“I don’t see people as their gender – everyone is equal in my eyes,” Mr. Anon tells me at the recent ACHL conference. Great! That is the way it should be, and yet – the speaker line-up at the event was predominantly single-sex. This is no different to most other air cargo conferences, and therefore I am not singling it out. However, I do want to provide food for thought from a female perspective, to further encourage the few promising hints of change that I saw there, in the hope that future industry conferences will be different.
When was the last time you walked into a conference with hundreds of women, and were one of perhaps 5-10% of men, or even the only man, there?
When did you last attend a meeting as the only man, and unanimously get voted in as the note-taker purely because, on account of your gender, you best fitted the stereotypical secretary?
When was the last conference where you, as one of perhaps two to five male attendees, were constantly being mistaken for info/registration desk staff and asked administrative questions – simply because your gender is predominantly present in those functions?
And when was the last conference where the overwhelming majority of females got drunk, and a few then, judging you as available on account of your minority, attempted, in varying degrees of graciousness, to sweet-talk you into sharing your hotel room?* [Caveat: this did NOT happen to me at the ACHL, but has, unfortunately, occurred in the course of my career – and those of my female peers in male-dominated environments.]
Safety in numbers
I believe Mr. Anon, when he says he sees everyone as equal, and I know that he is genuine in his interaction with people, regardless of their gender, race, beliefs, etc. He is a lovely man, after all. Yet, as a man in a room full of men, with a series of male presenters, he is subconsciously in a comfort zone. He is experiencing what he has always experienced in all other conferences he has attended and feels relaxed and confident. He is amongst his tribe, and that is wonderful. After all, we work and network best, when we feel accepted and at ease.
Celebrate or segregate
Gender blindness is kind of a Schrödinger’s Cat situation. On the one hand, gender blindness is demonstrated by the fact that it is only apparent to a minority that 95% of speakers on the agenda are male. On the other hand, gender blindness – just as skin-color blindness – does not exist. As humans, we are hard-wired to judge our counterparts based on their physical traits and expressions, to immediately categorize them as friend or foe. It is a survival instinct and happens on a subconscious level, within milliseconds. What we are looking for, are similarities so that we can feel safe. So, of course, we see the person’s assumed sex, skin color, clothes, any religious identifiers, etc., and we pass judgement based on our instinct and social conditioning. On a conscious level, we can choose to override our assumptions, but the process happens, regardless. The conscious choice we have, is to encourage and celebrate, or segregate our differences.
Attract and retain
“Attract and retain” was a recurring theme at the ACHL event – mainly with regard to encouraging young and promising talents into the industry. Imagine bringing your twenty-something daughter to the male-dominant conference. How different do you think her experience would be to that of your son, if you brought him? Who is more likely to want to attend a second conference based on what they have seen, both in the speaker line-up and in the audience? Who is going to feel greater confidence and more at ease? And why do you think that is?
Take a back seat, perhaps
There were positive voices of potential change at the ACHL. Those male colleagues with a keen focus on sustainability and diversity, as well as those who are fathers of daughters, remarked on the imbalance. I was actually grateful to KLM Cargo’s Director Operational Integrity, Compliance & Safety, Kester Meijer, when he managed to virtually bring his 30-year-old, female colleague, Linde, onto the stage in a male-only panel he had been invited to participate in; he mentioned her by name and gave her point of view on the question that had been posed. He later also spoke out to encourage others to “perhaps take the back seat” next time they are asked to appear on a panel, and instead provide the platform to younger and/or female employees – something he was taking away for himself, too. A much sought-after male speaker acquaintance of mine, in a male-dominated tech environment, will only agree to talk at an event if the organizers can guarantee a 50/50 gender balance in the agenda.
Enable and encourage change
“We can’t dictate who from each company should present,” was the concerned answer to my observation that the first day of presentations had been all men. No, but those organizing an event agenda can encourage and enable balance. Certainly, in the case of panel experts, they can look to ensure a more equal speaker set-up by reaching out to more women (such as those experts listed in WAL’s database, for example: https://womeninaviationandlogistics.org/experts/ ). They can also encourage sponsoring companies to consider giving promising talent a voice and exposure in the presentation slot. Lastly, when all speakers are known, the agenda layout can be adapted to give the impression of a more balanced event.
The promise of a female moderator
It was also promising to hear ACHL host, Des Vertannes, sum up the three-day conference and note that next year’s event will include a female moderator, for sure. I’ll be holding him to that point. The more diverse a conference is, the greater its success – I can guarantee that, since it is scientifically proven.
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