Academia: A Club for White Boys

15 May

Liam Barrington-Bush, who spoke at the CPPE last year on anarchism and management, was recently invited to participate in a panel discussion by CharityComms on brand management in the digital era. After discovering that the panel would be exclusively made up of white men, and discussions with his Twitter followers and Facebook friends, Liam decided to back out of the panel, arguing that the panel sets the tone for the event and the field that white men are the accepted experts.

Here’s an open letter Liam wrote to CharityComms explaining his decision:

Dear CharityComms –

When I was first invited to speak on your brand management panel, I thought it could be fun; rarely do I have the chance to speak to an audience so invested in the status quo of organisational communications and public affairs, so thought it could be a good chance to constructively ruffle some feathers. I’ve been genuinely looking forward to it. As I said when I initially accepted, I think brand management works against its own stated aims, focusing on image and reputation, rather than integrity. It is a plaster to avoid dealing with deeper organisational problems, which is ethically messed up, but is also a losing game in an era of increasing transparency, when Trafigura, Ryan Giggs, and of course the dreaded Streisand Effect are part of the new reality.

But that’s not why I’m writing this letter. I’m writing it because I realised yesterday that I was lined-up to be one of four white men at the event’s opening panel. Admittedly, I didn’t raise this as a possible concern when I first accepted; it’s something I’m working on getting better at raising, and have included on my generic talks/workshops CV, but don’t always remember to do each time I’m approached to do a specific event. So I’m sorry for not raising it as a concern earlier.

But as I did raise in emails since, I feel the implications of an all white male panel (even if the chair is a white woman) are not good. The subtext becomes: ‘expertise in this field is directly associated with race, gender, etc…’ And I don’t feel comfortable – even if I feel I would be adding a useful criticism of the other panelists’ perspectives – being a part of that unspoken subtext. While I am glad there are women speaking throughout the rest of the event, an opening panel sets the tone, and is often the source of the photos that outlive the event, so is particularly important to have thought about these issues.

When I was told in reply that there was no space for another speaker, and that you were really keen to have me on the main panel (after I suggested doing a smaller workshop in the afternoon, instead), I decided – in consultation with many others – that I had to take a different route. While hearing from you that this balance would be taken more seriously at a future event is good, I have too often seen this kind of future promise of action on inequality not translate into real action, once the heat of the current situation is taken off. Old habits die hard. I also consulted Twitter and Facebook, garnering dozens of responses, the vast majority of which encouraged me to step back and make conscious space for other voices to be heard.

So I am politely withdrawing myself from the ‘Keeping your reputation spotless’ panel, with the hope that:

1) whoever you find to replace me on the panel can break through the current homogeneity, and

2) that this will become a real deep thinking point for future events held by CharityComms, even if it means a lot of initial work to forge more connections into communities who are not currently part of your existing speaker pools, and a deeper analysis of how current organising practices may be inadvertently closing doors to others.

I realise that addressing this stuff is always a work in progress, and that one female/person of colour speaker will not properly address the ways so many organisations end up at the point of creating all white/male panels, but by making this issue public, I hope it will keep it from becoming the back-burner concern I’ve too often see equalities issues relegated to. I hope that it leads to a deeper organisational soul searching as to the ways privilege and traditional power structures might be keeping shaping your work, as it does all of ours, if we are not explicitly conscious of it.

So I apologise for the inconvenience and challenge this may cause, but hope that just as choosing not to be involved is part of my own process of addressing my own privilege, it can also be a part of CharityComms process of addressing the privileges that might be subconsciously shaping aspects of its wider work. I am keen to see what response this garners, in practice.

With Love, solidarity and respect,

Liam

PS – Here are two places to potentially start conversations about gender (The Womens’ Room) and race (Writers of Colour), specifically. Happy to discuss further…

This issue, of white men being rushed to as sources of wisdom and expertise, is of course a problem not only in the NGO world that Liam works in but also in academia. To be clear, the fault here is not only that non-white and non-male academics are often left off panels but that, as Liam rightly points out, doing so creates a certain image of academia and academic discussions that excludes such people in the future. It sets a very specific tone that may well structure the reproduction of these exclusivities in academic spaces. If people see white men as those qualified to speak to audiences on academic topics time and again, this could of course influence those wishing to enter postgraduate work and academic employment. Just looking at it in terms of gender, why is it that in the UK more than half of undergraduate and postgraduate students are women while around only a third of academic staff are? Is the public-facing image of academia as a white male world, an image embodied in all white male panels, a barrier in itself to the educational aspirations of students?

Source: timeshighereducation.co.uk

This is something that’s been constantly playing on my mind the last few years. It’s always been an issue for me but recently it’s become a much more practical one as I’ve been involved in organising various events. In 2012 I was rightly called out by a friend and colleague for co-organising a stream at a conference which was almost exclusively male (indeed, in the end the only non-male academic in the stream pulled out). While I recognised this as a legitimate problem, I wasn’t sure why it had occurred: I’d drafted a call for papers with the other co-organiser and we’d sent it out on the usual academic email lists. What more could we do? I decided to show the call for papers to a few female academic friends and while some said that it seemed pretty neutral, a few did point out that while I’d mentioned feminism and anti-racism in the call it seemed very much an after-thought and that the stream didn’t seem to hold much interest for non-white and non-male academics and, more importantly, looked like a space where the real political realities facing such academics are only included as token gestures to cover all the bases. This wasn’t our intention with the call for papers, but looking back on it I can see that having two white male (and in many other ways privileged) academics writing such a thing this image can come across.

This is of course the central issue here: not only actually making space for non-white and non-male academics but also presenting things as being open to such people so as to facilitate their participation in the future. This is a problem I’ve come up against again and again (and if I experience it as a problem as a white man then I can only imagine how demotivating and demoralising it is as someone who’s not white and male) in organising academic events and the like. Indeed, Liam actually spoke about this issue in response to a question from the audience when he participated in an event I organised at the CPPE last year. It was again all white and all male. It became apparent to me again when looking at the CPPE soundcloud stream, which I manage and which is again all white and all male. The image of academia I’m actively participating in creating is one of a group of exclusively white and male experts. I heard it remarked once that someone had made a throw-away comment about the CPPE as a club for boys and big books. While I’m not sure how someone in a university can criticise people for liking big books, there is a truth to the fact that, at least in terms of the image I’m helping present, the CPPE, among other things I’m involved in, can often be interpreted as a boys club, and a white boys club at that.

Rather than simply bemoan this lack of diversity in academia it’s perhaps better to look at what strategies and tactics there are that might help us in changing this image. Just to reflect on some of things I’ve been involved in trying over the last few months, I feel very lucky to currently be organising a PhD conference with some friends and colleagues who are insistent on a 50/50 gender split in all aspects of the conference (in panels, in review committees, in academic respondents). But there are of course criticisms of 50/50 splits, and it’s also been a challenge in meeting it, perhaps a result not only of the fact that there is less than 50% women in academia but also of the burden that might fall on these women as 50/50 splits become more popular. A clear problem with 50/50 splits in academia, at least on conference panels, is that people presenting on panels aren’t representing a particular position but are talking about their own unique research; so getting a female academic to replace a male academic on the same topic doesn’t really make as much sense as it might in other fields. Another thing we discussed within the CPPE was to have female members draft calls for papers and the like, although does this perhaps speak to a gender essentialism that we might be equally critical of. Something else that could have an effect is breaking down the structure of academic spaces (which often adhere to a very masculine and macho code of one person presenting their ideas and then defending them against criticisms) to be more conversational and based more around open discussion and debate. Or perhaps we white male academics could take a leaf out of Liam’s book and refuse to speak in streams and panels that are not more representative and diverse.

One tactic which sends a clear message about the openness of an academic space, and something we’ve committed to in the CPPE, is to offer childcare facilities at conferences. While the logistics of this are far from clear, it is one relatively simple step that instantly opens the space up to those would otherwise find it incredibly difficult and costly, if not impossible, to attend.

I’m sure there are more approaches out there. The key is finding ones that have been shown to actually work; that have visibly altered the image of academia and created more material and discursive space for non-white and non-male academics. So if anyone’s been trying to do this and has had successes, please do share these experiences so that we can all learn from them.

This post originally appeared at cppeblog.org, the blog of the Centre for Philosophy and Political Economy.

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