On All-Woman Shortlists

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Well, all-woman anythings really. Shortlists are the famous example from the process of MP candidate-selection that really delivered, briefly, a more representative set of parliamentarians to the UK. But the reason I've been thinking about this again recently was my conversation with that outraged man who couldn't enter competitions for female composers.

I'm going to begin with a critique of his objections to this method of encouraging female talent, which were entirely typical of the genre and thus worth discussing in general terms that go beyond this particular instance. This will be the grumpy feminist bit. If you prefer, you can skip ahead to the more cheerful part later on where I discuss the very positive experiences this approach offers, which aren't necessarily apparent until you've participated in them.

So, the grumpy bit. You will no doubt have heard people say that all-woman shortlists or competitions or what-have-you are a bad idea because 'nobody wants to feel they're there just because they're a woman'. Which is one of those statements that looks perfectly reasonable until you start to unpick it a little. (The concept sounds reasonable, the tone in which it is expressed is less often so.)

How often have you seen an all-male line-up, on a panel, on the shortlist for a job or an award, as finalists in a competition? How often have you heard those men complain about getting there 'just because they are a man'? It doesn't occur to them that that's the case, and they probably don't even notice their demographic similarities. They like to think they got there on their own merits.

And of course to a significant extent, they did. They had to have something going for them to get to be a contender. But what they also had was the weight of tradition that takes men more seriously than women, and was thus predisposed to select them over female candidates. The beneficiaries of this privilege will argue strenuously against the idea that they have had it easy, because they have worked hard and have not (necessarily) done anything to disadvantage their female peers.

Of course they have worked hard, that's how you become good at something. But you know what? So have the women who they are routinely promoted above. An all-woman shortlist doesn't allow in female mediocrity any more than a non-restricted list lets in male mediocrity; it merely stops the hogging of all or nearly all shortlisted places by the groups that traditionally occupy them.

The other thing lurking behind the 'don't limit women to this' argument is an assumption that being female is inherently somehow limiting in and of itself. Being a token woman on an otherwise all-male list is somehow seen to be participating in the Real World, but being on an all-female list is implicitly less valuable. The women's game is just not taken as seriously: there is the assumption that winning against other women doesn't count, that it's only beating men that gives status.

Now, I could accept this assumption if the non-restricted lists did routinely reflect the wider population in terms of gender and ethnicity. But while they are over-populated by white men, I'm afraid I'll have to see that as a rather small pond in which the fish are a bit over-impressed with each other's size.

Now, onto the positive bit. I think only twice in the 100+ gigs I did as a stand-up comedian, I was part of an all-female line-up. Once in a competition, and once on a regular open-mic gig. And the great discovery we made at those events is that having an all-female line-up actually takes gender off the table. Suddenly, none of us had to carry the burden of being female,* because being female was normal and thus nothing to remark upon. This let us all shine much more brightly as individuals, with our strengths and flaws visible on their own terms, not through the lens of being Other.

On a normal grass-roots comedy night, where you might have anything between 5 and 10 comedians, the acts get categorised by their most obvious characteristic. The shouty one, the smutty one, the young one, the creepy one, the girl. If you are in a minority, that is the feature by which you will be identified. When it's an all-female line-up, the acts still get categorised by their most obvious feature: the angry one, the chavvy one, the one with the guitar, the Welsh one. But nobody gets categorised as a specifically female comic, as that is no use whatsoever to distinguish between them. You have to notice what they're like as acts.

All-women shortlists for MP candidates did exactly the same thing. Instead of considering whether or not to select a woman, the local parties could focus on things like policy positions, track records, and public speaking skills. It created the space for people to compete on their own merits.

If you are serious about increasing participation of a particular group in your thing, then targeting opportunities at that group is a great way to go about it. You will get more people stepping up to the mark, and it gives you a bigger pool of capable personnel to choose from. You'll still only get the best rising to the top, because they'll still be competing for the prizes. But widening the opportunity to compete at that level will increase the total skill-base of the profession as they learn from each other, and will build the networks that sustain both the individuals and the industry as a whole.

In fact, you'll get all the benefits that people in the groups disproportionately represented currently enjoy, but shared more widely.

*In case you wondered what carrying the burden of being female entails, on the grass-roots comedy circuit, it involves a lot of remarks about your appearance, a good deal of being talked down to, and occasional intrusive lewdness. All of which you can live through from your peers, but make your job as a performer much harder when done by the MC introducing you.

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