Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Where are women’s voices on the Middle East in Australia?

Mar 29, 2021 | Research, Feature

Why do men still do so much of the talking, for women? Although the terminology is relatively recent,  ‘mansplaining’ was first identified way back in Homer’s Odyssey, some 3000 years ago, as that brilliant historian Prof Mary Beard reminds us in “Women and Power: a manifesto”.

Similarly, when the serious business of a talkfest or conference panel features an all-male line-up, the derogatory term ‘manal’ has only recently been adopted. But has calling out the blatant sexism and systemic misogyny in all male panels actually changed anything?

Academics from the Middle East Studies Forum, at Deakin University, set out to find out? With a focus on the voices, or indeed the absence of women’s voices, they examined years of data from over 180 Australian public events about the Middle East, to ascertain how well women are being heard and included. The results… are not good!

In 2015, Tamara Cofman Wittes and Marc Lynch showed that 65 percent of events about the Middle East held by six leading Washington DC think tanks did not contain a single female speaker. Around the same time, Foreign Policy Interrupted noted the underrepresentation of women in wider policy discussions on foreign affairs.

Since then, significant efforts have been made to redress the situation. Thousands signed a ‘pledge’ to refuse to speak on all-male panels—derisively known as ‘manels’—while outlets such as the BBC announced the 50:50 The Equality Project to improve female representation on its programs. From the other side, women’s professional networks such as Women Know MENA and Women Also Know Stuff emerged to connect expert women with journalists and event organizers.

But have these initiatives translated into meaningful change for women’s representation? To check, we returned to Cofman Wittes and Lynch’s work to understand whether the patterns identified just over five years ago hold for policy debates in Australia. We collected data on 181 public events about the Middle East hosted by major Australian think tanks and university centres over the last five years. The good news is that gains have been made in terms of overall female representation in public debates, but a closer look at the data shows that many problems remain.

Manels are a dying breed but structural issues remain

When taking into account the overall number of events – panels and single-speaker – the picture is not entirely terrible: women made up 36 percent of speakers. Manels have become increasingly rare, accounting for just 19 percent of multi-member panels.

Women continue to be vastly underrepresented in single-speaker events about the Middle East

However, when the results are disaggregated by event-type, a very different story emerges. Women continue to be vastly underrepresented in single-speaker events about the Middle East, accounting for only 27 percent of speakers. This problem is even more pronounced for women from the MENA and its diaspora, who make up only 13 percent of keynote speakers, while their male counterparts accounted for 39 percent.

Single speaker engagements are important markers of progress because they are often flagship events that are held to showcase influential views and voices to high level, powerful audiences. Their very scheduling implies that the speaker is an authority on a specific topic, and has important views to share.

The under-representation of women at these events and in public debates more broadly is underpinned by the myriad ways women are unrecognised and pigeon-holed by virtue of their gender.

The under-representation of women at these events and in public debates more broadly is underpinned by the myriad ways women are unrecognised and pigeon-holed by virtue of their gender. This is supported by other research, such as Jenna Price’s 2019 report that found women experts made up only 34 percent of direct quotes in articles across 15 Australian news websites, and also includes the cliques that influence speaker invitations, the underrepresentation of women in senior positions, and perceptions surrounding the supposed lack of women’s expertise on “hard” issues such as security or international relations. Although further investigation is required, the difference likely also relates to the significant public ridicule that all-male and all-white public panels now attract, while solo-speaker events have not been open to similar criticism.

Rates varied significantly by institution – the most active event organizer, the Australian Institute of International Affairs, which has close affiliations to the country’s retired diplomatic class, performed worst. Women spoke at only 18 percent of single-speaker events, and only 6 percent of total speakers were women from MENA.

The Lowy Institute, one of Australia’s most influential think tanks, performed only marginally better, with female experts speaking at only 29 percent of single-person events. Female speakers from MENA and its diaspora spoke at just 14 percent of events. The Australian National University’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies performed similarly, although hosted many more single-speaker events.

The Wheeler Centre and Deakin University’s Middle East Studies Forum performed somewhat better, hosting women speakers at more than 40 percent of single-person events, with women from the region speaking at 22 percent of each institute’s events. It is worth noting that male speakers from MENA and its diaspora were substantially better represented at both institutions, with 56 percent and 41 percent respectively.

Feminism’s next wave

In the introduction to her ground-breaking collection of stories by women journalists from the MENA, Zahra Hankir says that the accounts offer, ’a unique and necessary alternative to predominantly male voices’. Broadening the diversity of voices that influence public policy and debates about the Middle East is vital so that we are not being restricted to a ‘a very sterile conversation’ among a ‘narrow little group of people’.

Despite gaining ground on panel make-up, event organisers in Australia and elsewhere must look at their seminar programs longitudinally to make sure that their year-long programs represent the rich diversity of the Middle East expert community.

Speakers need to inquire about the make-up of the broader seminar program in which they are participating. The Pledge must go beyond ‘manels’ to also consider gender and cultural diversity across programming. This may involve awkward conversations with organisers, but they are nonetheless conversations that must be had if we want to move beyond lip-service to removing structural discrimination.

Finally, the public should also draw attention to diversity in single-person events. The calling out of manels and all-white panels has rightly made such events unwise for credible organizations. This level of scrutiny and stigma must be replicated for single-speaker events in order to enhance policymaking and public arena discourses on the Middle East in Australia.


Hadeel Abdelhameed (@HadeelAbdlhamed) is a casual research fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation; Dara Conduit (@daraconduit) is a research fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University; Marika Sosnowski (@MikiSosnowski) is an Australian qualified lawyer and Research Fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies.

Disclaimer: The authors are members of the Middle East Studies Forum. They received funding from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs’ Council for Australian Arab relations “Women in Leadership” to hold workshops related to this research.


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