The Battle of Ideas|
I’m going to link to this from my twitter account so many people reading it won’t know my own background. For those who know me, the Battle of Ideas is a science fiction convention without the science fiction bit.
A quick summary: I’m a science fiction critic, a convention organizer, and I first came to Battle of Ideas because my friend Ken MacLeod was a guest. Now it’s become a custom for me to come along with him: I find the debates interesting, irritating, frustrating, energising and annoying in about equal measure. Which translates, for me, as great fun. Because I am a convention organizer having me around is a bit like having a theatre director with you when you see a show. Do not assume criticism is the same as carping. Much of it is meant to be constructive—though you would never know from some of the responses I receive. This will be particularly relevant when I talk about gender.
I really enjoyed the debates on innovation, and on sustainability, The History Wars panel was caught in the binary of skills v facts—folks, news for you, you can do both, and the skills agenda was originally written in the days of 3 tv channels, lots of historical documentaries and a fashion for children’s historical fiction—the graphics novel panel was excellent (especially Joel Janiurek and Woodrow Phoenix) as was the Big Data Panel and the China panel was in a very hot room so I’m not the right person to comment. The science journalism panel was terrible because the “battle” format didn’t work for it. Nothing actually wrong with the speakers but they needed a different kind of exploration agenda.
The rest below the cut. It’s very long.( Read more...Collapse )
This year was the second year in the Barbican, a stunning venue but one who’s convention rooms are distinguished by their non-existent wheelchair access (or at least completely non-visible). That the BoI thinks this is fine, is problematic to say the least, but IMHO fits with the general theme that representation of marginalized groups/voices is a form of tokenism (said to my face three years ago by someone twenty years my junior who had just displayed his lack of knowledge about sf on a panel).
I have no idea what the audience size was but my guess is 3-5000 in that it felt about the same as a Worldcon. I assume we’ll get figures at some point.
It’s an event that you need to go in a group/with a friend: there is a little mingling in the green room, but many times I tried to start conversations with people I got odd looks. One person called me over thinking I was someone else. In my world they’d have chatted anyway. In this one they retreated in embarrassment. If I were to change one thing at BoI it would be to train the volunteers in how to host/introduce people to each other. It could really add to the vibe.
Panel events were nicely varied with a good spread of arts, education, science, politics and Other. Panel participants ranged from very sharp, to vague to “why was this chap asked?” (and with one exception when I had that reaction they were chaps). If I had to say where to sharpen up, it would be four areas:
1. Ask people in their introduction to reference their actual work, not to offer philosophical statements: the latter is fine when you are a lone speaker but five people doing the same at the start of a session makes for a very tedious 20 minutes. I wasn’t the only one tweeting about this problem (and don’t read an academic paper either).
2. Make panels smaller: they could go as high as seven and in none of the panels I saw that were that large, did more than four of the people actually have anything to say.
3. Choose moderators who know their topic well: a science panel moderated by someone with no in depth knowledge will produce a panel pitched to them, not to the more knowledgeable audience.
4. Diversity. Oh jeez. More of that later, but if you are talking about innovation (for example) I am sorry folks but what people want to innovate over tends to orient to what they think is interesting or what they need in the lives they lead, and if you select people with pretty much the same lives, and interests, you are going to get a pretty convergent panel. This is not tokenism. Tokenism is deciding that you have four similar people and you have this cool mate you really want to use and sticking that mate on even tho said mate has nothing different to bring to the table.
Quality of speakers was good to excellent with one recurrent exception, which is where people from the organization or one of the regional salons were used: I did sympathise here. I too want to bring in young people and especially PhD students, but when you do this, you need to play to their expertise. Being a good generalist is a relatively rare quality, and mostly it develops with experience: it’s typical for historians for example to write super specialized monographs when young and great sprawling synthesis when in their fifties. Putting up someone who is in specialist phase to be a generalist is just a bit embarrassing.
Now on to the niggling little issue with Battle of Ideas. Its gender balance and other diversities.
For people who don’t know me: this isn’t a question of looking for the mote in another’s eye: I have been part of several teams addressing this at science fiction conventions. Don’t bother muttering/yelling to me about tokenism. Got that t-shirt. I’m a full professor, an award winning writer, I spoke at Princeton last month and have been invited to speak to the Royal Society in May. I’m no one’s token. Nor are the many women I know who regularly speak at our events. Neither are the People of Colour, or the people with disabilities (that one is me too by the way). If you are serious about wanting to know about the world then you need to know how a variety of people experience it. If you think this is bullshit, try getting into one of the Fourier auditoria in a wheelchair. Forget where is my flying car, and let’s talk about “where is my hoverchair?”. Another example, the panel on The Canon and the 21st century was four men and one woman. Oh, the irony.
Over the years we’ve worked on this we’ve discovered the following:
1. If you start from “who do I know” you tend not to go beyond the people you already know. If you are a bloke who doesn't talk to women (and yes, I am looking at four of the six men present at drinks on Friday night who addressed not one direct comment to myself or the other – incredibly interesting—woman present) then you aren’t going to know women to ask.
2. If you think X white man is good who does he get on with, and he is a man who hangs out with other men, you are going to get more of the same.
3. If you just count numbers you may end up with plenty of diversity overall but little within panels or strands – see later comments.
4. The way you think of the question can determine who you select: Where is my flying car, may lead you to ask automotive engineers. Why am I still pushing my pram, on the other hand, might end up with a different set of people. Same basic issue tho.
5. Too many men tend to say yes to anything: cue more than one speaker mentioning that he doesn’t know much about this topic; research suggests women are more likely to demur that they are not specialists.
6. Men do not recommend women so don’t ask them (if you don’t believe me, check out Radio 4’s The Chain Reaction—the exception there is that gay men do recommend women).
7. People’s position in life is very determined by what they set out with: cultural capital and connections are inherited almost as much as money. If you want to break the grip of these (and there were several panels on this) you can't organize a convention as if this isn’t true.
So how did the BoI do? Well compared to two years ago, where there was quite a lot of twitter outrage at panel after panel of middle aged white men, and the corralling of women /PoC on gender/race/religion specific panels, rather better.
Note, when I couldn’t find a pic to a name I wasn’t sure of, I assumed female. I haven’t done a race/ethnicity religion break down because I don’t have the info.
Total panelists listed: 443
So approximately one third of the panelists were female. That’s beating the current BBC average of 25%.
But my perception was quite different. I tended to follow the science track, whose best result was 2:7 and tended to 1:5 (and that’s counting some female moderators). The history track managed 2:2 and I admit that’s better than your average history department.
So what’s happening?
If women are one third I decided both 2:2 panels and 3:2 and count both as balanced (first number is male, second female). I am never counting the moderator.
Well this is crude but when I broke down by section interesting things show up:
Artistic Battles (6): two even; 2 = 4:1 and 3:1; one = 1:3 (on public art)
Battle for our Minds (4): two even, then 0:3 and 1:4 (on parenting and sex)
Battle over sci fi info: 2:1, 4:1, 4:1, 4:0; 2:2 (this last on obesity).
I’ll post the full figures elsewhere (or you can ask me to send them, just give me an email) but some other highlights.
Contemporary Controversies: overwhelmingly male, the only one where women dominated was Parenting. The one on the decline of the pub was 3:1.
Economic solutions: half the panels evenish, the other half male dominated.
Generation wars on the other hand was evens for all but one panel.
Institutions in Crisis: mostly male dominated, the one that wasn’t was on Doctors. This makes sense because the only female science speakers I can find on the list are all medics (there were several female scientists in the audience of the science tracks).
Keynote controversies overwhelmingly male although Claire Fox chaired many of these.
Literature Wars, mostly even but with the hugely ironic exception of The Canon in the 21st Century which had four men and one woman.
Private and public morality: 2 male dominated, 2 even, and do I have to even say that the one on pregnancy was 0 men and 4 women? While I get tired of male Anti Abortion spokesmen being rolled out, men do actually care about their partners' right to privacy. I'd have put Ken Macleod on this one since his last book is all about this. He'd have been more valuable than where he was used.
School fights: two even, two male dominated.
Technological progress (4): three women on a total of four panels. It would have been two over four but Vicky Pryce was bought on when a man couldn’t make it. She was very good but once more was the token non scientist that women seemed to be in this track.
Urban Life (4) all but one had a 3:1 ratio. Apparently women don’t experience urban life. Re urban gardening panel: funny, most gardeners I know are women.
So in conclusion: on paper there are far more women at Battle of Ideas than before, but they are being clustered. As a general rule Big/Public/Science = men. Small/Private/Arts = women.
Why is this a problem: because a) it distorts the debate when you are talking about aid (for example) and don’t represent the women who farm most of the land, but don’t own it; b) you ignore a ton of talent c) there are some really weak token men on those panels, making up your numbers and d) men actually care about the latter too and gender divisions of this kind are problematic both ways.
Now for lunch and then the reports I'm supposed to be writing.
Not counting the moderator:
Seven panels had more women than men.
Thirty three panels passed my 3:2 ratio to be heavily dominated by men (ie 3:1, 4:1: 5:1 etc).
The following listed no women:
Contemporary Controversies The First world War
Economic Solutions Cuts
Keynote controversies East Asia: Global Hotspot
Keynote controversies Leveson
Private or Public Morality Sacrifice and Philanthropy
Technological Progress Where's My flying Car?
Artistic Battles Digital Creativity
Artistic Battles What is it to Be Cultured
The following had no men at all:
Battle for Our Minds Babies, Brains, Bullshit.
Private or Public Morality Pregnancy
Current Location: United Kingdom, England,Greater London,Haringey, Harringay
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