Gender Equality and the Nuclear Option

So, Paul Cornell has done an interesting thing.

A little bit of background: I’ve met Paul at several conventions, and we’ve been on several panels together. That men and women are and should be treated as equal, and that in today’s society (both in general and in the particular subculture of SF Fandom) they are not yet always treated as such, is not anything that we disagree on.

So in brief, here’s what Paul has said:

If he finds himself on a convention panel which does not have a 50/50 balance of men and women (rounding is fine in the case of odd-numbered panels), he will immediately step down from that panel and invite a qualified (ie knowledgeable about the subject) female volunteer from the floor to take his place.

If no qualified female volunteers are available on the floor, he will replace himself with an unqualified female volunteer.

My basic problem with this approach isn’t Paul stepping down from a panel. Each of us has things up with which we will not put. Those points of ethics and morality are different for each of us. Withdrawal of labour when all other options have failed has a long and glorious history and is an action which I fully support.

My problem with this strategy is not in Paul stepping down from a panel, which he is perfectly justified in doing; rather it’s in his intention to replace himself on the panel.

I don’t believe that he has the right to make that call.

If I’ve shown up as an audience member to a panel, I know (pending sickness or other unforeseeable circumstances) who will be on that panel. I know, hopefully, why they will bring something useful to the panel, or at the least am confident that the convention committee (oft abbreviated to concom, language fans!) have filled that panel with people who will have something interesting to say about the subject.

Now, if I’ve gone to a panel with this in mind, and instead of the person I’ve come to see speak I get someone that they have unilaterally imposed on the panel, and then especially if that replacement does not have anything useful or interesting to say, I would take this amiss. If they actually bring the quality of the panel down, I’d be even more annoyed.

And if I was on the panel myself, I’d be livid.

If the replacement has been OKd by the panel, or the moderator thereof, then I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. But the current option on the table is a unilateral I-will-replace-myself. Which I feel is unacceptable, and I rather suspect many other people will too.

And were I a panellist on a panel where such a thing happened, I think it likely that I would have to withdraw from the panel myself in protest. Especially if it was a panel in which Paul was more competent than I to speak.

While I feel that Paul, as does anyone, has the right to withdraw from a panel for whatever reason he chooses, I do not feel he has the right to choose his replacement.

So. Given that he plans to do just this, effectively what we have here is a nuclear option with a defined trigger point. You do this, and I’ll do this. Your move.

Now, we’ve had nuclear weapons for, what, 65-odd years now, and they’ve only been used twice. So it’s perfectly possible to come to an arrangement with someone with a nuclear capability without anyone blowing anyone into a cloud of radioactive dust.

What is likely to happen here is that concoms ensure that either Paul’s panels are gender-balanced, or he isn’t on them. Because every concom will want to avoid the nightmare that I expect to happen if he does go ahead and invite people from the audience to replace him.

So if I know that I’m going to be on a panel with Paul again at any convention in the future, then I’m going to have to ensure it’s gender-balanced. Given that I know what he’ll do if it isn’t, and then what I’ll do if he does that, and then there’s a whole smoking mess to clear up, which is what exactly none of us want.

And I’m sure many other people will do the same. And this process will result in more gender-balanced panels. Which I think is a good thing.

But I have a problem with the means.