From time to time we get an inquiry that leads to reflection and clarification. Recently we got one about the preponderance of male speakers at one of our conference. Here is how Iain Benson responded to the inquirer.**
Thanks for your note regarding our conference and your concerns about the lack of women speakers.
To be bluntly honest, neither I nor the Centre are particularly concerned about the sex of speakers when putting together a conference. On occasion we have had panels with more women than men. That is just how it worked out.
So, too, on this occasion.
I consider the sexual focus a distraction from quality, fairness and, ultimately, justice in its deeper manifestations. Similarly, I do not focus on race or, religious affiliation unless either (or sex for that matter) are requirements for the topic.
The personal specifics of the speaker are and should be irrelevant. Height, colour, race, sex, religious beliefs are personal and what we are looking at are, generally, ability to contribute to academic discussion and insight not these other things.
We simply have to get beyond sexism and racism and religious bias to move forward to a more just world. This means, on occasion, events will have more men or more women as a result of who one knows, whom one hears about, etc.
We don't go out of our way to have women on panels or as speakers because of their sex! How patronizing such an approach would be! Where would it begin and end? So-called "affirmative action" programs as they became under "reverse discrimination" made irrelevant aspects into prime relevance and thereby further demeaned the very people they were designed to help!
Getting rid of barriers to equal opportunity are another matter and we are constantly being careful not to exclude people due to race, sex or what have you.
I understand our approach (race and sex blind as it were) to be counter to much of the reverseism (if one can call it that) which has permeated culture in the West since the 1960's, but I am grateful to be part of the next generations that reject both the ism's of what proceeded the 1960's and the reverse ism's that sought (often through unjust means) to correct imbalance.
We are beyond that now. If you know good speakers (male or female, whatever race and whatever height) we ought to consider for future events I am happy to hear about them. But on no account will we do a sex-based exclusion of worthy speakers even for the supposed goal of some abstract "gender representation" or because women supposedly necessarily bring to the table certain viewpoints males cannot appreciate.
Such stereotypes are not helpful to men or to women.
Such artificial goals of numeric representation are, despite their own best wishes, sadly the earmark of totalitarianisms of a variety of sorts as history shows all too clearly (See: Shafarevich, The Socialist Phenomenon, 1980).
I know you mean only the best in what you wrote and hope only that you will see the depth of my concern for what lurks beneath the surface of your suggestion that we look at the sex of speakers. We shall never exclude a worthy speaker because she is a woman—nor shall we include a speaker solely because she is one.
We share many aspects of concern regarding the sexism and uncaring corporatism of our age and I look forward to meeting you at our event.
Best wishes and thanks for your input.
Iain Benson, Executive Director
Centre for Cultural Renewal, Ottawa