Classically Inclined

August 15, 2016

Classics and the #manel – some preliminary thoughts

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 4:00 pm
Tags: , ,

I’ve been thinking about the manel lately, and talking to people on Twitter about it. If this term is new to you, it’s the phenomenon of the all-male panel at conferences, or indeed an all-male line-up at a smaller conference. For a flavour of what I mean, there’s a Tumblr dedicated to chronicling the all-male panel; there are also various pledges doing the rounds on the interweb for people – well, men – to promise they won’t appear on an all-male panel. The issue is pretty well aired on the fan convention circuit, and also in the STEM subjects and technology fields. It is less a thing in classics.

There are people in the field doing things about this. Sarah Bond, after attending this year’s meeting of the SCS-AIA, felt troubled by the presence of all-male panels on the program at the same time as she was being told that sexism wasn’t a thing in academia any more; her response was to put together a fantastic list of Women in Ancient History so that panel convenors could find a woman working on the relevant field and invite her to participate rather than throwing their hands in the air and saying there aren’t any women working on this topic (which is rarely if ever true). She’ll be talking more about this issue on a panel at this year’s CAAS meeting (link to .doc file). Melissa Terras recently tweeted about raising the issue of the manel at a digital humanities conference, and the kick-back she got on this. Her experience shows that it’s hard to do these things as an individual. You’re dealing with big organisations as well as individual researchers organising symposia; sometimes you need an institutional level policy, like the advice that the Society of Historians of the Early American Period is giving to panel proposers to display diversity in their speakers if they want their panels accepted. So, in an ideal world, what would the Women’s Classical Committee do about it? I should add that these are my musings about the shape that a campaigning organisation’s response might take and don’t in any way reflect WCC UK policy.

So. We accept that all male panels are bad, and that a conference where only men speak is bad. (If you don’t accept these premises, this is not the blog post for you.) But it’s not enough to point and say ‘bad’ – one has to offer an alternative, a standard to aim for. What should that be? It might look like, as Victoria Leonard said, a line-up where you don’t notice the gender balance, when women are represented, where there’s no dominance of a single gender or gendered discourse. The problem here is that once you start noticing, or counting, or looking for the imbalances, you always notice them. They stand out like sore thumbs. (The opposite is also true – if you’re not looking for them, they insidiously feel ‘normal’). Christine Plastow said she had been pleasantly surprised by a line-up where a third of the speakers were women, which feels like an unambitiously low bar – particularly if you take Melissa Terras’ position that it’s simply unacceptable to feature any all-male panel or to only have male keynotes.

Do the same concerns apply to smaller conferences, where there may be only one session (and thus one running order) and one keynote, and to bigger conferences? Is it easier to look at the ratio of speakers/attendees? Some people suggested that the odd manel wasn’t a problem, but you should worry about your overall percentage of female speakers – was the overall balance 50%, or 2:3? (Obviously if you’ve got three keynotes you’re highly unlikely to achieve perfect balance.) People also raised also issues about age – avoiding older men and younger women – and about assuming that a keynote always had to be a senior man.

To have something concrete to look at, I decided to run the numbers on the last Classical Association conference in Edinburgh. It had two keynote speakers, one male, one female. On the programme, there were 74 panels programmed. Six of them were manels – and eight were all-women panels (at least nine if you count one I know of where a male speaker didn’t show up). So the manels were outweighed by all-women panels. And that’s OK, right?

Well, let’s look at what topics those panels covered, and I apologise profusely in advance if I misgender anyone in the process. The titles of the manels were:

  • Archaic land
  • Historiography
  • Homer and Homerica
  • Nationalism and identity
  • Pindar
  • Reception of Homer and archaic poetry

The titles of the all-female panels were:

  • Augustan poetry
  • Body adaptors
  • Flavian epic
  • Greek tragedy and reception
  • Images of the self in Aristotle’s philosophy: philia, sympatheia and homonoia
  • Materiality and metaphor
  • Rhetoric and persuasion
  • Topography and agora

On the one hand, this doesn’t seem to meet the usual fears about all-female panels – namely that they deal with things like pedagogy and work-life balance and the ‘soft’ subjects that get stereotyped as female ‘caring’ responsibilities (on which see also the tendency of women to get given ‘caring’ academic admin jobs that involve huge amount of emotional labour but also don’t lead to promotion or get recognised in the same way). I type this in full awareness that the first paper I gave at the APA (now the SCS) was on a pedagogy panel, which I suspect was a strong factor in its acceptance – I wasn’t there to talk about my research, but about this work which is persistently undervalued as part of our jobs in favour of turning out publications for the REF or chasing tenure.

So the CA avoided the ‘all-women panels talk about non-academic caring subjects’ pitfall. But look at the topics. The program I looked at didn’t make a clear distinction between organised panels and panels formed from individually submitted papers, but either way, the manels weren’t inevitable. I found an organised-looking panel with a paper on Homer given by a woman, but I’m struck by the two main Homer panels being all-male, and by the tendency of the all-female panels to look at issues of the body and embodiment. Are there no women researching Homer?

I guess my point is that balancing out all-male panels with all-female ones is a minimum requirement, because the topic of the panel is also gendered, given there are expectations about what scholars of each gender ‘do’. This can take many forms – there’s the assumption that the female colleague in a small US classics department will agree, nay, be delighted to teach the ancient women course. I heard t’other day that somebody had been told that ‘only women do classical reception’ (an easily provable fallacy, but look at the judgemental weight of that ‘only’). I also wonder how many of the all-female panels were organised, perhaps to enable these topics to get onto the CA where a single abstract might find it more difficult to find a home. But a simple balancing act isn’t going to do the job.

Another thought to throw in here is the statistics about the likelihood of there being a manel in the first place. There’s a one in eight chance that a panel of three papers would be a manel, and a one in sixteen chance of a panel of four being a manel. Average that out of a roughly one in twelve chance of any given panel being a manel. Yes, I know it’s more complicated than this, but let’s keep it simple. If we say that one in twelve is ‘acceptable’, then the CA’s six panels come in at one out of 12.333333, just on the borderline of what’s acceptable – except then we hit issues of standard deviation and how far we can deviate from the norm before that’s acceptable, and then my GCSE maths starts to creak in protest. But an all-male panel isn’t a complete improbability in pure mathematical terms, so one might argue that the occasional one shouldn’t be an issue. That said, this isn’t a completely random selection, and the retreat to numbers does feel like a potentially false objectivity in what is a very subjective process. How many people are ruled out of these things because they never feel they can submit in the first place, because they think ‘that conference never has papers that look like my research’?

A final thought. I have just been talking about the manel. I know there are other areas where we might ask questions about representation, not least the ethnic background of speakers on panels, and how they intersect with issues of gender. I have nothing clever to say about that right now, but I want to flag that I know this issue is there, and that it’s not separate from the manel question.

I’m not sure I have a firm idea about what a solution looks like – but perhaps one response would be two sets of ‘best practice’, one for single-track conferences and one for multi-track conferences, that suggest moving away from the manel and give some ideas about alternative strategies conference organisers might use.

So, if you’ve read this far, do share your thoughts – what are your experience of manels at conferences, as a speaker, attendee or organiser? What advice would you give to organisers about how to avoid them? And what do you think an acceptable gender balance on a program looks like?


  1. I think my initial thoughts are that I should pay more attention and apply to conferences practice that I’d automatically follow in cons.

    Comment by Tony Keen — August 15, 2016 @ 4:31 pm | Reply

    • Funny when it sounds so simple when applied to a different sphere, isn’t it? Have you got any examples of best/better practice from the con world you could point to?

      Comment by lizgloyn — August 15, 2016 @ 5:13 pm | Reply

  2. […] of ‘big books’ written by female Classicists, to the still too frequent instances of manels (for antidotes, see the WCC UK’s “How To Avoid A Manel And Beyond: Some Guidance For […]

    Pingback by Women Doing Ancient History: A Best Of 2019 – Everyday Orientalism — December 30, 2019 @ 4:02 pm | Reply

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