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To speak or not to speak?: Challenging white male panels

So a while back I was invited to speak at a CharityComms ‘brand management’ event called ‘Keeping your reputation spotless.’ I agreed to speak if they were ok with me debunking the entire notion of ‘brand management’ in a digital era, and the ethical implications of it more generally. Then, yesterday, I discovered that I was slotted to speak on a panel of four white men. What do I do, as a white man who doesn’t want to contribute to racism and sexism, and the unspoken implication that expertise has a race/gender? After much consulting of friends on the interwebs, I wrote this letter.

We can do better than this.

We can do better than this.

Dear CharityComms –

When I was first invited to speak on your brand management panel, I thought it could be fun; rarely do I have the chance to speak to an audience so invested in the status quo of organisational communications and public affairs, so thought it could be a good chance to constructively ruffle some feathers. I’ve been genuinely looking forward to it. As I said when I initially accepted, I think brand management works against its own stated aims, focusing on image and reputation, rather than integrity. It is a plaster to avoid dealing with deeper organisational problems, which is ethically messed up, but is also a losing game in an era of increasing transparency, when Trafigura, Ryan Giggs, and of course the dreaded Streisand Effect are part of the new reality.

But that’s not why I’m writing this letter. I’m writing it because I realised yesterday that I was lined-up to be one of four white men at the event’s opening panel. Admittedly, I didn’t raise this as a possible concern when I first accepted; it’s something I’m working on getting better at raising, and have included on my generic talks/workshops CV, but don’t always remember to do each time I’m approached to do a specific event. So I’m sorry for not raising it as a concern earlier.

But as I did raise in emails since, I feel the implications of an all white male panel (even if the chair is a white woman) are not good. The subtext becomes: ‘expertise in this field is directly associated with race, gender, etc…’ And I don’t feel comfortable – even if I feel I would be adding a useful criticism of the other panelists’ perspectives – being a part of that unspoken subtext. While I am glad there are women speaking throughout the rest of the event, an opening panel sets the tone, and is often the source of the photos that outlive the event, so is particularly important to have thought about these issues.

When I was told in reply that there was no space for another speaker, and that you were really keen to have me on the main panel (after I suggested doing a smaller workshop in the afternoon, instead), I decided – in consultation with many others – that I had to take a different route. While hearing from you that this balance would be taken more seriously at a future event is good, I have too often seen this kind of future promise of action on inequality not translate into real action, once the heat of the current situation is taken off. Old habits die hard. I also consulted Twitter and Facebook, garnering dozens of responses, the vast majority of which encouraged me to step back and make conscious space for other voices to be heard.

So I am politely withdrawing myself from the ‘Keeping your reputation spotless’ panel, with the hope that:

1) whoever you find to replace me on the panel can break through the current homogeneity, and

2) that this will become a real deep thinking point for future events held by CharityComms, even if it means a lot of initial work to forge more connections into communities who are not currently part of your existing speaker pools, and a deeper analysis of how current organising practices may be inadvertently closing doors to others.

I realise that addressing this stuff is always a work in progress, and that one female/person of colour speaker will not properly address the ways so many organisations end up at the point of creating all white/male panels, but by making this issue public, I hope it will keep it from becoming the back-burner concern I’ve too often see equalities issues relegated to. I hope that it leads to a deeper organisational soul searching as to the ways privilege and traditional power structures might be shaping your work, as it does all of ours, if we are not explicitly conscious of it.

So I apologise for the inconvenience and challenge this may cause, but hope that just as choosing not to be involved is part of my own process of addressing my own privilege, it can also be a part of CharityComms process of addressing the privileges that might be subconsciously shaping aspects of its wider work. I am keen to see what response this garners, in practice.

With Love, solidarity and respect,

Liam

PS – Here are two places to potentially start conversations about gender (The Womens’ Room) and race (Writers of Colour), specifically. Happy to discuss further…








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Posted in accountability and diversity and equality and learning and power.

4 comments

4 Replies

  1. Oooh – how exciting! A genuine reputational issue at our reputation conference.
    Thanks for your feedback. We asked you to be on our panel because we thought you would stir things up – you’ve definitely done that!
    I understand your reservation about the panel – looking back, I believe this is the first time we’ve ever had an all-male panel at one of our events (which I can see could be construed as something of a step in the wrong direction). But as the female chair of this full day conference, with an even gender balance of speakers throughout, I do think you’re possibly reading more into this single slot than perhaps it warrants.
    We’ll take your criticism on board and look for a woman to take your place to join me in this session.

  2. Hi Vicky. Sorry for the late reply. Thank you for the quick attention you’ve given this.

    I may be reading too much into it… perhaps the takeaway is more relevant to the ethnicity question then, if the gender balance is strong through the rest of the day? I do think there’s something specific about an opening panel, and who is requested to be an expert speaker (which I’m honoured to have been asked to participate as), so might seem like a trivial point, but think there are a range of wider ways that the charity world (and most big institutions) end up closing doors to a lot of people, long before the invites have gone out as well.

    I wrote a blog about this a while ago, which, importantly, starts with links to a range of women of colour’s perspectives on the issues as well, in case it might be helpful re: longer terms discussions on this front: http://www.morelikepeople.org/shut-up-about-privilege/

    All that said, I really appreciate that you’ve responded so quickly, am sorry I won’t be a part of it as well, and am more than happy to be involved in any longer term conversations that hopefully this helps to raise…

    In solidarity,

    Liam

  3. Vicky Browning May 2nd 2014

    Apologies if my post here sounded flippant – it was meant to be a comment on the irony that our conference on reputation has raised a significant reputational issue for us, not a reflection on the issue itself.
    I’ve responded to your comments with a blog on our website – broadly to say we recognise your concerns, we’re on it, and our conversations have prompted us to give this issue deeper thought in future. We’d also welcome suggestions for how we widen our potential speaker pool from within the charity communications sector.


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