Feb 18 2012 2:00pm

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.

Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
1. Lisamarie
As a woman I have mixed feelings - on one hand, yay for more women in sci fi and decreasing that disparity (although I actually haven't noticed it myself - the last few conventions I went to I didn't feel like I was outnumbered). But I'm also more into evaluting things on their own merits; I don't want to be invited on to a panel because I happen to be a woman. Nor do I think a man's voice should not be heard because he is a man. I understand that, as a whole, the voice of 'men' has been more prevalent, but I don't think we should have to punish individual men for that. Now, if he wants to make that decision himself, that's great - and I am not goint to fault him for it. But I don't think it should be expected or forced.

Don't get me wrong, I would love to see more female panelists and women in sci-fi, because I think each gender has something unique and wonderful to offer, and more women encouraged and empowered to do such things. But I find the forcing of the 50/50 ratio in all things to be a little artificial. I don't think men should have to step aside at all, I think there is room for more voices!

Also, I like women only panels at times too...but I do agree that they can become isolated and in a way, make it look like women are an 'other' or 'special case', and at the same time keep them out of the mainstream. Why do I have to be a 'female fan'; why can't I just be a fan? But I think sometimes it is fun to find like minded girls for female camraderie so I wouldn't want to see them dissapear entirely.

And as for this: "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". Count me as one of those potentially pissed off convention goers - if I want to see a certain group of people that happen to be male, I don't want that to be frowned on as un PC. I don't think that convention planners have to force a 50/50 ratio to prove that women are noticed. Although I do agree that there probably are more chances than people realize to have women on panels, and women that may be overlooked. And perhaps this would give them the chance to be more visible.

So as I said, mixed feelings...
James Davis Nicoll
2. James Davis Nicoll
Perhaps in the spirit of egalitarianism one could eschew naming the goal of getting more women on panels after a man.
James Davis Nicoll
3. James Davis Nicoll
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.

While I cannot deny the popularity of this objection, having seen it brought up elsewhere, I don't feel this is as alarmist and dismissive of women as it could be. What about the possibility that a random woman could be a communist bent on sullying our purity of essence? What about the chance a random woman could be Karla Homolka armed with a chain saw? Really, there's a lot of potential here to pre-emptively dismiss female panelists that's being ignored.
Cameron Tucker
4. Loialson
I'm with Lisamarie on this one. I'm a man, and I definitely support female/male gender equality. Forced equality is not the way to go to get things right though...I think it has to do with honoring the individual to respect both genders and what they bring to the table, not pull down individual men for what some other men did decades ago, and the same for women.

I don't really understand the desire to punish individuals for what another person of the same gender did at another time and place. For some reason, that way of thinking is cropping up left and right, though(ie punish implicityly an unrelated male for the way a cruel domineering man treated another woman in another lifetime, or treat a woman poorly because some other woman somewhere abused a position). And I find it...less than equal footing when someone who is motivated to make gender equality comes from a place of cutting out the other gender, in order to raise their own up.

It's silly. Each human being is equal in value (I believe), so should we not treat each individual with respect and dignity, and value them for who they are and what they bring to the SFF world-or any part of society, rather than for their gender alone?
Del C
5. del
Yes, because women are half the world and half the science fiction and fantasy readers and viewers.

But it shouldn't stop there, with sex alone. It should be sex, and race, and class. People of colour are not zero percent of the world, nor zero percent of the SF&F readers, so they should be represented by at least one PoC on every panel. Finally, working class people are more than 50% of the world and of the readers , so 50/50 representation on con panels would be less than justice. But I'd settle for the 50, instead of the zero it is now.

I'm aware American class terminology is different, but I don't know the language, so please substitute the appropriate terms for "working class majority" and "middle class minority".

Yes, really. Did you think the publishing industry could be supported by a minority? It is not. It relies on selling nearly three billion books a year, and no way are all those books being bought by the minority class.
James Davis Nicoll
6. Syllabus
It occurs to me that the very asking of this question defeats the purpose it was supposed to achieve.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
I think I've said this before, but you're going to the wrong conventions.

Otherwise, what am I, chopped liver? I'm sure not a female actress!

There genuinely is a problem. But it's a much more subtle problem than you're making it sound. This may have been how it was fifty years ago. It may be how it is at comic conventions and media conventions now. But in actual SF fandom, fan organised conventions with an interest in written fiction, it's not a case of women being invisible. I've seen this improve hugely over the last twenty years, to the point where actual 50/50 isn't all that far off.

The real problem is unthinking bias. At Boskone two years ago Lois Bujold was on an all female "Romance in SF" panel and not on an all male "War in Space" panel, when she really really should have been on both. Time after time at cons I notice I am the only woman on a panel, and that the panels I'm on are often subtly shaded pink. There's nothing inherently female about "Writing and having a family" but it just happened that everyone the organizers thought about putting on that was female...

It's not that there aren't enough women volunteering, it's that the people doing program aren't thinking of them often enough when they're looking at the "serious" items. If this Cornell ratio is good for anything, it's going to be for making them think about this.

(However, at Fourth Street and Farthing Party if you wanted 50/50 you'd often be inviting up more men.)
James Davis Nicoll
8. Left Handed
While we are supporting absurdly arbitrary distinctions, what about the
left handers? Or people with blond hair and blue eyes? Or people who are
African American? Why because that would be ridiculous, just like this.
James Davis Nicoll
9. ofostlic
The same thing happens in some academic conferences, and since it's often just a matter of a woman not coming to mind immediately, a useful strategy is to make a policy of setting up a shortlist of more people than you are going to invite, and requiring that list to include women.

or other underrepresented group(s) as appropriate
James Davis Nicoll
10. SF
@4 - Loialson:

Read Cornell's original blog post. No one's suggesting punishing anyone. Cornell is simply saying he'll step down from panels he's on with less than 50/50 gender parity (or 2 out of 5). From his post: "I've decided that I'm going to approach this problem via the only moral unit I'm in charge of: me."
James Davis Nicoll
11. Julia Sullivan
Conscious outreach and setting goals for oneself are not the same things as externally-imposed quotas. Mr. Cornell has the right to refuse to be on panels as he sees fit, especially if he thinks he has been part of the problem rather than part of the solution to date.
Nelson Cunnington
12. NelC
I'm not sure I see what is so arbitrary about desiring that panel members have a similar distribution in gender to the general population. Or in race. Are left-handed people under-represented on con panels? Or blonds? Does anyone have any figures on that? It's not the kind of info one can discern from con guides.
James Davis Nicoll
13. Gerry__Quinn
I should imagine that the only consequence will be one male getting invited to be on fewer panels than he perhaps hoped. What organiser would be interested in inviting a guest likely to pull a stunt like this, unless they either happened to fulfil his conditions anyway, or thought it might be worth it for the lulz?

And while I don't know much about the typical way in which such panels are organised, it seems to me that while Mr. Cornell can walk off any panel he wants (subject to any contractual repercussions) it is far from certain that an audience member of his choice will then be permitted to take his place...
James Davis Nicoll
14. Rachel Manija Brown
It is remarkable to me how many people notice that men are over-represented in a field or on a panel, and decide that there is something "natural" making that happen - as if all the men were swept onstage and women swept off by a giant hurricane, rather than by human decisions.

It is equally remarkable to me how many people read a suggestion of promoting equal gender representation as being "unnatural." Why is equality unnatural, but male dominance natural?

And why is "unnatural" bad, and "natural" good? Mass death by smallpox is natural. The internet is unnatural.

Either people are making decisions about gender, or else forces of nature are doing it. But it makes no sense to claim that male dominance is the result of natural forces (and therefore something which should not be changed), but gender equality is the unnatural result of human intervention (something which should never happen, apparently.)
James Davis Nicoll
15. Gerry__Quinn
The first use of the word 'natural' on this page appears to come in post #14.
Melanie S
16. starryharlequin
I'm familiar with arguments like this more from science than SFF panels, but following a bit on what @bluejo and @ofostlic said above... The argument that gender parity denies deserving men places on panels relies on the idea that a panel is made up of the absolute best 4 (or whatever) people who could possibly serve on it, and those people often just happen to be men, and so anyone taking their place has been unfairly moved up the queue of suitable participants and has unfairly bumped someone who would've been better. Instead, it's more like there's an amorphous blob of people, all of whom would bring some strengths and some weaknesses to such a panel, and who actually gets chosen has to do with who's organizing the thing. No one's saying totally unqualified women should take the place of qualified men; instead we're saying there are lots of totally qualified women who aren't getting chosen. Hence the idea of short lists.

(Or to put it another way, arguing against this kind of thing assumes that when only men are chosen, gender has nothing to do with it--that asking for something closer to gender parity is bringing gender into a place it hadn't previously mattered, rather than revealing a gender bias the organizers probably weren't aware of and probably didn't do deliberately.)
john mullen
17. johntheirishmongol
Make it simple, let anyone who is coming choose their panel of most interest and then assign any spots that get left over. First to respond gets the choice of panel, unless it's something about a particular author's work and then they have to be on the panel
Ursula L
18. Ursula
Insisting on strict numeric equality in every con ever would be impractical.

But I think it would be very interesting to have a major con organize to have race/gender/QUILTBAG representation according to the population across the whole con - every panel, every discussion, bringing people in to leadership, etc.

What would it look like? What would the results be? What coversations have we been missing by having cis/straight/white/male being treated as neutral and normal rather than just one subsection of the community?

We can't know until we try it. And it's an experiment worthy of science fiction, I think. It would be different than bringing together the top five or ten straight/white/male recognized authorities on a topic (again.)

Jo mentioned, above, that Bujold was called in to the SF& Romance panel, but not the war-in-space discussions.

It's something I see a lot of, in society in general, the idea that civilians, women and children don't experience war. But I know, in my family, far more civilian women and children have experienced war and combat (my grandmother and step-grandmother as young mothers, my father, aunt and stepmother as children) than adult men as soldiers (one grandfather.) And combat is quite different when you're in the middle of it and trying to carry an infant or your favorite toy rather than a gun.

If you ignore more than half the population, you ignore more than half the perspectives on any situation. Which makes for a shallow and biased discussion. A situation made worse by the assumption that the people being left out weren't there to begin with.


But to do it right, I think you'd want to spread the experiment across the whole con. See how far it can be taken. Find out how far you have to go to get a wide variety of viewpoints.

And it would be even more intersting to do this quietly - have the organizers know the plan, but not advertise it. See what happens when people come in to a situation where representation is equal, but they're not used to seeing equal representation.


Another organizing principle that might be interesting would be to look at panel topics, and when they've been discussed at previous conventions, and who was in on the discussion. Then deliberately choose different sorts of people for the same topics, to get new perspectives and mix things up. If you have a panel on war, and you substitute one white male US military veteran for another, you're going to have a limited change in the conversation, compared to bringing in someone who experienced war as a child, or as a civilian, or as a woman solidier who had as much to worry about from rape by her male colleagues as from the official enemy.
James Davis Nicoll
19. Eugene R.
The Cornell Ratio reminds me of the Bechdel Test for Women in Movies invented by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in her strip Dykes to Watch Out For. A movie passes the Bechdel Test if it 1) has at least 2 female characters, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than a man. While both the Cornell Ratio and the Bechdel Test can be stated in simple, quantitative terms, I think that applying either one mechanically (i.e., without inquiring into the reasons for pass/fail and the signficance or import of said discovered reasons) would undermine their real purpose, which is to get us to consider how gender is being used within their parent contexts (sf/f convention panels or movies). Plus, as Ursula (@18) points out, a mechanical adherence to 50/50 panels is impractical (there go panels with an odd number of panelists).

Worse, though, is not applying them (or something like them) at all and thus at least implicitly denying that we need to have any conversation on the topic, even as glaring examples exist like Ms. Bujold not being placed on a "War in Space" panel, as bluejo (@7) points out.

Left Handed (@8): Speaking as a left-hander, yes, I would like some inquiry into whether the absence of lefties from panels is an indication of a prejudice against us that is downright (dare I say it?) ... sinister.
James Davis Nicoll
20. James Davis Nicoll
invented by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in her strip Dykes to Watch Out For.

Used by her but iirc credited by Bechdel to her friend Liz Wallace.
James Davis Nicoll
21. Edward Brennan
I don't think it necessiarly should necessarily be a hard rule, but if you're looking at your potential panel and all you see is people who all look alike by sex, race, age, weight, or many other traits, then that probably is a good sign that diversity should be looked at. I strongly doubt that the discussion will be as wide ranging and as meaningful without it.

We know that people have biases that they realize, and one's that they don't. I guess the point is that Race, sex, age, weight, and all those other things (even being left handed) are already effecting the chosing of the panel. To not deal with those biases in a more conscious and mindful way just seems to be an absurdly comfortable stance to take with one's own ignorance.

I think it definitely good that the rest of the panel, and the conference attendees also question the issue constantly. It is not someone else's problem.

John Massey
22. subwoofer
Well I dunno, I have a couple of opposing ideas on this but my initial instinct is let the fans decide. I am not going into various marketing strategies, but I am sure that for different panels and booths, the organizers are looking at attendance numbers. People that are a big draw get invited back, folks that get average numbers... meh.

OTOH what somebody said above about all equality, ie race, really struck a chord. As a minority, I always notice the "token" colored person, in movies, shows, commericals, etc. Lookit "Friends". Bunch of white friends hanging out. Lookit "HIMYM" bunch of white friends . Twilight, bunch of other shows. Mainstream feels like a core nucleus of white people interacting with no ethnic diversity in their lives. I don't know if this is really the case in America at least but I like to think it isn't.

What really got my attention a couple of years ago was a McD's commerical with a bunch of kids dreaming of the Olymics(it was olympic time and they were proming the glasses) Anyways, it was a group of white kids hanging at the McDonalds. (edit- found the commerical... there was a series of these). Very homogenous. No ethnic diversity in schools or social groups at an early age it seems.

If a Paul wants to make a deliberate and ethical choice to change one thing based on gender, it is a start and I agree with that.

Good times:)

john mullen
23. johntheirishmongol
As someone who has worked at organizing various events, I have to say that trying to figure out quotas for race, sex, sexual orientation and/or any other kind of category you want to put up is impossible, for a number of reasons. One is that you may not know. I don't often look at the back cover of a book, and ebooks don't carry pics of the authors. Black, white or do you know? Some use initials instead of full names. Others use nom de plumes.

Besides, isn't the goal to recognize you for your accomplishments and not your appearance?
John Massey
24. subwoofer
@23 book the purple people, definitely! They are bound to be a big draw;)

"I was going to go see Hugh Jackman, but look, this seminar has a purple person. This we have to check out."

And impossible is a strong word, some things just take effort. I don't feel there should be a clear line drawn in the sand or a "you must be this tall to ride this ride" or quotas for gender etc. But an awareness would be nice. Every once in a while if the odd person stuck their head up and noticed that every guest at the conn was a white male, it might be eye opening.

Yes I do prefer a merit based system over affirmative action, that being said, is the system that we are talking about a level playing field for all genders and skin colors?

Here's a question, why is Nick Fury suddenly a black guy instead of the old grizzled white guy from back in the day?

Edit- and what happened to Wasp? Was her and Pym's characters written out of the story line for Avengers?

James Davis Nicoll
25. Lesley A
I knew there was a good reason I liked Paul Cornell!
I agree with him completely - we should all be more aware of issues around gender and race, and not take the easy option/default position of white male all the time. Other people have interesting things to say too, if the rest of us got the chance to listen.
James Davis Nicoll
26. Kilroy
Why do we continually endeavor to focus our beliefs and recognition on quantity instead of quality? I have found that Literary fiction has proven throughout the centuries to be a profound tool for dispelling stereotypes and expanding a readers appreciation for all people.

I feel bluejo does a much better job of describing the underlying issue than I could. Now if Cornell adjusted away from a strictly metric based idea, to a merit based thought process than maybe real change could come about. Now if someone steps down the next time Lois Bujold, or her contemporary should be on a more appropiatte panel I will gladly applaud.

On a only slightly related note, perhaps a celebration of works within the sci fi/fantasy genre that ignored or stomped on classic female stereotypes and female authors themselves whose writing of the past 25 years can be celebrated. (One of the many reasons I love the Malazan Book of the Fallen)
Iain Coleman
27. Iain_Coleman
“The Spastic Hand-Waving Error.”

I trust this wasn't meant to sound as thoroughly offensive as it does.

On the substantive issue, I think Cornell is right to make a stand in this way. I doubt it will actually lead to him walking off any stages - more likely it will provoke con programme schedulers into putting more effort into gender parity ahead of time.
James Davis Nicoll
28. SF
This reminds me a bit of something Dan Harmon has said about the writer's room on Community:
James Davis Nicoll
29. Shellywb
Iain, that means something completely different to Brits than it does to those from the US. I don't usually use Wiki for a reference, but it explains the difference accurately:

As for the idea of stepping down for a woman to sit in his place, more power to any man doing this if he takes the time to find someone appropriate ahead of time and doesn't just pull in a random stranger from the audience. Making it a convention rule however would just be silly.
Michael Burke
30. Ludon
To pick up on what bluejo said, maybe I've been going to the right conventions. I can only speak for the tracks I usually follow (writing, art, costuming and some of the science items) at Archon in the St. Louis area but the panels there are rarely All White Male. Sometimes it's two females, sometimes it's two females and one male and even when it's five or seven (St. Louis Costumer's Guild) there is still a fair mix. And if Selina Rosen is on a panel, the mix could be four males and her and the males would still be outnumbered. I love it when she's on a panel.
Chris Lough
31. TorChris
Hi Iain,

The line was indeed written without consideration to the slang meaning of that term to UK readers. We've confirmed that with the author and changed it to better reflect the the actual intent of the description.
James Davis Nicoll
32. HelenS
I disagree with the Wikipedia article's contention that "spaz" or "spastic" is inoffensive in the US. It was certainly used as a slur related to people with spastic disorders when I was a kid. (I went to an elementary school in Seattle with a large special-ed wing, which served a lot of kids in wheelchairs due to cerebral palsy and what not.) In fact I was surprised to see "spastic" being used as a neutral term in Christopher Milne's memoirs (he reports a typical conversation about his daughter Clare that includes the simple statement "She's spastic"). And as pointed out on,
If "spaz" were never considered an offensive term in the United States,
then why would four major national American news outlets all
independently decide that it was necessary to either edit or delete the
word "spaz" out of a statement given by Tiger Woods?
James Davis Nicoll
33. Brandie Tarvin
I don't think Paul would have a problem reaching into the crowd for an authoritative female voice on any panel subject given how many experts he knows. Chances are, rather than just grab a hand-waiver from the crowd, he would text someone he knows is at the con or pull said writer / actress from the crowd and get the fans to cheer her onstage.
Ursula L
34. Ursula
Why do we continually endeavor to focus our beliefs and recognition on quantity instead of quality?

Because the quantity of information from a particular POV affects the amount of quality information available from that POV.

If, out of every ten panelists, nine are cis-straight-white-males, and one is something else, and of every ten panelists, 1 is outstanding, 5 are really good, 3 are tolerable and 1 is lousy, you're going to get many more outstanding cis-straight-white-males than those of any other group, because the other groups have disproportionately fewer people in the ring.

And when you look back at the panels at various conventions where nine out of ten panelists were cis-straight-white-males, you'll see more cis-straight-white-males being outstanding than there are outstanding people of other groups, so you'll begin to form the assumption that cis-straight-white-males are more likely to be outstanding, just because of the overrepresentation.

Which, in turn, can lead to people who are organizing the panels for the next con choosing a disproportionate number of cis-straight-white males, because they'll call back all the outstanding ones and tend to assume (perhaps subconsciously) that "outstanding" equals "cis-straight-white-male."

This creates a self-perpetuating cycle of discrimination.

To break this cycle, you need to break the pattern. Which means taking risks. You go out of your way to increase the representation of formerly under-represented groups, particularly in areas where there is a cultural bias. (Such as assuming that women and children aren't in combat roles in the military, and therefore women and children are unlikely to experience combat.)

If a particular group starts out as over-represented in the system, then it will have much more of a chance for the outstanding individuals in that group to gain attention, while groups that are underrepresented will have much less of a chance to have outstanding members of the group gain recognition.

So any interest in equality needs to start by understanding the effects of the current and previous problems of inequality. And then correcting for the existing bias, rather than just trying to go to "neutral" when one group already had a massive head-start.

If you genuinely care about quality, then you'll want to correct the system so that quality has the opportunity to show itself, even if the quality isn't possesed by cis-straight-white-male people. Because an awful lot of quality gets overlooked or hidden by the pre-existing situation.
James Davis Nicoll
35. Shellywb
Helen@32, they would edit it out if that was the term causing the uproar over its offense. Even if the US readers wouldn't find it offensive, all their international readers would.

Seriously, where I live, it's just not used that way. And out of the people I just asked at work (an educated bunch) none had heard of that meaning except for one woman who'd lived in London. Everyone else was quite shocked to hear of it.
Stacey Helton McConnell
36. Buddykat
For those of you advocating greater equality in gender ratios on panels, have any of you actually worked on at least a few conventions? As someone who has worked on a number of literary fan-run conventions across the country over the last decade, I can say that it's not nearly as easy as you seem to think.

There are a large number of factors that go into programming a convention - starting with the program participants who actually accept the convention's invitation to be on programming! It doesn't matter what ratio of men vs women you invite, it matters who accepts the invitation. Quite frankly, just by sheer numbers alone, men outnumber women in the sf/f literary genre; so you would need to invite MORE women than men in order to end up with a balance of 50/50 of participants.

@bluejo - Not knowing the exact situation, but knowing how programming a fan-run, all volunteer convention works, and knowing many people who work on Boskone, there are any number of reasons that Ms. Bujold was not on the all male panel. It may have conflicted with another panel she was on, it may have been scheduled when she was not available, it may have conflicted with something else that she wanted to attend or do (maybe it was dinner time), or she may have even said she didn't want to be on that panel! Has anyone asked her or the people who programmed Boskone that year?
James Davis Nicoll
37. HelenS
Seriously, where I live, it's just not used that way.

So where's the meaning come from, then? How could "spastic" mean "clumsy" in any OTHER way than because of its original medical meaning? In any case, just because people hadn't realized the connection doesn't make it right for them to go on using it once they do realize.

And I'm not making it up that it's widely considered derogatory in the US. Heck, William Safire said so thirty years ago:

What's the good word? Safire - 1982 - 325 pages - Snippet view But when a klutz spazzes out, the verb derives from "spasm" by way of the derogatory noun "spastic" (from the adolescent epithet "You spastic!" or, simply, "You spaz!").

And earlier still:
Helping the adolescent with the hidden E. Anderson - 1970 - 151 pages - Snippet view Unfavorable and derogatory names are frequently given to those who are less able. Labeling, especially by the teacher, ... Names, such as "motor moron," "two left feet," and "spastic," are particularly disabling. On the other hand, a teacher can ...
Michael Walsh
38. MichaelWalsh
So, in the future, program committees will be asking prospective panelists how they define themselves genderwise?
James Davis Nicoll
39. Andrew-Porter
A really silly argument. I think there should be more left-handed, transgender, African-American panelists, even if more qualified people are available, who should be banned solely because they're men. Or white, or...
James Davis Nicoll
40. Aelfen
Helen S. I contest your version of the origin of Spasm:

Origin of SPASM
Middle English spasme, from Anglo-French espasme, from Latin spasmus, from Greek spasmos, from span to draw, pull

First Known Use: 14th century

James Davis Nicoll
41. onon
Politically correct tosh to suggest that there should be a conscious decision that 50% should be female and 50% male.

They should be chosen on merit and that choosing should be blind as to gender, race, religion or colour. If that means more men than women or vice versa then so be it. Do we want to be led by the mediocre? I damn well don't.
James Davis Nicoll
42. HelenS
Aelfen@40: not sure what you're getting at. I didn't talk about the etymology of "spasm" at all. I talked about where the derogatory use of "spastic" and "spaz" came from. (If anyone else is actually still interested in this topic, by the way, there's also a subthread on it in
Teresa Jusino
43. TeresaJusino
onon @41 - the point is that there should be an effort made to have a 50/50 panel on which everyone is competent. I love the assumption that a 50/50 split automatically means a decrease in quality.

@Emily - I actually mentioned this to Paul shortly after he posted this. I was at Gallifrey One this weekend, and I was on 4 panels. All of them either were 50/50 or majority women. Great, right? Except sometimes that's not all there is to it.

One panel on which I sat was 1 guy and three women, myself included. Yet, even with a majority of women, the guy (who was also the moderator) dominated the conversation. He would call on audience members for questions, answer the questions himself, then move on to the next question usually without thinking about giving the rest of the panel a chance to respond. When making one point in particular, he mentioned that a Doctor Who expert (who wrote some book) he knew, a man, was in the audience, and they had a conversation across the room that seemed more about the moderator proving that "he knows people" and celebrating the old-school Boys' Club in Doctor Who fandom. Now, as you might have gathered from my articles here and my presence on the internet that I'm not a wilting flower. I took the mike when I had to. But that's the thing - I HAD to. If I didn't assert myself into the conversation - bordering on rude, because it was the only way to get a word in edgewise - he would have totally dominated the conversation all by himself without giving over to the rest of the panel. And after I would speak, I would always look over to the other women inviting them to speak, and they would just agree with me and not say much else. It kind of drove me crazy that I was the only one who seemed to want to do anything about this guy trying to do all the talking. Afterwards, a woman in the audience came up to me and complimented me on what I had to say in the panel and followed up with "I only wish I got to hear from you more. It was kind of annoying that the moderator kept cutting you off and would hardly let the other women talk." :)

It's not just about getting more women on panels, it's about making
sure they're heard. Because sometimes (and I remember this happening in school, too) men dominate the conversation even when they're surrounded by women, and women - because we're trained to be accommodating, and nurturing, and "not pushy" - don't speak up the way we should.
James Davis Nicoll
45. Courtney Stoker
Oh good lord. People saying, BUT WHERE DOES IT STOP? DO YOU WANT A RULE REQUIRING LEFTIES AND BLOND PEOPLE? You can all go to hell. Here, feel free to ride there on your slippery slope.

Last time I checked, lefties and blondes have not faced systemic and widespread oppression on the basis of their left-handedness and hair color. Lefties don't make 70% of what righties do (like women). Blondes are 70% more likely to be imprisoned than their brunette counterparts (like people of color). So they're not comparable. The end.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment