Undercover witness: Are men always the best?

Our regular feature calling out discrimination and poor practice.

Are men always the best? It’s a question I’ve been pondering recently following an industry conference where only three of the 13 speakers were women. The field I work in is dominated by women, and so I was somewhat perplexed as to why there were so few female experts on the programme.

When I contacted the conference organiser to ask why this was the case, I was told that they had “just picked the best people”.

It just so happened that three quarters of the best people were men, even though fewer than half of the senior leaders who work within this particular specialism are men.

As I was catching my breath at the sheer audacity of this comment, the organiser then went on to explain that they “did not consider gender when choosing panellists”.

This wasn’t said apologetically – they very clearly told me that gender was not a consideration, and neither should it be. As if diversity was wholly irrelevant in environments focused on training and enhancing professional development.

Even if we were to put aside the fact that the conference organisers had failed to offer their delegates a breadth of valuable perspectives that were representative of this particular sector (something that is crucial if we are all to be the best we can be); there are many other reasons why failing to take diversity into account was poor form.

For one, it ignores the very important and urgent need for more female role models who can show other women that it is possible to succeed in a chosen field (this is particularly so in male-dominated industries).

Equally, denying women opportunities to present at professional conferences prevents them from gaining visibility, which can be essential for their own career progression.

Fewer women on panels also gives rise to a perception that women have a lower status than men, which in turn impacts on their willingness to participate in public discussions – thus setting them even further back.

This is borne out in two recently released studies, which found that women ask disproportionately fewer questions than men at conference talks, even when women make up a majority of the audience.

So how do we address this situation? It starts by not ignoring it. If you attend a conference that features all-male panels, or has an overwhelming male speaker list, call it out – either directly with the organiser or more publicly using social media (the hashtag #Where- AretheWomen? is gaining increasing traction on Twitter)

And if you are a man reading this and you have been asked to speak at an event, clarify how many women you will be appearing alongside and if the answer is none, refuse to participate. You won’t be alone. An online pledge started by Owen Barder, a renowned global development economist, has attracted more than 1,400 signatures (owen.org/pledge), while Sree Sreeni- vasan, chief digital officer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has openly boycotted all-male events.

The same applies to those events that are not representative of colour, age, disability, sexuality, class…

The more people highlight how they are not happy about the lack of diversity, the more companies will be compelled to change it.


Experiences of discrimination don’t have to be major to have an impact. As our readers here show, the relentless nature of minor cases can be just as frustrating and damaging

Hospitality horrors
“I once worked for a world-renowned cultural venue in London. My direct boss, who was in his 30s, thought that to be popular meant sharing sexual jokes. As a young woman, I found this intimidating. Because I refused to join in, I wasn’t accepted by him – so much so that not only would I be the butt of sexual jokes, said deliberately to make me feel uncomfortable, but he would also say and do things to undermine my confidence and ostracise me from the other team members. This culture was endemic throughout the organisation so I wasn’t able to stop it. I left in the end, with my confidence having taken a real knock. It was the worst place I have ever worked.”

Too many stories to list
“It isn’t one particular incident that I would like to share, more a series of microaggressions that can really ruin your day. For instance, guys in the office treating me like a waitress and telling me how they like their tea, or treating me like their own personal secretary and asking me to do clerical work that is really not part of my job at all. Or their expectation that I will give up time and energy to solve their problems while calling me “dear” or “darling”. Worse still is when they tell me how to do my job that I have expert skills in and they have zero knowledge of, or when they make inappropriate comments about my clothes. And let’s not forget the number of times the male IT desk treats me like I don’t understand basic technology when I’m calling in with detailed and knowledgable concerns. Urgh! I have so many examples, I could go on…”

Dodgy donors
“I work as a fundraiser in a charity. I had made a great connection with a donor, who was interested in our work, wanted to be further involved and was attending events regularly. While the relationship began professionally, he began to push the boundaries to a level that I felt very uncomfortable with, including trying to hug me and put his arms around me. As a young, relatively inexperienced fundraiser, I had no idea how to handle this donor. After all, he was making signicant contributions to our work and giving a great deal of financial support. If I had asked him to remove his hands from me, would I have ruined the relationship and perhaps triggered his withdrawal of support? Thankfully when I reported this to my line manager, it was handled very respectfully and the issue was resolved but I hated having been put in that position in the first place.”

I’m attractive but unintelligent – apparently
“In a former job as an editor of a trade magazine, I was interviewing a senior MP at an event. It was a short but important conversation about a key issue of the day. I was just bringing the interview to a close when I was interrupted by an older man who butted in, saying: ‘When you’ve finished chatting to that dolly bird, I would like to speak to
you’. The MP looked at me with raised eyebrows as if to say ‘are you going to stand for that’. I was totally taken aback by this, and conscious that I was so angry I might say something I shouldn’t,
I didn’t feel able to do anything other than take a deep breath, and through gritted teeth, indicated that I had finished. I wish now I had said more, but I was so stunned I didn’t know what to say or do.”

“Do you touch your sister like that?”
“I was once at an industry dinner where I was sat on a table of VIPs. All the way through the dinner, the man sat next to me kept grabbing hold of my arm in a way that meant his hand kept brushing against my breast. It was making me feel very uncomfortable, but as this man was very important and we were sat with other key influencers, I didn’t feel able to say anything. Later on that evening, when we were stood having a drink with some other people whom I knew much better, the same man said to me: “I see you as my younger sister,
I just want to look after you”. By now
 I had had a couple of glasses of wine, which had boosted my confidence and so I responded with: “Do you touch your sister the same way you’ve been touching me all evening?”. Cue lots of awkwardness and silence from everyone, including said gentleman who made his excuses and left. He never bothered me (and I hope anyone else) again after that.”

We want to hear your stories of inappropriate behaviour, poor practice and blatant discrimination. Send your stories to becky@leadmagazine.co.uk. We will run them anonymously. 

This article first appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of LEAD. To make sure you never miss an issue, subscribe today for as little as £50 for the year.