The Cornell Ratio: Should SFF Convention Panels Be 50/50 Male and Female?

On February 14th, Paul Cornell (of Action Comics and Doctor Who fame) had a romantic idea. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising on Valentine’s Day, but surprise you it may.

The idea seemed simple, with Paul offering to use himself as a “blunt instrument” to address the issue of gender parity; he decided that when he was present on any convention panel this year, if the panel did not have a 50/50 gender split, then he would politely step down and find a woman to take his place.

Find a woman? you ask? Yes, find a woman to sit in the panel, a woman with something to say on the topic being discussed. The logistics of this could be problematic (like in the above photo of the Avengers cast members), and they have been discussed at great length on Paul’s blog, but the gesture alone gives pause. Particularly if it gives way to a greater gesture on the part of conventions at large. One supporter has gone so far as to name it “The Cornell Ratio,” which is a pretty catchy way of saying “equal parts.”

Women who attend conventions know the score. Most panels are populated by a male majority (or monopoly), with the exception being actresses promoting films and television, and “all female” panels. The latter are often graced with twee titles like Geek Girls Rule! or Chicks Who Kick Butt With Broadswords! or Professionals With Expertise on This Particular Joss Whedon Project Who Are Also Able to Gestate Another Living Being For Nine Months! And women often go to these panels to support female creators, writers, and artists and hear what they have to say (I know I do), but these panels are not doing their job if they are the primary place where women can be found at these events.

All sorts of excuses can (and will) be made as to why this trend continues, the Number One culprit standing at “well, you know, there just aren’t as many women who write comics/produce films/cosplay as six-armed ninjas.” Two thoughts to that affect:

  1. As Paul Cornell points out, even if the number of women who do a certain job professionally is low, there are still plenty of women who write about these things. There are still plenty of women who have a great deal of knowledge about films and comics and creating costume weaponry, and they probably have some pretty sound thoughts on those matters.
  2. Many fields are male dominated. What helps tip that balance is women seeing other women among the experts. Role models can be everything, especially when they’re sitting ten rows away from you in the environment typically afforded at a convention. Seeing women speaking with authority on the things that they love will undoubtedly encourage other women to find their own voices, which could in turn create a new generation of female game designers or television writers.

Of course, there is a danger that in order to fulfill this experiment, the women chosen to fill that gap might not be the most suited to the job. If you’re selecting someone to replace you from a panel audience, you might fall prey to what I like to call “The Hyper-Agitated Hand-Waving Error.” Picking the most enthusiastic person from the crowd may seem wise at first blush, but I’ve never seen it turn out well. (Unless it’s a kid. Then it’s always adorable.)

There’s also the chance that any convention that gets on board with this plan — that choses to make their program 50/50 this year — will suffer at the hands of convention-goers who would simply prefer to see the artists and writers who they like best on one panel together, equality be damned. But here is a chance for convention planners to prove something to the female fandom demographic: that you notice us. That you value our attendance and know that the majority of us are not only there to dress up as some elfin princess in a colorful bikini. We are gamers. We are writers. We are thoughtful fanatics.

It should be commended that Paul Cornell is aware of just how problematic this brief solution is, and exactly how it will be derided. But if this move is an attempt to change something so embedded in our culture, a drastic start may be exactly what it needs to get going. Some have asked if the point of this is to make every panel gender balanced, regardless of the topic (meaning no more “women only” panels). I hope it is. A panel of YA writers shouldn’t be exclusively female and a discussion of lady superheroes should have a balance of perspectives. Others might disagree with me, but I think we learn more by seeing both genders interacting, creating discourse for others to bounce their own ideas off of.

And perhaps some folks will be angry that perfectly intelligent, talented men are being “punished” in this desire for equality. If you happen to be one of them, I would like to paraphrase something that comic writer Matt Fraction said on a panel at San Diego Comic Con in 2010. When asked if he was concerned about all this fan talk of “new voices” and “more representation” among writers in the comic world and how that might affect his job… well, he said that white men had been in charge of the planet for a long time. And if this generation of white men had to step aside so that women and people of color could finally get the attention, opportunity and praise they deserved, he was happy to do it.

What a gracious thought.

In the meantime, all eyes should be on conventions and the people who they choose to spotlight. If even one convention gets on the wagon, perhaps we might find ourselves in the middle of a new trend. And then maybe, one day, it won’t be something to comment on when panels are split clean down the middle. And maybe it will spread. And then the next generation of little girls will have a sense of wonder about their collective futures because everywhere they turn there will be women doing the things that they want to do. Out in the open, being cited and admired for it.

So my thanks to Paul Cornell for attempting to address the problem the only way he could — by making a decision for himself, and himself alone. If everyone took such responsibility on themselves, the future would look uncommonly bright.


Emily Asher-Perrin would love to see any male panelists do this at any convention she attends this year. Gratitude in advance. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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