Well then, walk 500 miles more

We all need to keep putting our best foot forward towards gender balance

Helen Sullivan

Social policy, Education, Arts, culture & society | Australia

16 January 2019

In December 2017 Crawford School committed to a gender balance of men and women in its public events program. How did the school do? Helen Sullivan reports on a long walk with a few bumps in the road.

On 1 January Professor Loleen Berdahl, the Department Head of Political Studies at the University of Saskatchewan tweeted this simple request:

“Please name a female academic (current, retired, or deceased; well-known or unknown; any discipline; any country) whose story inspires you, and explain why you find her inspirational. (I am in the mood for inspirational stories.)”

The response Loleen got was staggering. At the time of writing this there are more than 1800 comments and nearly 1500 retweets from people all around the world talking about female academics that have inspired them and why. The responses are from men and women, academics and former students, about famous people and people you’ve never heard of, and so many of them tell incredible and heartfelt stories of inspiring women.

If ever you’re feeling tired of social media, hell, if you’re ever tired of life, I recommend giving the thread a read. It’s a beautiful thing, and every time I look I learn something new and feel a little more positive about the world around us.

That thread also touched on something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about over the last year. Twelve months ago, on Policy Forum, I committed Crawford School, where the site is based, to a gender balance in its public events program on two simple measures.

More on this: Women in business can lift communities and countries out of poverty

Firstly, panel events would feature equal numbers of male and female participants. Secondly, we would have equal numbers of males and females across the entirety of our events program across the course of the year.

The commitment came at the end of a year in which our events program had only 35 per cent female participants, and where we put on more manels than you could shake a blue tie at. We weren’t alone in this regard – lack of balance was reflected across and beyond this University. The problem is that as a public policy school, where we train the leaders of tomorrow, we needed to do better.

It wasn’t about measuring ourselves against others, it was about measuring ourselves against our own expectations.

So, how did we go?

Well, we didn’t get to 50/50. Nor did we get rid of all manels. Over the course of 2018, 46 per cent of our public events participants held at the School were female, and 54 per cent male. Of the 41 public panel events we put on, 18 did not have equal numbers of men and women. Some were close (three panels were 60 per cent male). Disappointingly, we still managed to put on three manels.

But if the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, then I feel like in 2018 we were a little less like single-stepping Lao Tzu, and a little more like the 500 mile-walking Proclaimers. I’ve seen countless event organisers around the school striving to help us achieve our goal – people dedicated and focused on finding suitably-qualified women to take part in our panels, events and seminars.

More on this: Making room for women in policy

They weren’t doing this to tick a box, or to make me happy – they were doing it because they, too, believe that public policy schools have a responsibility to show leadership when it comes to offering opportunities to women to influence and engage with policy.

And their work has paid off. In 2018 we put on 170 events featuring 676 participants – a huge number. And to be able to increase female participation by 10 per cent is an extraordinary achievement.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all my colleagues and ask them to keep up the good work.

But there’s a secret I’d like to share with you. At the point where I made the commitment on behalf of the school last year, I asked the team running Policy Forum – as part of the public face of the school – to also think about what they could do.

One of the ways they responded was committing to a gender balance on the Policy Forum podcast series – an essential part of Crawford School’s outreach and engagement activities. They fulfilled that commitment.

Of the 56 pods that they produced in 2018, 57 per cent of participants were female, 43 per cent were male. If anything, some might accuse Policy Forum of having gone too far – The Proclaimers themselves might struggle to get a seat on one of the pod’s panels, however far they have to walk to get there. But what Policy Forum has done is to change the balance, maintain high standards, and bring to listeners informed, expert and diverse views.

I share this information with you not to give Policy Forum a pat on the back – because while the achievements are notable in context, it should not be notable that equal opportunities are presented to both men and women, it should be a given. I share this with you to highlight that the frequently-heard line about ‘there simply aren’t enough female experts in my academic field’ might be more of an excuse than an immutable truth. Those pods have covered a huge range of disciplines, including traditionally male-dominated ones, and – surprise! – suitable women have always been found.

Suitably-qualified female academics and experts are there if you look for them. They will take part in your events if they’re able and asked. They have all the expertise, insights, views, and depth of research knowledge as the men you might instinctively ask.

If you still don’t believe me, look again at that inspirational list from all around the world started by Professor Loleen Berdahl. Walk the extra miles towards equal opportunity, and you won’t need to fall down at anyone’s door, because it will be open wide. As for us, well, we’ll be doing some further walking of our own continuing our efforts and will report again next year on how many more miles we’ve covered.

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