Brussels, where are all the women experts?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Women still face a number of issues in terms of being treated equally. Fair treatment when it comes to expert panels and representation is one of them. [Ms Jane Campbell/ Shutterstock]

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, women are still noticeably lacking from expert panels. One project, The Brussels Binder, seeks to level the playing field, writes Virginia Marantidou.

Virginia Marantidou is involved with The Brussels Binder project and is also a programme coordinator at the German Marshall Fund.

Women around the world smirked in disbelief when during the second U.S. presidential debate of 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney responded to a question about pay equality by referring to the difficulties of finding women for his cabinet as governor of Massachusetts.

It was in the same debate that he coined the notorious phrase “binders full of women”, which allegedly were brought to him by women’s organisations.

Five years later and only a week before International Women’s Day, Commissioner Günther Oettinger, in charge of the European Commission’s human resources department, receives fierce criticism from equality campaigners and staff members on a similar issue.

Three men and only one female speaker would feature on the European Commission’s annual International Women’s Day event on the topic of “Women@Work- The Myth of Male and Female Professions”.

The Commission defended itself by saying that all the efforts to get more female speakers were unsuccessful. The original speaker invitations had gone to three women but the two women from the European Commission declined and were replaced by men instead.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. According to EUPanelWatch, a Brussels-based volunteer-run campaign, which collects and publishes data on female representation in EU debates, in 125 events in 2015, across 263 panels with 1,261 speakers only 318 were women, 25% of the total.

In 2016, out of 1,500 speakers in 299 debates, 506 were women. Although this is an increase from the previous year, still in two-thirds of debates in Brussels the majority of speakers are men, while strikingly one third of these debates did not feature a single female voice.

Although Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” comment and the Commission’s blunder seemingly touch on two different aspects of gender equality, one that refers to the issue of women’s access to senior positions and one that refers to underrepresentation of female voices in policy debates, they fall under two common false premises: That it is too difficult to find female experts, or that there are just not enough women experts on certain policy fields.

To address this issue a group of female think tankers has initiated a new project called The Brussels Binder. The scheme is currently in its crowd funding stage and will be a user-friendly, publicly accessible database with searchable fields, which will allow women experts to upload their professional profiles, including areas of expertise, years of experience and publications.

In this way, The Brussels Binder will constitute a valuable resource for conference organisers to feature female voices in discussions and offer journalists access to female commentators and analysts.

Although initially a Brussels-oriented initiative, it aspires to extend its reach beyond Brussels in the future and link up with other existing databases in across Europe to widen the reach and amplify the voices of women.

The initiators of the project believe that there are enough smart, respected female voices in Brussels, people are just not looking for them hard enough. The Brussels Binder will make it easier to find them and give them prominence.

Addressing the lack of diversity in policy discussions is not a matter of political correctness but one of real impact on policy outcomes. As Corinna Hörst, deputy director at The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels, president of Women in International Security (WIIS) Brussels, and member of the group of women from Brussels think tanks states: “Diversity improves the quality of conversations making them more reflective of the societies they are trying to serve.”

The policy community in Brussels has been particularly receptive of the project. The majority of the most prominent think tanks have endorsed it, media channels have been featuring it, and individual policy makers are supporting it.

The project brings also to the surface other aspects of gender awareness and equality such as the use of modern technological tools to address relevant issues, which have caught the attention of companies such as Google, which is hosting The Brussels Binder’s fundraising event on March 20.

Once the database is up and running the all-time classic excuse “We couldn’t find any women experts to invite” that perpetuates female underrepresentation in policy discussions will finally, and hopefully, come to an end.

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