Earlier today I posted on an all-male conference line-up and reported that I had written a letter. The organiser of the conference has gotten back to me very quickly, which was extremely instructive. The conference organisers have clearly considered the issues that the gendered conference campaign is concerned with and, since the aim of the campaign is in part to learn how all-male line-ups come about, has subsequently given permission to post his response in full – see below.
I am sure that there is room for disagreement about the specifics. But I thought that his finding that all invited women had declined, and that all invited men had said yes, was interesting. I remember us discussing that on this blog recetly, but – alas – couldn’t find the thread. Can anyone please help – I would like to share it with the organiser?
Then, with thanks:
As for the absence of women speakers at our conference, you might be surprised to learn that we agree with you! Our conference would be better were the speakers more diverse. As it happens, our two top choices for speakers (after Singer) were women: [name omitted for privacy purposes] and [name omitted for privacy purposes]. Both turned us down. The conference is divided into a variety of smaller topics and, as luck would have it, the ‘backup’ speakers for these speakers’ topics were men. None of the men we invited turned us down (some of the ‘backups’ for their topics were women).
So in this case, I think we might have to chalk it up to the luck of which speakers—at the relevant academic ability, with knowledge of the requisite topic—happened to be both available and willing to participate. It was indeed a disappointment to us when both declined to take part.
I noticed on your blog that you seemed particularly troubled that we would address abortion without a female speaker. As it happens, abortion was not originally going to be discussed, but one of our speakers switched his topic to abortion just a couple weeks ago, long after the speaker line-up was set.
So on all of that, I think you and I are in full agreement. Where it is possible we might disagree is whether, given the above situation, we ought to have found a substitute female speaker no matter what. In other words, must every conference always have at last one female speaker? Not necessarily. For any academic conference, the speakers must possess a knowledge of the relevant field, display academic excellence, be eloquent and respected in their field, and so on. Gender is indeed one factor in choosing a speaker, but at least on my view, it cannot be an overriding factor. I am not interested in the ‘tokenal’ approach of choosing a speaker purely because of his or her gender (or race). We choose the invited women speakers because they are the leading, intentional experts for the respective topics. It was beneficial that, as women, their perspectives would have represented one that would otherwise be absent. But we didn’t choose them because they were women, as if we needed a ‘token woman’ to show up. Yet for the same reasons, we would not choose a replacement solely for reasons of gender.
It may be worth adding that this conference was particularly difficult to find suitable speakers for, given how controversial Singer’s views are. Even though you found the phrase ‘genuine exchange’ something to mock, we are determined that it will be both a cordial and forthright exchange. We discovered, as we considered various speakers, that many were interested only in a platform to challenge Singer, and not in a charitable conversation. This led us to cross-off a number of potential speakers (both men and women), leading to a smaller pool than otherwise.
With kindest regards,
McDonald Fellow for Christian Ethics & Public Life
University of Oxford
Thanks, again, John for letting me share!