Of manels, and neutrality of technology


Where do manels really come from (or start)?

Of manels, and  neutrality of technology /img/manel.jpg

Last week I found myself trapped into a Facebook discussion about “manels”, that is conference panels composed only by men, even when there would be many women at least as qualified, if not more, to be there.

A woman posted she was not going to a conference (if you care, it’s this), because it only had manels.

A man replied (I’m going by memory here) “enough with these positions, if all the greatest experts in the topics of the panel just happen to be men, as is surely the case here, just accept it. Ditto if they were all women, of course. And certain themes, like tech in general, are gender neutral to begin with, period”.

These are my two little contribution to this general debate

If they put on the table the wrong questions…

In general, there are certainly cases, I hope less and less every year, where a manel happens because those people, and nobody else, are objectively the ones most qualified to be there.

If it really takes at least ten years of experience to say something sensible in a certain panel about a given technology, and ten years ago that sector still hired almost only men…. it’s wrong, but it doesn’t change that if that panel must present and compare the most expert technical opinions available TODAY, they will very likely all come from the same side.

But also the discourse that certain themes, or the ways to present them, are by definition intrinsically and completely neutral, neither masculine nor feminine, does not hold. To see this, just read the topics and abstract of a conference program, instead of the gender of the panelists.

In the conference that started that discussion, for example, the description of one of the panels said:

“Whoever adapts faster, not the strongest wins. Speed, agility and reactivity are the keys to success”

Not, try to ask N thousands random people, with N as large as you like:

“Who do you think wrote the sentence above? Donald Trump, or Jacinda Ardern?”

If Trump gets less than 80% of the answers, I’ll pay you a beer.

As always, if you ask the wrong questions, the answers don’t matter.

A “purely male” mentality, in the negative sense of those terms, creates biases in the way of formulating problems and choosing questions to debate. This influences and limits the possible solutions, or outcomes of a discussions, before one even starts choosing panelists, and regardless of what their gender will be.

If the all the organizers, or panel members of a conference were women, but all and only women who adapted to the worst stereotypes of masculinity, would that be a progress? See also what I already wrote about the same issue last year.

Tech is neutral? Tech? Especially HIGH-Tech?

In general, technology is very seldom “neutral”, regardless of gender issues. Technology solves the problems that matter to the culture that uses it and pays for it. That is why we have much more software, hardware, “innovation” and money for “Uber for X”, smart refrigerators, smart TVs, self-driving cars, face recognition … than to solve more concrete, more urgent problems.

Of course software, hardware, artificial intelligence, and many other advanced technologies are so flexible that sooner or later they also find more really beneficial applications. But that happens at very different speeds in different sectors, precisely because, at their beginnings, those technologies are, even in good faith, not conceived nor “raised” to be neutral.

Image source: “Only men at your event? This blog will shame you”

(This post was drafted in July 2020, but only put online in August, because… my coronavirus reports, of course)

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