The 'Manels Affliction' - or those all-male conference panels talking about stuff that affects everyone

On one popular Kenyan TV show, just 4 women out of 107 guests (or 3.7%) were on the show to give commentary on trends, and not talk about themselves

I've learned that the second day of a conference is almost always a waste, particularly if the panelists and speakers are all middle-aged, suit-wearing men. (Photo/ File)

I've learned that the second day of a conference is almost always a waste, particularly if the panelists and speakers are all middle-aged, suit-wearing men. (Photo/ File)

I’VE been on the conference circuit over the past few weeks, having attended three big meetings within the space of one month, one in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, one in Kigali, Rwanda, and one in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.

Conferences have their modest upsides and many downsides for a print journalist in the trenches – they churn out good copy for a writer to flog, but it is difficult to get anything meaningful because everyone is in hollow, sound-byte mode. 

The first thing I learned covering conferences is that the real stuff, the things that make a good story, are rarely said on stage or during the official part of the programme. It is during coffee break, or over cocktails, that people drop gems.

But the second thing I’ve learned is that the second day of a conference is almost always a waste, particularly if the panelists and speakers are all middle-aged, suit-wearing men. (These are mostly the kind of people who attend conferences).

You are better off going to the market, haggling over trinkets you don’t even like, or driving aimlessly around town. That makes better material for a readable story than whatever is happening on Day 2.

The reason is, if the speakers are not diverse in terms of their gender, age and experiences, then their outlook and opinions tend to be the same. Hardly anyone comes to a conference to be controversial. So, usually, all the major points have been raised by Day 1, and on the second day, people are just echoing and seconding each other.

I’ve heard them called “manels” – all male panels discussing stuff that affects everyone. From my own observations and anecdotal evidence, I reckon that manels tend to be the norm by far; in fact, like one conference I attended in December, women are often sequestered on their own panel talking about “women’s issues” – the “role of women” in something or the other.

The data proves it

But because I believe in science and data, I decided to put my theory to the test. One of Kenya’s most popular TV shows is an energetic talk show hosted by Jeff Koinange, a former CNN journalist.

Colloquially called “The Bench”, the show airs twice a week at prime time, and Koinange’s wonderful Richard Quest-esque flair makes it good (and entertaining) viewing.

I gathered data on all the guests who have appeared on Jeff Koinange Live’s panel, by collating Koinange’s posts on Twitter over the past nine months (July 2015-March 2016) into an Excel spreadsheet. It came to 107 guests in total; the raw data can be found on my publicly accessible Google Sheet.

Here’s what I found. Out of the 107 guests, 16 were female. That’s a mere 14.9% (i.e. 85.1% male). This includes two little girls, a 5-year-old and a 10-year-old. If I excluded the kids, it would come to 13.0% women.

The show typically takes two formats: Wednesday is political commentary and “hard hitting” stuff, and the next day is a lighter format called “Inspiration Thursday” featuring people’s personal stories of triumph.

Because they were so few in total, it was easy to dig deeper and glean some trends. Out of the 16 women and girls, 12 appeared on the Inspirational version of the show.

Four were battling, or helping a loved one manage some kind of chronic illness, two were rape or sexual exploitation survivors, and two were the victims of banking fraud. In other words, fully half (eight in total) of the show’s female guests were “victims”. I use this word carefully, not as a verdict on their experiences, but how they were “framed”.

Of the others, three were musicians, one was a white backpacker who wrote a book about her travels in Kenya.

In essence, just four women were on the show to speak on ideas and give commentary on trends, and not talk about themselves – a grand total of 3.7% of a prime time show’s guests over a nine-month period.

Why does this matter? It’s easy to dismiss a call for more women on panels as a pointless agenda driven by jealous, power-hungry feminists. Or argue the aesthetics - that it just “looks better”, because women are pretty.

Totally invisible

But it’s a real thing. There is a real diversity of thought, experiences and outlook when you bring in a woman’s voice. This difference is outlook is almost always totally invisible to men. And when noticed, is dismissed as not legitimate, or not important.

An example. One JKL show that aired on 30th Sep, 2015 featured Chris Kirubi, a wealthy Kenyan industrialist, and Orie Rogo Manduli, a politician, former news anchor, model and rally driver. 

The two were discussing an on-going teacher’s strike in Kenya, the country’s Supreme Court had ruled that the teachers should be paid the salary increment awarded to them by an industrial court, while the government said it was going to disobey the order, claiming that an increment would trigger a fiscal crisis and copycat industrial action from doctors, nurses and whoever else.

Manduli argued that an order was an order, and the country had to respect the rule of law, while Kirubi argued for the government’s position and that teachers should have compassion on the schoolchildren and go back to work.

READ: Can’t pay, won’t pay— the startling numbers about Kenya’s teachers’ strike, and surprise, it’s all in the tax

Then Kirubi said that demanding the teachers be paid unequivocally was “emotional” and “excited”, but “if you are sober and rational, [you ask], where are the resources?”

It must be said that Manduli is known for her wonderfully flamboyant style, and during the show was in an outrageously large head wrap. But while she made her points, she did not raise her voice or do anything particularly “excited”.

‘Weaponised rationality’

But that is a familiar arsenal in dismissing a woman’s ideas – to claim that rationality is the preserve of men, and anything coming from a woman is invariably tainted by something vaguely yet fatally emotional.

In actual fact, logic and rationality are merely tools to advance particular ideas, devoid of values. @obaa_boni on Twitter calls it “weaponising rationality”, and argues that men often bully women with “objectivity” and “logic” because as men they are given the social power. They can present their (subjective) values as reason.

The worst part of weaponised rationality, she says, is that kindness, empathy, compassion are all presented as disruptive in a world where “logic” reigns.

The other argument used to counter the manels issue is that ideas are ideas - even if a woman will come in, she would say the same thing that a man would, so what’s the point of explicitly seeking to a woman say it?

I’ll tell you the point - there’s a subtle message you are sending out: That women can say this. That women can think like this. That women can be public intellectuals.

You have no idea how revolutionary that is. It’s actually a political act.

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