In September I was asked by a student society, TEDxTrinityCollegeDublin, to sit on a panel for an event they were co-ordinating to discuss contemporary feminism and women’s activism.
Since accidentally sparking the movement that became #WakingTheFeminists at the end of 2015, and subsequently becoming the campaign director, I get asked to speak about these topics. Since I’m freelance, I usually only do this work if I’m paid. I did ask, but there was no fee attached this time.
I said yes anyway; partly because I like to support students and partly because I’m interested in keeping talking with people who are younger than me. I’ve learned a lot from listening to people in their teens and twenties talk about gender, diversity and their relationship with feminism.
They have grown up in an Ireland that feels so different to the one I grew up in, only a couple of decades before them. They see things differently, and I appreciate getting to hear about that. I also know that discussing things collectively is extremely important. It helps me to solidify my own thoughts about sometimes tricky, emotive and complex subjects. Personally, I like to hear a number of different viewpoints before I feel I can make up my mind about an issue.
So I said yes. I thought it would be an opportunity for an interesting discussion. The day before the panel, I saw a promotional image online that included my photo and the photos of the other speakers.
I shared it on social media. I was looking forward to the evening, particularly the question and answer part, which I always find the most interesting since it’s a conversation with the audience. On my way to Trinity the evening of the event, I got a message from someone working in the society to say the event had been cancelled at the last minute due to backlash from the student body about the lack of diversity in the panel speakers.
I thought about the panel photos I’d seen. Yes, we were all white women, and yes, of course I should have noticed that.
I should also have noticed that there were no men in a line-up talking about contemporary feminism, which is a whole other question of representation. These are things I should have picked up on the moment I saw that promotional image. Since I also work as a set designer, I’m currently in the middle of building a model box. My mind has been focused on dimensions, plans and cutting foam board. I didn’t stop to think clearly and check.
I can fully understand why the organisers were getting complaints. The students were right to complain.
I'm grateful to people who are younger than me for teaching me, and pointing out when something wasn't good enough
During #WakingTheFeminists, whenever we organised an event we consciously made the effort to offer a platform to diverse speakers. I’m still proud that, at the first event we held at the Abbey Theatre, the playwright Rosaleen McDonagh was able to speak; as far as I know she was the first person to use a wheelchair on the stage of our national theatre.
Using the privilege I have to champion diversity is important to me. I’ve complained fairly consistently over the past three years when I see panel and festival line-ups that don’t include women.
Think back to the furore about the MacGill Summer School earlier this year, when the director was forced to apologise after a chorus of “male, pale and stale” erupted in response to their programme. I was one of the people in that chorus. Gender balance is what I have learned to check for by default.
But it’s clear to me now that I don’t check for diversity by default. If I did, that image of the speaker line-up for TEDxTrinityCollegeDublin would have leaped out at me like it leaped out to others.
I had checked Twitter at a moment of rest from my cutting board, shared the image, and turned back to my work. I thought I held myself to a higher standard, but I simply wasn’t looking at what was in front of me.
Diversity is something I need to remind myself to look out for. Most of us do. There is such a thing as pale, stale and female too, particularly in discussions about feminism.
I’m sure this has been a stressful time for the students who were organising the TEDxTrinityCollegeDublin event. There have been heated arguments on social media about what should or shouldn’t have happened. I’m sorry they decided the only solution was to cancel the event, and that it wasn’t possible to modify the line-up as soon as the lack of diversity was brought to their attention.
I understand there are plans to reschedule for early next year with a different line-up, and I’m happy to stand aside if space is needed to make the panel more diverse. The main thing is that the event does go ahead.
These discussions and debates must continue to happen. Feminism and women’s activism, diversity and marginalisation – this is not a moment to cut off the conversation, but simply to broaden it and make the effort to notice who has a voice.
Yet again, I’m grateful to people who are younger than me for teaching me, and pointing out when something wasn’t good enough.
As a public speaker, I need to make even more of a conscious effort to use my position to leverage space for others. Then we all get to hear more diverse viewpoints and arguments, and have more nuanced opinions and conversations. How refreshing.
Lian Bell is a set designer and founder of #WakingTheFeminists