Soapbox

All-male panels lack diverse perspectives, limit quality of message

Minneapolis Star-Tribune

The words “yield politely” are seared in my mind ever since the director of the Sacramento Business Review responded to my objections to an all-male panel of experts at the annual business forecast scheduled Tuesday at Sacramento State.

Two years ago, I was asked to lead the development of a human resources section for the forecast. The theme was gender diversity in the corporate world. Our findings, which I presented at last year’s event, were not surprising: Women are greatly underrepresented in upper management levels in Sacramento.

These findings were consistent with data from the 2015 UC Davis Study of California Women Business Leaders, revealing that women hold only 12.3 percent of board director and highest-paid executive positions at the 400 largest public companies headquartered in California.

Given the theme of last year’s presentation, I was surprised that this year’s forecast, written by a diverse team of 17 experts, would be presented exclusively by four men.

I emailed leaders of the event about reactions from the #AllMalePanel movement made popular last year by a well-known Tumblr account. Prominent businessmen, including Sree Sreenivasan, chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, vowed to boycott every all-male panel. A New York Magazine article was titled “Death to the All-Male Panel.” And some events in Sacramento had received negative press for hosting all-male panels. Leaders of the Sacramento Business Review dismissed the concern.

Beyond surprised, I was disappointed. These men are friends, and I greatly respect them. But their disregard for the value of diverse perspectives felt like a punch to the gut.

One member defended the decision by saying he just doesn’t see the reputational risk of an all-male panel, even admitting that he might be blind to it. But bad optics are not the only risk of an all-male panel. It provides the audience a narrower perspective, since a lack of diversity in speakers limits the quality of the message being delivered.

Having a more diverse group of panelists offers a wider perspective of opinions. In addition, more diverse panels provide young women in the audience with role models. All-male panels suggest that women’s perspectives aren’t important, and they reinforce the perception that women don’t have the skills or expertise.

Despite these considerations, the director of the Sacramento Business Review responded with a list of reasons why he felt that their decision was sound. While acknowledging that diversity issues exist, he attempted to justify the decision by stating the purpose of the event is to present an economic forecast, not to have a social discussion. Furthermore, he added that there were other team members who were interested in delivering presentations but who had decided to “simply yield politely,” implying that I was neither yielding nor being polite.

Unfortunately, all-male panels are still common. Less than two weeks ago, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas hosted an all-male panel on tech wearables discussing fitness trackers in sports bras. How much sense does that make?

One of the men on the Sacramento Business Review panel did speak up against the all-male panel. But instead of inviting a woman to the panel, a female team member and her husband were asked to give a short presentation before the panel delivers its findings. This attempt to earn a free pass on the all-male panel simply doesn’t work.

The Sacramento Business Review provides a great service to the community. Unfortunately, as of Thursday they were not going about it in the most effective way. Their approach is not reflective of the greater Sacramento community – one that embraces diversity and thinks progressively. Many proud Sacramentans speak out against injustice. So I will speak up for gender equality, and I will not yield politely.

Jessica Kriegel is a senior organization development consultant at Oracle. She can be reached at jesskriegel@gmail.com.

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