Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Is Blogging a Feminist Issue????........and another thing........

I watched Duncan Borrowman's appearance on Doughty Street last night. I thought he was excellent (loved the jacket too Duncan!) but being a woman I couldn't help but notice it was an all male panel. Has anyone done any research on why the blogosphere appears even more male dominated than the wider politicosphere? Is it just that the guys have more time than us gals to put in their tenpenneth? Does it matter?

Actually, I do think it matters - and having thought about it a bit I reflected back on a conversation I had with Jeremy Hargreaves at conference. I love Jeremy to pieces - he is one of those talented, erudite, beautifully behaved people I aspire to be like but unfortunately never quite (or even nearly) make it! But on this issue we disagreed. Whilst I fully appreciate the difficulty chairs have when choosing speakers in any debate, the lack of women and BME members in many debates is often noticeable. Jeremy had kicked off the Israel/Palestine debate by pointing out that he had had very few cards from women. In the end only two women spoke. Two who had put cards in didn't, one of whom was me. Apparently I had had more than my fair share of opportunities that week (and was opening the debate on the armed forces following). The difficulty for me was that this was my major issue. I asked Duncan Brack at the end of conference if the fact that one is judged on how many times one has spoken already meant was that my only chance was to keep my mouth shut until the debate I most wanted to speak on. Yes says he. That's fine if your issue is early in the week, but if it is right at the end its a bit of a challenge, especially if you want to be helpful and put cards in when conference is short of speakers/women. But there were two issues for me in Jeremy's decision. Everyone who spends a long time preparing a speech (which I had done on this occasion) is disappointed not to be called, but in a popular debate that is inevitable, what is disappointing is that at a time when we are trying to challenge the status quo, we think we can do it by calling women in proportion to how many cards they put in. I thought a balance was supposed to ensure a balance of male and female speakers, we do after all make up 52% of the population. How are we ever going to change anything if we call women only in proportion to the number of cards they put in. It may be subliminal but we get what we see. I have used this example before, but it makes my point yet again. Whilst watching ballet when my daughter was small I asked her if she would like to be a ballet dancer, but mummy said she, can brown girls be ballet dancers? I hadn't seen it but she had. We will never increase the participation of women or BME members in conference debates until it becomes the norm that all are properly represented. Scurrying around trying to get women to put cards in demonstrates my point. So, for me, trying to be helpful backfired. Now, surprising as it may seem, I personally don't need any encouragement to say my piece, so the fact I was one of the women not called in a debate with 2 women and about 10 men was not so important, what was disappointing was that the other woman not called was a Palestinian.

So I do truly understand the dilemma for chairs, but no party will ever get its policy making right whilst it continues to fail to truly reflect the people it seeks to represent. As for getting more women contributing to the blogosphere, that may prove more of a challenge.............

Rant over, and anyway I am feeling very happy this evening after a second day in the febrile atmosphere that is the Labour Party Conference. A young woman came running up to me when I was walking through the exhibition hall. She just wanted to say how much she had enjoyed my speech at Lib Dem conference, I asked which one, she said the one at the WATO fringe. This made my day, as anyone who was there knows I was wrongly briefed, having been told I only needed to do an informal 2 minute intro (as opposed to 5 minute speech) and not having been told I was expected to speak in favour of the motion (which I couldn't do because I didn't agree with it!) it was very off the cuff. Although I have to thank David Boyle, when I discovered this and panicked he reassured me saying "I've never known you not be able to speak for 5 minutes Linda!"...........


Paul Walter said...

I saw you asking a question at the Adult Education Q&A and I was going to come over to speak with you at the end, but you scarpered before it finished.
Bear in mind that there are many many many men, including me, who have attended conference and put in endless cards but not been called for whole conferences.
But you are right – role models are important. But rather than pontificate about this subject I have taken some action. Yes! I have removed myself from the LibDem political gene pool. I don’t put in cards for conferences and I took myself off the PPC list and one of the reasons I did that was because I want to give a woman or BME person a chance instead of me. I am white. I am middle classed and middle aged. I have had a wonderful education and all life’s comforts and experiences. I can talk the hind legs off a donkey. But I have laid down my political career to give other’s a chance. So take the chance girls and BMEs!

Duncan Borrowman said...

Glad you liked the jacket. Amazing what you can pick up in TK Maxx :-)

My pet hobby horse at the moment is party selection procedures throughout the party. I think many women think that life is too short to go through the nightmare of the bureucracy involved, and in seeing that without doing it they can't really get anywhere they go off and do something different to politics. Similarly for BME candidates the feeling that the bureaucracy helps incumbents or "favoured sons" is, I think, strong.

I ahve never been a believer in positive discrimination. But watching the various support mechanisms for women and BME candidates I think they are pretty ineffective. I really think that one of the keys is to make selection processes far more easy.

On the blogs. I suspect that blogging as a whole is more male than female, not just political blogging. This probably also sums up that women have far better things to do with their lives than vent their spleens to the world.

Jeremy Hargreaves said...

OK, so you completely knew that I was going to respond to this – and especially when you have said such nice things about me! :)

A few things about this.

Firstly, I was so surprised and, well, gently horrified, by how several people reacted to this debate and whether they were called or not, and the complete lack of understanding about how speakers are chosen, that I have actually written up properly the outline of the process of how this happened in the case of this debate – just to outline to people how debates are planned and speaker selection done. This should be appearing on my own blog in the next couple of days I hope – and please do take a look at it as I think it should be quite helpful in explaining the situation, which I think is not at all well understood by those who have not been on the chairs' training courses.

Secondly, on your point about the need for women and other under-represented groups to participate in debates – I completely agree with you! Getting as many women as possible to speak is something I have gone out of my way to achieve, and I know for a fact that I went out of my way to call women where possible in the debate more than some others would have done. And I certainly don't feel that women should 'only' be called in the proportion in which women put in cards. All this certainly does sometimes work in women's favour – if a woman puts in a card, she is more likely to be called than a man, before she has even written anything on her card.

But surely you accept that there is, somewhere, a limit to how far this can go before it completely (as opposed to only slightly) distorts all the other elements that also need balancing in a debate? These include most importantly of all the need for the different viewpoints on the actual topic under discussion to be represented in the debate, but also others.

It would indeed be possible simply to say that the most important element of all, is to call every woman who put in a card, and that gender balance is the most over-riding priority of all, including more important that balancing the different arguments in the debate. But I simply don't think this would be right – and in fact I haven't heard anyone argue for this. But, to put it very crudely, this is in practice what your 'there weren't enough women called, I'm a woman and so I should have been called' argument, demands. I am strongly committed to ensuring that as many women as possible speak in debates, but I make no apology for saying that I think this important priority should nevertheless not be able to completely destroy all the other balances necessary in planning a fair debate.

Finally, your point about whether you should not put in a card on other debates because there is one you really want to speak in, causes me a wry smile – because this is a second issue where I agree with you! Indeed your words here are almost exactly the same as I have used in conference committee to argue precisely the same point. As a consequence we have had specifically removed from the speaker's card the box 'have you spoken before at this conference?'. This is precisely in order to avoid chairs 'discriminating' against people who have already spoken that week. In general I don't think this should be a criterion in whether someone is called or not, and I have succeeded in persuading FCC of this and so the means of doing this has been removed.

So although I probably wasn't clear about this, when I said to you that you had spoken already that week, I wasn't offering that as a reason why you weren't called, simply trying to offer it as some consolation. And indeed you had spoken several times during the week – and I think were actually proposing the very next motion after this one. In my view this shouldn't be an absolute reason why you shouldn't have been called again, but you had at least had your chance to have your say a few times during the week. Compare this to several other people who put in cards (including more than one MP), for whom this was the only debate they put in a card to speak in, during the week, and they still didn't get called.

And as you say, everyone who doesn’t get called after working hard on a speech, is very disappointed (and sometimes recriminatory, I have discovered!) but sadly this still doesn't make it possible to call everyone.

So sorry to go on at some length about this, but there is more to it than is evident from your piece. Please do also read the piece I'm putting on my own blog about all this.

Alix said...

Linda, very interesting piece which I started to comment on, and the substance of my comment was that women tend not to contribute to the Lib Dem blogosphere because it has evolved as a male creation and is not a natural vessel for the female thought template, and so enthusiastic was I in expounding this theme that my comment got really long and in the end I turned it into a blog of my own at

Oh, the irony.

Jeremy Hargreaves said...

Just in case anyone is interested, I have now posted my (even!) fuller views on balancing conference debates here.

Duncan Brack said...

For the record, conference chairs never call women in the same proportion in which they submit cards - we call them in a higher proportion.

We always discriminate in favour of women, because we receive fewer cards from them. At Brighton, a woman who submitted a card to speak had a 76% chance of being called; a man had a 54% chance.

We do this because we find that women are less likely to submit cards. As fas as we know, about 40% of conference participants were women, but only 33% of the cards we received were from women. However, 40% of the cards we called were from women (remarkably! - I didn't think we'd be that precise).

I also agree with Jeremy that having spoken before in the same conference shouldn't be a major factor in the decision about whether being called or not. However, in this case it was a choice between calling Linda - who had already spoken before and was due to speak in the following debate - and someone who hadn't spoken. Bearing in mind the comments we get on feedback forms about 'the same old faces always being called to speak', I think our choice was justified.

Spare a thought for the chair - it's not an easy job, and we regularly get beaten up by people we don't call! Jeremy's blog explains very well how it's done.

Duncan Brack (FCC Chair)