Inclusivity or Tokenism?

May 10, 2007

The proposed panel seemed like a perfect pitch at a time when scholars in many fields are studying postcolonial identity and diaspora communities. The idea was to have scholars who study different regions and time periods examine issues of collective memory and identity in post-World War II Germany, modern Pakistan, and Japanese diaspora communities.

The program committee for the next annual meeting for the American Historical Association liked the idea, too. There was just one little problem: The scholars involved are all men. "Since the AHA has a standing commitment to gender diversity on panels, the Program Committee has decided to require you to find a female participant, perhaps to serve as chair or a second commentator for your session," said the notification the panel organizer received. Unless an acceptable additional participant is added, "we will be forced to reject your panel."

The response stunned Manan Ahmed, the organizer, who is preparing for his dissertation defense at the University of Chicago. After venting via e-mail with colleagues and joking about proposing that the panelists all appear in drag, he decided to go public with concerns about the AHA's policy and blogged about it on Cliopatria. In his post, he said that he didn't know what to do because he thought it would be insulting to ask a woman to join the panel just because she is a woman.

Ahmed and his fellow panelists have been rescued. Rebecca A. Goetz, an assistant professor of history at Rice University, is a specialist on early North American history. She wouldn't normally have put herself forward for the panel, but since it appeared that there was only one relevant qualification (in the eyes of the AHA), and she admires the work of the scholars who might otherwise be shut out of the meeting, she has become the chair of the panel.

Ahmed said that he's a fan of Goetz's work, too, and has no doubt that she'll offer some great insights, but when he sent in her name to the AHA, he just gave her name and institutional affiliation -- not including any explanation of how her work would fit into the theme of the panel (the kind of explanation provided about the other panelists). No matter -- the name "Rebecca" did the trick and the panel was immediately approved, no questions asked.

While Goetz is happy to help out fellow historians, she's more than a little annoyed about the historians' policy -- about which she previously had no idea. "It's offensive because it installs a woman simply for the sake of having a woman on the panel," she writes on her blog, Historianess. "I won't be doing any serious scholarly work for this panel; I just show up and introduce my friends (I may also get to wear a t-shirt that says 'token'). That's a great way to encourage gender diversity: put the token in a position of little authority or consequence, just because he/she will fit the quota. Ridiculous, and offensive. In all my time in academia, I've never been treated this way."

Many scholarly associations encourage conference and panel organizers to consider issues of diversity in panels -- hoping for panels that have gender and ethnic diversity, people at different stages of their careers, and diverse perspectives, and in some cases discouraging panels where multiple participants are from the same college. But an informal survey found no policy like the one historians have enforced in use by the the American Anthropological Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Political Science Association, the American Sociological Association or the Modern Language Association.

While the history group has enforced gender diversity on panels, women in the association have considerable authority in positions to which they are elected or appointed without gender favoritism. The president of the association is a woman and so is the president-elect and the past president and the association's executive director.

So why require gender diversity on panels?

Barbara Weinstein, a professor of history at New York University who is the AHA's current president, says that's a fair question, but she also thinks the policy has done a lot of good and that those who complain that they can't find women (or men) for panels generally aren't looking hard enough.

A generation or so ago, she said, AHA sessions were full of panels of only men, even as women were doing important work. The rule, she said, "has had a healthy impact." Serving on program committees, Weinstein said that she has heard complaints over the years from scholars who say that because of their specialties, "there are no women who study X," and she said that is almost always "an imagined problem." Even if many AHA panels today would end up with at least one man or one woman -- without any rule requiring that -- some fields may be likely to be missing female voices.

She said, for example, that many women these days are doing military history, although they may be doing it in ways different from what the field has traditionally supported, and so may not come instantly to mind when people are organizing such panels. While the AHA makes gender a rule, it encourages other forms of intellectual diversity as well, Weinstein said. She's a scholar of Latin American history and said that when she has reviewed panel proposals, she has been struck by the number of themes that relate broadly to the world but feature only perspectives from American or European history.

Weinstein stressed that the association is an equal opportunity enforcer of its gender policy. She remembered a program committee telling organizers of a panel on the history of menstruation, proposed featuring only female scholars, that they needed to add a man. They did and the panel was better for it, Weinstein said. She was recently at a meeting where a female scholar working on a panel on the history of domestic service wondered aloud "where am I going to find a man" doing such work, and a man in the group volunteered that in fact he was studying that topic and would love to help. Such incidents, Weinstein said, suggest the positive impact of the rule.

At the same time, she said she hoped that conference organizers would look for "good faith efforts," and not apply rules rigidly. In addition, she said that with women not only entering the profession but leading the association, "perhaps there is no longer a need for the rule." She said she was "perfectly willing to revisit" the question, but that because this was official AHA policy, it would need to go through association governance and wasn't something she as president could simply change.

The scholars who have raised the issue this week stressed that they aren't anti-diversity zealots, but believe it's time to think about which approaches to diversity make sense and where the problems with a lack of diversity really exist.

Ahmed of the University of Chicago said in an interview that his focus is South Asian history, a field he thinks doesn't get enough attention. He would like to see more of an effort to have broad comparative panels (like the one he organized) and specialized panels on topics beyond the West. But he'd like to see that happen through encouragement, not quotas. He also said that he does see the problem with panels made up of "old boy networks," but he suggested that the historians encourage the use of databases or e-mail lists so people wanting to organize a panel could early on ask who was doing work in a certain area, rather than trying to draft a woman at the last minute, for the sake of being a woman.

"It's just inane to enforce gender diversity this way," he said.

Goetz said that part of her frustration with the gender diversity rule is that it involves a focus on a non-problem when real problems need to be solved. AHA meetings these days generally have plenty of women and men on panels together, Goetz said. She added that she has been on many panels and never really thought much about their gender breakdowns.

But "there are huge problems" facing women in academe, she said, noting gaps in pay and tenure rates at many institutions, and concerns about the way family leave policies may discourage academic careers. "These are all really serious gender equity issues and the AHA could benefit from talking more about them," she said.

Forcing male panelists to find women "seems like a Band-Aid when there are serious systemic problems" that need attention, she said.

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