September 10, 2018

Putting Diversity in Practice – Engaging Women in Security and Defense

Reflections on gender diversity at NATO Engages: the Brussels Summit Dialogue

Unconscious bias, all-male panels and token women: we all know there is no excuse for a lack of gender diversity in conferences.

Female experts exist, and for those having a hard time finding us, rest assured there now are plenty of websites with reading materials, toolkits and databases that can help find them. Of interest to any conference organizer, studies have long shown that women participation will improve the quality of events, as diversity is known to increase productivity, accelerate innovation, and improve performance. Importantly, promoting gender equality in conferences would be impossible without the fair representation and engagement of men, and to effect change men too will need to become bold and outspoken advocates of this universal cause.

There is still a long way ahead of us. While it is unlikely for a man to be excluded from expert meetings or key networking opportunities on the sole basis of his gender, women, despite proven expertise, continue having a hard time reeling in invitations to events everyone knows they are more than qualified to be part of.

So when Women in International Security (WIIS) Brussels was offered the unique opportunity to co-organize ‘NATO Engages: the Brussels Summit Dialogue’, the official outreach and side event of the NATO Summit 2018, we did not hesitate. We set off on a journey full of self-discovery, challenges, obstacles, big and small victories. Alongside NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division, The German Marshall Fund of the United States, Atlantic Council, and the Munich Security Conference, our main mission was to mainstream gender diversity and inclusion throughout this event.

Many months of hard work brought about 40% female participation at the event, balanced representation of men and women on stage, and an agenda that prominently featured inclusiveness and diversity. Here’s how we got there.

First, we formalized our commitment to diversity in the memorandum of understanding signed by all organizing parties. Inspired by Frances McDormand’s pitch for “inclusion riders” at the Oscars, we cemented diversity into the one document that lay at the core of our cooperation. Much like questions over budget and finance, we turned diversity into a contractual agreement that became impossible to back out of and bound us in a shared vision.

Though important instruments for change, written commitments are no substitute for the hard work required throughout the long process of putting together an event of this size. At least as important was the constant participation in discussions and decision-making on agenda and content. We actively worked against the creation of all-male panels and insisted moving beyond the idea that by just adding one woman to every panel, gender inequality would no longer be an issue.

None of this was easy. We discovered that even the very best intentioned organizers would at times accidentally resort to recycling existing networks, which take many years to build and tend to reflect exclusive power structures. As unexpected cancellations came in and event deadlines became more and more pressing, organizers realized they simply did not have more women in their network to consider, nor felt they had the time to responsibly identify new faces suitable to the discussion at hand. Statistically, when women cancel or decline an invitation to speak, they are likely to be replaced by a man.

We learned that it is was not good enough just to point out a lack of gender diversity. Instead, we had to prepare and be the helpful colleagues offering new names. We had to acknowledge that it is not always a question of ill-will; instead we had to always have a list at hand of qualified women that could quickly fill unexpected gaps in the agenda.

We also discovered that to make progress in gender diversity at large-scale events such as NATO Engages, we had to think beyond agenda and content. Our work also lay with staffing lists, and making sure that roles assigned were not gendered in ways where the women would be reduced to hostesses occupied mostly with guest relations and mic-holding, while the men would hold managerial tasks or be responsible for content work. Our work was about communications and media, and about showcasing to the rest of the world that women and men were equal protagonists of this event. Our work was even in production, with lengthy and complex discussions on the appropriate sizing and height of speaker stools.

Finally, we quickly learned that we were not going to be able to pull anything off by working on our own. When WIIS Brussels signed up to co-organize NATO Engages, it was impossible to foresee the months-long workload that came with it. We had no choice but to count on our partners to internalize our cause up to a point where we no longer had to be the only ones to raise the gender issues, but could rely on others to fight the same fight. And they did. The degree of gender diversity at NATO Engages is testament to a group effort, and a common interest in seeing women present, represented, and heard. The results were visible to many participants who have reached out to us to remark on how surprisingly inclusive this event was.

So could we have done better? Absolutely.

Why did we not reach full gender equality and 50% female representation? Surely we invited enough women, but perhaps we should have looked more closely at the statistics of the invitation declines. How many of these came from women versus men? What could have been the reasons underpinning a woman’s decision not to come? Was our event sufficiently accommodating to women balancing family and work or pregnant?

Diversity is a concept that stretches well beyond gender, and it is difficult to justify the overrepresentation of European and North American crowds at an event that discusses issues like migration and terrorism, which affect millions of people living in or descendant of the Middle East and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. We acknowledge that we need to work harder to promote diversity in its wider meaning and we can do a better job at involving other sections of the population to enrich our discussions and events.

But a tone was set, the bar was raised. From the feedback we received, we can proudly say many attendees have started to look at diversity as a measure of quality and progress. We can expect more audiences to decide to participate or speak at an event depending on how much it builds in the notion of diversity.

Change may be slow, but it is definitely coming.

By Romana Michelon, Steering Committee Member of Women In International Security Brussels.

Image credit: NATO Engages

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Romana Michelon

Romana Michelon

WIIS Brussels Steering Committee Member

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