford inadvertently made history itself by ending up with the biggest manel ever. (For those who haven’t heard the term before, a manel is a panel comprised entirely of men.)

Of course the media, as usual, reported this event as though gender is binary. While there is some point in prioritising women, who still face structural discrimination in professional life, this also risks further marginalising trans and non-binary people. Their voices are equally important, as are those of people from different sexual orientations, belief systems, and so on.

As an occasional event organiser, I find it difficult to ensure that panels are suitably diverse. There are a number of reasons for this. First, in the UK, there are about four times as many women as there are people of colour. Another is that someone’s ethnicity is not always obvious from their name or their voice. There are white Jamaicans, black Scots, and so on. It doesn’t feel right to ask a potential panellist, ‘Are you a bit brown-skinned at all?’ in the hope of ticking the diversity box. Yet trying to be ‘colour blind’ isn’t right either, because meritocracy ignores the structural inequalities in our society that keep many people of colour from reaching a career stage where they are offered speaking opportunities.

Second, like Stanford, I have experienced women declining invitations; also, those who do accept have sometimes dropped out at the last minute. Of course men may drop out too, but despite efforts to achieve equality there are still fewer women in the academic pool than men, especially at senior level, which makes it hard to find women in the first place and harder to find female replacements at short notice. Also, women may drop out for different reasons from men. For example, anyone can get sick, but recent research from Carers UK shows that women are still much more likely than men to have to prioritise caring for family members in need.

Because of the number of people of colour in the UK, if you put together a panel of five people and they’re all white, that in itself is not outside the curve – particularly if you’re outside London or Birmingham. However, if you put together a second panel of five people, and they are all white too, you need to start asking yourself some serious questions. The proportions where you are may be different, but the principle is the same – and it also applies to other oppressed and marginalised groups.

I don’t have a good solution to this problem, but I do think it’s the responsibility of all of us to work towards finding such a solution; particularly those of us who are privileged. People who are disadvantaged, marginalised or oppressed already have too much to do. If you’re not sure whether you are privileged you can check here. Like gender, privilege isn’t binary. For example, I am white and English-speaking British, which confers privilege; I am also female, bisexual, and living with disabilities, which does not. These elements don’t cancel each other out; they mean that some aspects of life are much easier for me to manage than they would be for others, while other aspects are physically and/or emotionally draining.

Ethically, I think I have a responsibility to identify and do what I can to address structural inequalities in our society. After all, it’s long past the time when manels or all-white panels should be thought of as acceptable. If you also feel this way, here are some ideas for what we can do. If you are invited to speak at an event, you can ask about the diversity of the speakers before you choose whether or not to accept the invitation. (A young white male researcher recently told me he does this, and mentioned that one of his life’s ambitions was never to speak on a manel. I love that the next generation is getting so much right that my generation got wrong.) And something we can all do is to make a point of finding and using the work of women, trans/non-binary/queer people, people of colour, Indigenous people, and people with disabilities who are working in our fields. If we find ourselves on, or listening to, a non-diverse panel, we can cite their work in our presentations or our questions – and we should be citing it in our own scholarly work too. Also, this should also raise everyone’s awareness of more potential speakers for our events.

I believe these are actions that can help, but again I doubt they’re all we need to do to solve this problem. Perhaps you have more ideas? If so, please add them in the comments below.

4 Responses to The ethics of conference speakers

  1. Privilege, huh … If you don’t have tenure, you are not privileged.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Helen Kara says:

      I don’t see privilege as binary; I think it’s more complex. For example, I don’t have tenure, but I do have some privilege as a white British person. Also I earn enough money to house, clothe, and feed myself with some left over, which increases my privilege. Being a woman reduces my privilege, but overall I think I’m quite privileged, all things considered.

      Like

  2. Damaryius Hollinster says:

    Is the solution to be tallying up a person’s privilege? Are there objective ways of measuring privilege or marginalization? Is a panel of white males (or manel) automatically privileged without question? Even without knowing their personal life (e.g. endured child abuse, divorce, loss of a loved one, spousal abuse, etc.)? I mention this because, the white males have the highest suicide rate so there are definitely negative thoughts going on internally that may be useful to learn from.

    If we focus on people’s hardships and sexual proclivity outside the realm of their academic work, we may miss those who are really brilliant in the field. If I needed a heart transplant I would want the best surgeon available to perform the operation. Whether they are black, white, yellow, green, or blue is irrelevant in that situation. I attend research conferences to witness the best advancements in the field. Period.

    Like

    • Helen Kara says:

      Hi and thank you for taking the time to comment. I will address your points and questions in turn.

      “Is the solution to be tallying up a person’s privilege?”

      That is not ‘the solution’, it is part of a solution.

      “Are there objective ways of measuring privilege or marginalization?”

      Inasmuch as there are objective ways of measuring anything: yes. However, the issue of intersectionality of course makes this more complex, as I have made clear in the post.

      “Is a panel of white males (or manel) automatically privileged without question?”

      A panel of 30 white males is a clear manifestation of privilege.

      “Even without knowing their personal life (e.g. endured child abuse, divorce, loss of a loved one, spousal abuse, etc.)?”

      I have not argued that each person on that manel is fully and equally privileged, nor would I do so.

      “I mention this because, the white males have the highest suicide rate so there are definitely negative thoughts going on internally that may be useful to learn from.”

      The relationship between suicide and ethnicity varies by country and year. For example, US statistics 2000-2016 show that in some years more American Indians/Alaska Natives committed suicide than white people, while in other years it was the other way around. However, if you aggregate the statistics of American Indians/Alaska Natives with Asian/Pacific Islanders, Black and Hispanic people, there would be more suicides among non-white people than white people year-on-year. Of course this includes all genders, but as the majority of US suicides are generally male, it seems likely to be reasonably reflective of the situation with white and non-white men in the US. (I agree with you that we could learn useful things from the internal negative thoughts of suicide victims, though I would extend your argument to include all suicide victims, not just white males. However, this is taking us a long way from the original topic.)

      “If we focus on people’s hardships and sexual proclivity outside the realm of their academic work, we may miss those who are really brilliant in the field.”

      If we don’t focus on people’s non-work characteristics we certainly will miss some who are really brilliant.

      “If I needed a heart transplant I would want the best surgeon available to perform the operation. Whether they are black, white, yellow, green, or blue is irrelevant in that situation. I attend research conferences to witness the best advancements in the field. Period.”

      I too attend research conferences in hope of witnessing the best advancements in the field. When I encounter a large panel that is not widely diverse, my heart sinks because I lose confidence that I am witnessing the best advancements in the field. But we are all different: no doubt encountering a manel of 30 white males would increase some people’s confidence. I think it is interesting, and perhaps fruitful, to consider the reasons for these kinds of reactions and the differences between them.

      Nevertheless, these are uncomfortable and difficult issues. You began by asking about ‘the solution’. ‘Solution’ is perhaps a misleading word as it carries connotations of a single achievable event. I see the achievement of global equality as a long process of thinking, learning, listening, debate, and action. This is not an easy process and it will not be finished in my lifetime. Yet the progress we have already seen in human rights around the world, and will see in the years to come, ultimately benefits us all.

      Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: