When Mohamad Najem wrote a public post about refusing to be part of an all-male panel for a tech conference in Beirut, it was shared more than a thousand times by people who praised his stance.
Not only had he convinced the organizers of the conference, which he did not wish to name for fear of embarrassing them, to replace him with a female panelist, but he ignited an important discussion that hit a nerve in Lebanon’s tight-knit startup community.
His widespread support among men and women meant he’d surely made an impact.
But less than two weeks later, Lebanon's central bank held its annual accelerator conference BDL Accelerate, hosting a variety of experts from all over the world. As the highly anticipated conference began, tweets began appearing about the lack of women panelists.
Najem counted seven women and 65 men.
A worldwide recurring problem
The lack of female panelists is a global issue that comes up periodically through blogs and news articles.
A Tumblr account called “Congrats, you have an all-male panel!” and a Twitter hashtag #Manels invite people to post photos on the subject. Updated every few days, they feature old white men in suits lined up on stage discussing important topics. It has become such a common problem or discussion point that Wikipedia even has its own ‘Manel’ entry.
No country or sector seems to have overcome the embarrassing circumstance that only takes a few phone calls or emails to change.
Mike Butcher, editor at large at Techcrunch, who regularly organizes events and speaks on panels all over the world, says he has noticed a higher proportion of women on panels in the Middle East than elsewhere, attributing this in part to “brogrammer” culture in the West, which he sees as a new form of sexism.
For Lebanon, which does have a high proportion of women entrepreneurs (around 25 percent in 2015 according to Global Entrepreneurship Monitor), is in many ways the most liberal Arab country so some see it as having a responsibility to be a leader, particularly for a sector that prides itself on changing the world.
“Us, in civil society, we need to be different,” said Najem. “You can’t claim you’re making change if you’re reaching the same people each time.”
Indeed, there is no shortage of female panelists to choose from, and critics of all-male panels dismiss the frequent excuse they hear that panels must be filled on the basis of merit, not quotas.
“Some people talk about merit being important, but there are plenty of talented women in technology, and they’re not equally represented,” said Elise Moussa, founder of a Beirut-based fintech startup Snapay and an outspoken advocate for women in business.
After seeing a number of all-male panels at the coworking space Alt City, she raised the issue several times with CEO David Munir Nabti. When she was asked to organize fintech events, she made sure the ratio of men to women was 50:50 on her panels. Nabti, who says he has been interested in women’s rights since childhood, acknowledges that it’s still a learning process, and he would like to see more women on panels.
Understanding the problem
From what Nabti has observed, in many cases the preference for men on stage appears to be unintentional; event organizers are unaware of what they’re doing, often preoccupied with bringing in high-profile speakers.
When organizing events, “people look at lists from past conferences, and then people get onto the ‘conference circuit’ and get flown all over the world”, he said.
In trying to help bring more women onto panels, he surveyed people with the question: “Do we organize women-only startup events or not?”
He received a lot of feedback in both directions, leading him to conclude that there’s room for both. He adds that Lebanon’s high number of well-qualified women entrepreneurs means there’s no need to fill a quota, and he’d like to see more male event organizers open to change.
Missing the mark
In Lebanon there have been times when organizers missed the mark completely. BDL’s latest conference featured an all-women-in-business panel, leading some women who’d been asked to join that discussion to wonder why they were being singled out.
“What were we supposed to do? Sit around together and talk about our problems? Hello?” said Hala Fadel, a longtime entrepreneur and investor, now a partner at Leap Ventures, who has been on panels her entire adult life.
She refused to take part in that panel, citing the absence of women in the conference’s main stages.
She said she recently took part in the tech conference Noah in London, and as she and another woman took the stage the MC announced it was their first time in the organization’s nine years having women panelists, again making her feel unnecessarily singled out and making her wonder if women on panels will ever be the norm.
The way forward
For now, the lack of women on panels can mean a vicious cycle in which they are routinely excluded from leading important discussions at events, not just out of habit by organizers, but also from a lack of confidence that comes from not being well versed in public speaking.
Some tips from those interviewed for this article include: even if you’re not a speaker, raise your hand and ask questions after panel discussions; practice public speaking by joining your local Toastmasters group; and continue to speak out and raise awareness about the lack of women on panels.
As for ideas for event organizers in getting more women on panels, Butcher from Techcrunch suggests organisers work harder and be more creative about finding women speakers.
“To find women speakers you must sometimes do this thing called work. Where I have been unable to find a woman speaker at the right level I have simply brought in a younger woman entrepreneur who is perhaps disrupting a sector,” he said. “What conference would not want more exciting panels where big established players are challenged with new, up and coming startups? Especially when they are women.”
Although there are signs event organizers are making more efforts to include women, there still seems to be a long way to go before it’s the norm.
Najem, whose refusal to join an all-male panel gave him name recognition as a women’s advocate, recalls a recent instance in which a man asked him for references of women for an upcoming panel.
“I was glad he was interested,” said Najem. “But I also thought: isn’t this part of his job?”