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Brussels Binder: Women bursting the European Bubble

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ImpactMind the Gap

How many times have you been to a debate, a panel discussion, a conference or a workshop only to find that most of the speakers are men? One too many, according to Paola Maniga and Pauline Chetail, members of the new EU initiative Brussels Binder, a free database of female experts. Here is our interview with feminists from the European bubble.

Cafébabel: So, how did it all begin?

Paola Maniga: Brussels Binder was officially launched in 2017, and the website was launched earlier this year in January. But the project started back in 2015. During lunchtime, we (women working in Brussels-based think tanks, ed.) got together and brought up the issue of women in the workplace, especially women in think tanks. The underrepresentation of women at policy debates started becoming a dominant topic of discussion during our lunch breaks. That’s how we realised we needed to create a database in which we would group together all experts. That way, people in Brussels could become more aware that women are present, and would no longer have excuses for not inviting them in their panels! So in 2016, we launched a crowdfunding campaign and organised a fundraising event to make our project come to life. It was a huge success, which proved that there actually was a demand for such a tool.

Cafébabel: What exact moment triggered this lunch conversation that lead to the creation of Brussels Binder?

Paola Maniga: The lunchtime discussions were organised by Corinna Horst who is now the president of the organisation. On a monthly basis, she invited women to come together to discuss topics of common interest. It’s in this context that we decided to focus on this issue.

A key moment for me was when we issued the Bruegel Annual Report and we realised that the majority of people featured in the event photos were men. So I started collecting statistics, starting from the think tank where I work, Bruegel. Here, for instance, at that time, we counted only 11% of women in panels in the events we organised. So in the first six months after the kick-off of the initiative, we were very active and we managed to increase women’s participation in our events. It has been extremely interesting to see how drastically things could change. Indeed some people were reluctant at first, but eventually we even succeeded in involving the organisation’s management.

Cafébabel: How did you realise that there was such a problem?

Pauline Chetail: It’s obvious that there are more men than women in panels. When we decided to set up the database, nobody asked us: “Why are you doing it?” The EU Panel Watch, back in 2015, also pointed out in a report that there was a lack of women in panels. Of course it’s difficult to find a woman expert if you don’t look properly. Women face the same problem when it comes to being referenced; women experts are less quoted in scientific articles than men and we tend to invite those same people as speakers.

Cafébabel: Why do you think there are more male than female experts in panels?

Pauline Chetail: Your question was actually the starting point for our project: analyse the reasons and the direct consequences of the underrepresentation of women in panels. The fact is that usually men are more likely to cover senior positions. What’s more, when we think about who to invite for an event, we tend to think about our friends and acquaintances or people we have seen in other panels, most of which are men. Men have more visibility. And given the fact that women are less visible than men, we think about men by default. Another thing that event organisers have a hard time with is that women are more likely to cancel their participation. I don’t have any data to prove it, but in my personal opinion, if there’s a family emergency, women are more likely to stay at home. Roles in our society are still gendered.

Paola Maniga: I agree. I had a lot of cases where contacting a woman expert was extremely difficult. Personally, I can also say that sometimes this is due to the fact that those women are not available on that specific date… they have already been approached by other event organisers because they are the only woman known or available in that specific field of expertise. Once again, that proves that men have more visibility. People can choose male panelists on broader spectrum. The Brussels Binder aims to diversify speakers and this also concerns men; diversity is a problem that affects both genders.

Cafébabel: So what are the direct consequences of this underrepresentation of women in panels?

Paola Maniga: The audience ends up only relating to men, and these kinds of panels end up reflecting a society in which men are believed to have sufficient experience while women don’t. It’s also a matter of role models: the underrepresentation of women in panels means that there is a lack of female role models, especially for young people. But this is no secret. The European Commission, inspired by our project, launched the campaign “No women no panel” after realising that there are very serious consequences.

Cafébabel: Are there panels that are exclusively female? If so, what is the area of expertise that is covered?

Paola Maniga: Some fields like education, culture or the arts are mostly occupied by female experts. There are also all-women panels, where only women are invited to take part, but this isn’t necessarily a good idea. What we care about is diversity. At the launch event of Brussels Binder, for example, we invited men as speakers too, including the Vice President of the EU Commission Frans Timmermans. It was a strategic choice. We wanted to involve everyone and, even if we cover gender inequality now, we are aware of the existence of other inequalities.

Cafébabel: Are male-heavy panels mostly oriented in one specific sector?

Pauline Chetail: Well, finding a female expert in energy or technology is usually challenging, especially a woman in a high level position. That’s because these fields of study are usually covered by men. Women are not even encouraged to study these subjects.

Cafébabel: Overall, what’s your take on the gender situation in the so called ‘European Bubble’?

Pauline Chetail: The gender situation in the European Bubble includes different realities so it’s difficult to evaluate it. For instance, European institutions really push hard on this aspect, but other organisations settled here don’t, as they are not aware of the issue. I think that the Brussels Binder started something new and needed in the European Bubble.

Cafébabel: I can imagine that such an initiative has not been welcomed by all. Did you receive any criticism?

Paola Maniga: One of the comments we received until now is that we are focusing only on gender challenges while there are also other inequalities we should fight for. When people raise this concern, we always want to make clear that we are open to all – all types of profiles – everybody is welcome to register to our database to make them visible.

Cafébabel: What is your ideal outcome for this initiative?

Pauline Chetail: To me the best for the Brussels Binder would be for it to be massively used in order to raise awareness about the tool, but also about the problem itself. It would be great to make it more visible and involve other experts. Personally, I would like the Brussels Binder to become the tool of reference for event organisers so that everybody knows they can find women in our database. We’re also thinking about going beyond Brussels and launching the project in other European cities. There are some initiatives in France we’d like to partner up with, for example. It’s becoming a global trend, and although we focus on European panels, experts come from all over the world.

Cafébabel: Do think the Brussels Binder is having a concrete impact?

Pauline Chetail: The project is still at an early stage so we can’t measure its impact. We need more women to register in our database, and we want to create a website that is more user-friendly. For the time being, 750 women registered and 460 profiles have been validated. However, we would like to structure the database as a sort of LinkedIn to provide more information and make it clearer.

Paola Maniga: We would like to measure the impact of the project on the number of people that have contacted the experts listed on the Brussels Binder’s database, and start counting how many event organisers used it. Still, the fact that we inspired the commissioner Mariya Gabriel to launch the “No women no panel” campaign, and that the Brussels Binder made the news, represents a pretty concrete outcome for us!