I wrote a 50-part twitter comment on the lack of women academics speaking at the 2017 UN Forum on Business and Human Rights. In hindsight, that seems like a waste of time. I should've just made it a blog post. I haven't kept this blog very active as my publication obligations increased significantly this year. So this seems like a good way to revive the blog. I'm pretty much copying and pasting the tweet rant, but I'll add links to the people I identify. I have also edited this briefly for coherency and appropriateness on a blog (instead of twitter), and to add some details, but here's mostly what I wrote on twitter:
Now that I’ve complimented @WGBizHRs on the inclusion of women in the #bizhumanrights Forum, let’s discuss lack of academics – and particularly women academics. I was surprised there were no academics on the keynote plenary so I investigated further.
In total, it appears there will be seven academics speaking on all the panels at the UN Forum on #bizhumanrights. They will speak on five panels. This is out of (if I counted correctly) 75 panels total. This tells us how we appreciate (or fail to) academic expertise. There are three women academics: Dr Attiya Waris, University of Nairobi; Dr Harpreet Kaur, Ashoka Uni (twitter); and Dr Patricia Palacios Zuloaga, University of Essex. Drs Kaur and Palacios Zuloaga will discuss women’s human rights and Dr Waris addresses African perspective on remedies.We have to go to Day 2 of a three-day Forum to hear a woman academic speak. This, unfortunately, tells us how women academic experts are valued (or not) in #bizhumanrights.
While I am calling out the UNWG, they alone are not responsible for this. Organizing the Forum is a massive undertaking and they rely on external organizers for most panels. But still… something important fell through the cracks on this one.
Let me acknowledge my methodology and some short-comings to this very unscientific inquiry into the 2017 Forum’s programme:
(1) I didn’t include members of the UNWG who are also academics as “academic speakers” because that’s not the role they're speaking in;
(2) I also relied solely on titles given in the programme for the same reason (and because I have an actual job and limited time). Where a speaker is about to become an academic (and I know of at least one) but that’s not their “role” for the Forum, I didn’t include them.
(3) I also didn’t include sessions before the opening plenary or evening sessions because while they are now included in the programme they have never been treated the same way as day-time sessions.
(4) It appears 25-30 panels have either no information on their speakers or limited information. I did assume one academic speaker (Sheldon Leader) based on reasonable assumptions. [Edited to note: Sheldon will not be speaking, although there will be a male academic speaking on a panel Sheldon is moderating. I feel it's also important to note here that Sheldon is not only my colleague, former PhD supervisor, and friend, he has also promoted my career regularly and routinely.]
(5) Where sessions are divided into Parts 1 and 2, I treated each panel as a distinct part.
(6) I only counted once, so I didn’t cross-check to ensure the number of panels. But I was careful with finding and identifying speakers. I wrote each speaker's name in a column titled "academics" that totaled all academics. Women academics were then written in a second column titled, shockingly, "women academics." Finally, I used shorthand to link academics who were speaking on the same panel and to keep track of the number of panels academics were speaking on.
With methodology out of the way: There are several notable panels where academics, and particularly women academics, could have been helpful. Anything addressing the financial regulation and/or the banking sector, for example. And, of course, the women keynote panel. There are two panels –- the UDHR at 70, organized by OHCHR, and child labour in cobalt supply chains – that appear to *only* have businesses or business-oriented organizations. Head-scratching b/c neither of these are topics that should only include businesses.
(Also, how do we have an entire Forum focused on remedies and yet multiple panels that are dominated by businesses while we have very few dominated by victims and none dominated by academics? Wasn't this the year we were going to make sure victims were at the centre of everything? Or was that just my own wishful thinking?)
I noted last year (via twitter) that academics shouldn’t be treated under the larger umbrella of “civil society.” This is for two related reasons: what we bring to the table; and what we don’t bring to the table. Academics can provide objective critical voices. We don’t necessarily have a stake in a particular project, but we have a stake in the development of the field as a whole. This allows us to be constructively critical.
Academics also often can make overarching connections that are not made by those working on a particular project. You want to discuss Colombia’s peace process and the UNGP? Excellent case study, but don’t forget that Colombia is following the experiences of South Africa, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste, Guatemala, Honduras, and will need to be adopted for use in Nepal, Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq. Academics don’t forget this and their insight in linking these cases, in developing nuance between them, and identifying important factors can be helpful.
We’re also professional educators, and generally professional educators for adults. This means we know when the language gets too dense for non-academics and usually have 3-6 analogies in our back pocket that will help clarify the situation. (I teach the sources of international law by talking about marriage, true love, and friends with benefits. I've had adults come to me months and years later and say "I know what customary international law is -- it's true love!" Of course, customary international law is not as lovely as true love. But it is analogous.)
Academics in #bizhumanrights are not Ivory Tower academics. We work with businesses and communities and victims groups. We just do it in a different way than civil society. And then we learn how to explain that work to a non-academic audience. Over and over and over again. It’s our job.
Academics are not, however, stand-ins for civil society or victims’ groups. I work with a lot of NGOs and victims, but it would be wrong for me to take a victims’ seat at a table. I don’t have their experience and their voice needs to be heard. I cannot tell you what an “adequate remedy” is for a child labourer in the cobalt industry. That has to come from the victim because the obligation is to make the victim whole again. They need to speak for themselves. But I can tell you what the remedial obligations are, what some options are for ensuring remedies, what has worked for child victims in the past, and where the often-hazy line is between providing remedies for a past violation and beginning to fulfil a distinct new obligation. For example, I'll make sure you understand that providing child labourers with an education is not a remedy; it’s a distinct obligation. Providing child labourers with extra support to address gaps in their education that developed because of their use in labour can be a remedy. Similarly, providing adults who were once child labourers with an education can be a remedy. But don't confuse the remedies and the distinct obligations: finally realising a distinct obligation is not, by definition, providing a remedy. If you don’t understand that, I have 4 other ways to explain that to you. Ask me. I'm happy to tell you at least one other way to get you to understand.
Don’t lump us in with civil society or with victims’ groups. We’re not. We’re a distinct stakeholder group. We bring a distinct value-added to these discussions. When you have a panel with 3-6 corporations, 1 or 2 victims, and no academic voices, you should know that you’re probably missing some important and helpful insights.
Now, that’s academics generally. Let’s briefly discuss what happens when you have no women academics – or three in a Forum with approximately 75 panels. And the problem with those three discussing only two issues: women’s rights and a regional perspective.
Let me be clear: if I were doing anything on women rights ever, I’d want Drs Kaur and Palacios Zuloaga on that panel. I don’t know Dr Waris and haven’t heard her speak, but a quick review of her CV indicates she’ll be a great speaker on remedies. We also absolutely need the panels they’re speaking on (although we could do a better job of mainstreaming both issues). But women’s rights and regional perspectives are not the only things women are experts in. Dr Waris, for example, would be appropriately placed on panels addressing state-owned businesses. Dr Kaur would be perfect on panels about the SDGs and UNGPs or on accessing community voices. Dr Palacios Zuloaga would give an added value to any panel on reparations and remedies.
They are not alone. The list of women academics in #bizhumanrights is long and distinguished. Yet senior academic women like Justine Nolan (twitter: @justine_nolan), Nadia Bernaz (twitter: @nbernaz), Mary Footer, Karin Buhmann, Nicola Jagers (twitter: @NicolaJagers, Joanne Bauer (twitter: @JoanneBauer), Erika George (twitter: @ProfErikaGeorge), Jena Martin (twitter: @JenaTMartin), Sara Seck (twitter: @SaraSeck) and Gwynne Skinner are all notably missing. And don’t even get me started on “younger” female academics: Chiara Macchi (twitter: @chiaramacchi7) Anil Yilmaz-Vastardis (twitter: @anil_yv) Katerina Yiannibas (twitter: @kyiannibas) Samentha Goethals (twitter: @Samenthe), Daniela Heerdt (@DanielaHeerdt), Charline Daelman, Dorothee Cambou, Krisztina Huszti-Orban, Basak Baglayan (twitter: @basakbc), Jelena Aparac. All those women were off the top of my head. None are speaking. Over three days and 75 panels.
This suggests that the field of #bizhumanrights is comfortable with women academics in areas long deemed “acceptable” for women: women (obviously), children (because we’re supposed to be mothers/caretakers, right?), and sometimes regional experts or voices. But we remain forgotten on other issues. When women academics are only given a few spaces to explain their expertise – “comfortable” areas – we lose two things: we lose hearing their insights and expertise and we lose the vision of women as experts. We lose hearing about insights that might spur us to think in new ways. We lose insights that pull together large and vastly different experiences. We lose insights that are well-informed by the latest research and that come from ethically reviewed investigations.
We also lose the vision women as experts. Women academics undertake deep, knowledgeable and nuanced investigations into both individual issues and approaches that can be extrapolated thoughtfully and carefully for broader application. This isn’t to say that the numerous women speaking as representatives of states, business or civil society organizations are not experts or knowledgeable, thoughtful or nuanced. But their role and their use of expertise is different. After posting on this on twitter, I was approached by a PhD student who said she still feels it's rare to see women academics treated as experts in this field. That's a problem. And it's not the PhD student's problem -- it's the field's. It is important that women academics be included in discussions of free speech, access to remedies, the legitimacy of arbitration for #bizhumanrights, and – yes – historical reflections on where we’ve come from and where we need to go 70 years after the UDHR.
We also know that routinely seeing and listening to women academics changes how all women are listened to. I have attended more than one #manel on #bizhumanrights and I’ve been to numerous ones where one woman speaks out of 8 or 10 planned speakers. Usually, the audience is 75% women and includes at least one or two of the senior women academics I named above. Yet we listen to 8-10 men tell us about their own interests in the field. I love listening to my male colleagues -- heck, I love discussing #bizhumanrights with anyone who will discuss it with me and that sometimes means random strangers in buses, planes, and or taxis. But by ensuring men dominate the academic discussion, we are not just missing what women have to offer (and that's a lot in this field) but we are reinforcing the notion that men should dominate the discussion. Please note that I used the word "ensuring" intentionally in that sentence. Choosing speakers is a choice; it is a political and social act, even when you want it not to be one. If you ask exclusively or predominately men, you are "ensuring" that men dominate the academic discussion. It's not a natural occurrence in this field and you are making a choice about how you want men and women to interact and be perceived in this field.
Sadly, it remains the default that when you want a #bizhumanrights "expert," you call a man. This happens for many reasons, but one reason is that people often do not appreciate women as experts until they see women experts. If you only see or hear women in some roles, you only envision them in those roles. Women aren’t deemed capable of being “experts” until enough women are actually recognized and seen as experts. The more people see women in that role, the more routine the inclusion of women in that role, the more likely women are to be listened to as experts, but also across the board. By recognizing women as experts, we acknowledge that they can and do add clear value, judgment, and insight. This can change how we more generally perceive comments from women all around. Women become more than just their emotions; they become beneficial and relevant members of our team.
When you fail to include academics in the discussion, you generally miss out on some relevant and important insights. When you fail to include women academics, you reinforce a patriarchal system that still refuses to acknowledge women as legitimate experts. Having speakers that address only "comfortable" subjects that women are "allowed" to dominate does not change this.
Again, I know this does not fall on the UNWG alone. It’s a communal failure within the field. It will only get better, however, when we acknowledge it’s a problem. I apologize to my friends and respected colleagues on the @WGBizHRs for singling out their efforts at the Forum first, but let’s start with acknowledging the problem in the places with the most power. I am not going to hold an academic institution just getting started in #bizhumanrights to a higher standard than I hold the UN Working Group. Instead, I'm going to hold them all to an equal standard while recognizing that the power dynamic means the UN Working Group will have a stronger impact on the field and future discussions.
For future organizers of #bizhumanrights conferences: if you want an academic / woman academic, ask me. Even if you don’t want me I am always happy to refer to you to someone in the – very large! – network of women academics working on #bizhumanrights issues. Alternatively, you can tweet to @atlas_women and ask to share the request with their broad network.
Women academics and their expertise need to be heard.
(And women academics in business and human rights -- and this includes all who identify as women -- if you are interested in being contacted by organizers, we have a google form for that. Fill this in and we'll share with any organizers who reach out to us: http://bit.ly/2yjgxVV).
UPDATE: The UN has now released a "speakers' list." It's 15 pages. Using the same methodology as above, but attempting to save myself time, I did a search for the terms "Univ" "Professor" and "School" to find academics. There are 16 academics (at least 16 serving in academic roles here), and of those 9 are women academics. The problem, however, is that this list appears to include moderators, not just speakers. While some will argue that I shouldn't differentiate between moderators and speakers, I do.
A moderator's job is to say this: "This Man is very accomplished. Mr. Man, please tell us what you think about this subject. ... Mr. Man, your time is up. [2 minutes later.] Mr. Man, we really need to move on now. [2 more minute later.] Mr. Man, I really need you to wrap up now. [1 minute later.] Great, thank you Mr. Man. Now, does anyone have questions for Mr. Man? We'll take 3 at a time. [Pointing] 1, 2, and 3." A speakers' role, on the other hand, is to provide expertise, nuance, and clarity about specific issues and to substantively respond to the audience's questions. The roles are simply incomparable -- as is the impact on the audience's understanding of expertise.
I have too often seen women academics asked to moderate panels after the organizers realize all the speakers are men. I've been used in this role too, which is why I now check the speakers list before agreeing to moderate a panel. Once we have a full programme that differentiates moderators from speakers, I'll go through it and update this post with the real numbers.
It is also worth noting that Dr. Palacios Zuloaga is no longer speaking, but two women I identified before -- and at least two I should have! -- are now on the list. The list of women academics now includes Jena Martin, Justine Nolan, Bonita Meyersfeld and Andrea Saldarriaga. I sincerely hope they are all speaking in substantive roles.