“Manels”—the term I am using here to refer to the all-male panel–are so common in most industry events, we don’t often stop to question them. From television commentators, to conferences, to business schools, in board rooms, at the White House—manels make up the typical faces and voices framing discussions and shaping public opinion.
For the world of impact investors, fall is conference season. Between SOCAP, Opportunity Collaboration, SV2, Impact Hub convenings, TONIIC, 100% Network, SRI, and others, many of us are racking up miles traveling to these gatherings, sharing ideas and best practices, debating industry definitions, and doing our collective best to get the word out about this growing field we call impact investing.
Whether it is raising consciousness about the ability to align our investment dollars with our personal and organizational goals, debating the benefits of equity versus debt, or connecting the dots about the ways in which our collective dollars are at work and being used in the world, each of us is doing what we can to grow awareness and interest, helping to draw clear lines between business, purpose and profit.
As the field expands, there are a growing number of impact investing practitioners, many of whom are expressing their views from conference stages across the nation and the globe. During these recent gatherings I’ve had some delicate and challenging conversations with several of my very well meaning white male colleagues about just whose voices are heard from the stage, about how panels are constructed, and how stage time is allotted at our industry events.
Despite many shared goals, too often I am a participant at events where there are still all white male panels. This practice is problematic for our field as impact investing is both an opportunity and a call to question and challenge the status quo. In our space, we pride ourselves for being those to do things differently, to be both innovative as well as inclusive in our thinking and our actions. While I have certainly made the call to consider both gender and race in our investment strategies, I am making the point here that we need to bring our gender lens and our social justice criteria to the stage as well. To uncover our blind spots, we must be open to diverse opinions that often come from those with backgrounds other than our own. If we are actually looking to catalyze real change, we as a growing industry need to call for an end to the “manel.”
In speaking to my well meaning colleagues, I have found that in their efforts to design conferences and line up speakers, they reach out to their networks. Of course, this makes sense. It’s nice to work with our friends, and I get that. By reaching out to our own groups, event organizers have the added benefit of generally knowing what speakers are going to say, what expertise they bring to the stage, and as an organizer, “known quantities” can be a comfort.
My colleagues have confessed to me that they find themselves “in a bind,” as they don’t know women or people of color working on whatever area or issue is being discussed. They have also confided to me that at times they have actually asked women to participate and the women themselves have deferred to white men.
While I am not wanting to place blame here, I do want to point out that we all need to recognize the ways in which –perhaps unconsciously– this sort of selection process takes place and is perpetuated, and just what it means for our space. It is time to take stock of how much stage time is allotted to whom. It is time to end the “manel” and make a commitment to diverse representation at all of our impact investing events.
How do we move toward more inclusive representation?
Both at our own COCAP, hosted at Impact Hub Oakland, and at the larger SOCAP efforts have been made to do just that. At SOCAP, all sessions submitted for consideration must be diverse. Bringing awareness to the end goal –of hosting an inclusive gathering in an effort to build an inclusive economy– during planning can have a ripple effect as those proposing panels then get the opportunity to be inclusive in their actions.
A few recommendations on how to move forward:
Know we are out there
We all need to understand that strong women and people of color are working to transform our economy, asset class by asset class, in all of the areas that we want to address from the stage. While we may not know them personally, do know that they do exist, and by expanding our horizons, our contacts, and our LinkedIn searches, they can be located.
Share your goals
By stating clearly that diversity is a strong value for your organization or convening (whether that stems from a value of inclusivity, or rather from the innovation that diversity brings), you will attract others who will step up to help you reach your goals.
Share the responsibility
When inviting companies and organizations to participate, granting them stage time to share their views and what they are up to, be clear about the goals for the session, what you are looking for and why. The onus is then on the participating organization to present a diverse group of people for participation.
Make sure your own organization has an inclusive hiring policy
Hiring within your own organization is a good place to start. When companies incorporate diversity and inclusion as values during hiring, we are able to be part of the solution.
Sign the pledge and “Just say no” to the manel
Our white male friends and colleagues have a lot of power to change both the dialog and the representation of this growing social and environmental change movement. A similar call was started a few years back in the tech industry, encouraging male industry leaders to decline any request for stage time that did not also include women and or people of color. How about it? Which of our industry leaders are willing to take this pledge? Do let me know!
A large part of our focus in Impact investing is transforming the way we work with and direct our capital. I also work to increase the flow of capital to underserved entrepreneurs who will in turn channel resources to areas of our country and our world that have historically experienced little access to startup finance. Including diverse voices at decision-making tables and on thought leadership stages is an essential part of finding the solutions that work for all.
It is no longer acceptable in almost every industry to hear from only male voices on issues that are important to the whole group, and yet we continue to see this occurring within the impact investing arena. It is up to all of us to change the mindset in order to change the face of finance and our economy.
What can you do?
Reach out for assistance in conference planning. This may mean going past the industry “usuals” and looking for new voices. As conference organizers, we need to recognize our power—as far as content creation and curation—and understand that we literally set the stage for who is heard, who gets air time, and which thoughts get represented, and whose voices are heard.
Together, we can make this a priority for all of our work, starting really simply with awareness of the problem and a commitment be the change we want to see in the world.
To read more musings on conscious investing, do check out The Money Doula Blog. And stay tuned for the upcoming launch of the Change the Face of Finance Podcast–coming soon!