Issues of gender equality surface repeatedly in the world of archaeology, the latest being a rather ironic situation where there was an all-male panel in the session Professional standards and ethics: making a world of difference, at the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists annual conference. CIfA have issued a response to the criticisms and a plan of action here.

Still… ouch!

Now, I’m not a MCIfA and I’ve only been to their conferences once, so I don’t want to dwell on this precise event or context. It is, however, worth noting that this issue draws attention to a bigger problem in archaeology of male-dominated modes and venues of discourse, as well as the gender of those preferentially selected to speak/debate with authority in these venues. The ‘manel’ is a microcosm of a nested range of other inequalities throughout the profession, of which arguably conferences are among the least important in themselves, even if they can reveal stark instances of broader inequalities.

Two further points for this blog…

  1. While I accept ‘manels’ deserve criticism, I think panels of all kinds are quite odd and deserve criticism regardless of the gender of those participating. I’m not refering to the line-up of speakers, but the specific collation of speakers at the end of sessions into a ‘panel’. I appreciate ‘manel’ refers to any gathering of all/mostly men, but I have a problem with the panel-format for conference sesssions. I’ve always found trying to drag people down to the front after everyone has spoken rather pompous and ludicrous. Worse still, making them sit at the front through all the talks! Setting aside the gender of those participating, it valorises those who have spoken over the audience and prioritises those speakers who are more accustomed to performing free-form without scripts (which might have a range of linguistic, gender, age and disability implications by which inequalities are constructed). Rather than those who spoke rejoining the audience, they are stuck at the front like clowns where they either ignore the awkward arrangement and respond individually to questions pitched at them specifically, sit awkwardly fantasising about the coffee break/lunch break/end-of-day that they hope is fast approaching while trying to look interested whilst others get juicy questions, or adopt faux cameraderie despite hating the guts of the other panel members. So for me, ‘manels’ is just a particularly dumb subset of a bigger problem that panels of any kind are problematic without specific justification as to their deployment in relation to aspired functions. In my experience, panels can be effective, but they are often self-congratulatory, fake and insidious unless carefully managed. Why do we endure them in academic conference etiquette without question as opposed to more democratic interactions responding to papers, including voting, tweeting, encouraging the discussion to be led by a non-speaker discussant and a chair fielding questions and giving due attention to those who haven’t spoken rather than those who have?
  2. My second problem with the ‘manel’ debate is that it focuses attention on this particularly pompous conference etiquette rather than the bigger issue of differential gendered participation of all kinds within conference settings, including the ability of audience members to contribute in sessions, in coffee breaks and in other social settings. Criticising manels is therefore not enough, and indeed I would suggest quite distracting. We all need to think more broadly about the varied dimensions of conference ‘manalots’. Here I’m talking about the broader composition of round table discussions where equality and democratic discourse might pretend to be more apparent, but also any discussions, including those taking place at the ends of sessions, poster displays and social arrangements at conferences including formal dinners, all of which demand scrutiny to avoid them being the focus of inequalities along gender and other lines. For instance, I can’t recall participating in many ‘manels’, but I recall witnessing and being party to many ‘manalots’, such as male-dominated discussions over drinks, over coffee, in Q&A sessions, keynote addresses and so on.

Since the original round table was at Camelot, and I’m a medievalist, ‘manalot’ seems an appropriate term to encapsulate the broader inequalities in conference dialogues along gender lines.