How a Moderator Can Deal with Subliminal Sexism in a Panel

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Yesterday, two seemingly unrelated items about panels hit the national media.

First, investor and tech executive Sarah Kunst got fed up with the fact that darn few women are on tech panels.  She says when you “point out their shitty gender parity to a conference organizer or reporter you get one of the following responses: 1. “I reached out to tons of women, none responded/could do it”. 2.”I don’t know any relevant women.”

Obviously irritated, she decided to do something about it.  She created the Female Investors Opportunities List. “It’s a Google Group comprised of every female startup investor you know of and tons you don’t. They’re smart, they write checks and they are available to speak, be interviewed, mentor, judge and invite to your super private influencer’s dinners. They’re from all over the country, they will travel for the right opps and they provide insight and capital you’re otherwise lacking.”  For more information, check out Sarah’s post on Medium.

In the meantime, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt got called out at SXSW yesterday. During a panel focused on, among other things, the need for tech to be more inclusive of women, a Q&A participant noted that Schmidt had repeatedly interrupted his fellow panelist, U.S. CTO Megan Smith. Turns out that audience member was Judith Williams, who leads the Unconscious Bias programs at Google. Her question: How does Smith feel about the unconscious bias that affects her and other women?

Awkward. Williams just called out her boss for his unconscious bias – which is something Google has been working on.

And I don’t think this bias is unusual.  I have witnessed a few panels where the moderator has shown deferential treatment to the male panelists, moderators and panelists have interrupted female panelists, or just blatantly put them down.

Perhaps this subliminal sexism is yet another reason for Sarah as to why women aren’t on panels – maybe they don’t want to be bothered, put down or marginalized?

So how does a moderator deal with this?

First and foremost, be aware that there can be an unconscious bias at work during your panels.  When you see this behavior, you must intervene.  My preference is to use a series of escalating interventions:

Eye Contact.  Shoot ’em a glance when you are beginning to see signs of inappropriate behavior.

Redirect the Conversation.  Shift the focus from one person to another by redirecting the question.

One Conversation at a Time.  Ask for one conversation at a time when the panelists are talking over each other.

Gently Interrupt.  Yes, indeed.  Interrupt the interrupter – and then ask the panelist to finish her comments.

Queue the Panelists. At the SXSW panel, it was reported that the moderator tried to step in, calling out the order in which the two panelists should answer questions.

Remind Them.  Many moderators will mention some ground rules in the preparation with the panelists or at the beginning of the panel.  A gentle (or firm) reminder of the ground rules might be in order.

Confront.  I don’t see this happen very often, but when the behavior is blatantly offensive, then you need to confront the panelist about the behavior.

What other ideas do you have to deal with this kind of subliminal behavior?

To learn more steps to successfully moderate a panel discussion like a pro, try this user-friendly guide.
Kristin Arnold, professional panel moderator and high stakes meeting facilitator, shares her best practices for interactive, interesting, and engaging panel presentations. For more resources like this, or to have Kristin moderate your next panel visit the Powerful Panels official website.

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Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

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Kristin ArnoldKristin Arnold
KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.
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