Advocating For Equality Isn't Enough; You Have To Do The Work

It's easy to profess our support for a more equitable world- but what we actually need is less talk, and more action.

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I was recently invited to moderate a panel discussion being staged as part of one of the MENA region's most prominent events, and while the speakers for the session hadn't been decided then, I agreed to be a part of it given that its topic was very much in my wheelhouse. But when I found out a few days before the event that the panel was featuring only male speakers in it, I told the organizers that I wasn't keen on chairing a "manel," and that I'd need female speakers to be a part of this session if I were to be a moderator for it.

I'll admit here that making this demand of the organizers was not something I found easy to do- on the contrary, I hemmed and hawed for a long time wondering if I was being too difficult, rude, or pretentious in asking for a more gender-inclusive panel at a conference. As someone who has organized and staged plenty of such discussions and events in the past, I am well aware of how hard it can be to put them together, and having to change things at the proverbial last moment is never -ever- a welcome thought.

But my work in this particular domain also makes me aware of there being plenty of women in the MENA who could eloquently opine on the topic of the panel I was being invited to be a part of, and so, the fact that it had still ended up becoming a manel only pointed to the fact that the event organizers were simply not putting in the work needed to allow for a diverse discussion to take place. Indeed, I can tell you from first-hand experience that it's quite easy to put a manel together- what's difficult is to recognize why that's wrong, and then actually changing it.

I also wondered if any of the other speakers on this panel had noticed that it was a discussion that was set to feature only men. All of them were influential voices in the region's business ecosystem- did none of them care to have any of their female peers join them on stage? I'm willing to bet that they and their respective organizations will be finding ways to be a part of the conversations surrounding International Women's Day in March- but now, I wonder: how much of what they do in this regard is just performative activism?

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At this point, an argument can be made that the fault here lies solely with the event organizers, and that the speakers themselves can be absolved of any responsibility in allowing a manel to take place- they were, after all, only invited to share their insights in a session, they shouldn't be concerning themselves with the mechanics of how it has been put together. In response to that, I'd like to point toward an especially pertinent line in a Medium post written by Gulf Creative Collective co-founder Bhoomika Ghaghada on structural issues in the UAE's art scene.

"No matter where on the ladder you may be, you are a gatekeeper, consciously or unconsciously," Ghaghada wrote. "You always have power- and every time you choose to not act or shut up, the institutional needle clicks back to the default setting." Now, Ghaghada may have been focusing on the arts domain when she wrote these words, but I think that the point she makes applies to the world of business as well- especially one that is still struggling with issues relating to diversity and inclusivity.

And so, I decided to make use of my power- I suggested alternative female speakers that the organizers could add to the panel, and I also offered to pull myself out from the session so that I may be replaced by a female moderator. In the end, the latter is what ended up happening, as the organizers weren't able to confirm new speakers given the short notice- and while it may have been a stopgap solution, I like to think it was at least better than a manel. At the end of the day, remember that it's easy to profess our support for a more equitable world- but what we actually need is less talk, and more action.

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