Opinion: The Check’s In The Male, Or Decisions About Diversity

October 20, 2020

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Here is some context. Since lockdown started, I have been involved in hosting a series of webinars. All have been designed to educate, inform and entertain and are free to participants. A series we titled Born In Adversity was particularly popular as it embraced the personal challenges of people like Vusi Thembakwayo, Amanda Dambusa and Nastasia Arendse. Another popular event featured radio host and writer Mandy Weiner, editor Ferial Haffajee and Intelligent Data expert Archana Arakkal, examining fake news and considering if artificial intelligence could assist in eradicating the scourge.

The panels have been gender diverse, some with largely women panelists and some with more men. The goal has always been to be as inclusive as possible, but not for the sake of optics. In fact, never for the sake of optics.

When the decision was made to run an event on the challenges around cybersecurity, it became clear that this area seems to be dominated by men. Needless to say, there are women in the field and I am certain that if we spent more time looking, we could have found them, but our sense was that just as some of the panels were female-dominated, it wouldn’t matter if one was male-dominated. One thing that we were clear on was that we would not co-opt women on to the panel for the visuals.

Our options were as follows:

  • We could avoid running the webinar out of concern that there could be a potential negative reaction to an all-male panel.
  • We could postpone the event until we found a panel that was gender diverse
  • We could go ahead with the knowledge that over the past few months we had worked hard and succeeded in showcasing authentic diversity and with the knowledge that we would make sure that the next panel achieved these goals.

We chose the third option. Although hardly deafening, we received a small amount of the predicted outrage. The response to the “horror” was relatively muted and a number of people openly challenged the aspersion. Our response was to call the people who had raised objections in order to explain the situation and even to invite them on a podcast where we could debate this issue. Because it is an important one and we need to try and find the best way forward.

No one was prepared to join our discussion.

In 2019, Barack Obama was speaking to young leaders in Chicago when he launched a scathing attack on social media activism. “If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself. Did you see how woke I was, I called you out… That’s not activism. That not bringing about change. If all you are doing is casting stones, your probably not going to get that far.”

There are of course many  cases when social media has brought tremendous positive change and raised critical awareness, but not every “keyboard warrior” starts a revolution. In deciding how to proceed, we realised that If we opted for the choice to cancel the event, then no-one would benefit from the discussion around cybercrime – something that we all need to be aware of.

The question is a lot deeper than webinars. But it is one that asks us to focus on the industry itself. Is it a problem that this field seems to attract more men than women, or is it that somehow women are not comfortable in the space? Should a panel on plumbing include women even if there are a relatively small number of female plumbers? Should one on nursery school teachers include men even though men are not commonly nursery school teachers? Or should we accept that as important as it to be certain that there are no barriers, overt or covert, that not every sector will be equally representative?

What is of further concern is that fear of a social media mob reaction is  increasingly defining the narrative. So much so that I even considered not engaging in the subject in this column because of a potential backlash. On contemplation, however, I realised that not doing so would mean that a critical conversation would not take place and that our approach would be determined by the fear of populism.

One of the challenges of race transformation in South Africa is that we rushed to become the “Rainbow Nation” without having some of the difficult conversations that we needed to have. Over time, it has become more difficult to have those chats and more clear that this shortfall has caused damage. It is imperative that, even if it is for different reasons, when it comes to gender inclusion, we can’t shut down the dialogue just because someone might be outraged by our approach.


Howard Feldman is Head of Marketing & People at Synthesis.

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