Museum of Modern Art chief digital officer Sree Sreenivasan has publicly rejected all-male panel discussions. Also, President Obama knows more about change than does Thomas Frank. (More)

“How do we make this into a mini-movement?”

Sreenivasan announced on Facebook that he would no longer speak at or attend all-male panel discussions:

LEANING IN! My 2016 pledge to my daughter: I won’t speak on any all-male panels (one-on-one chats are occasionally OK). Upgraded now to include not ATTENDING all-male panels. How do we make this into a mini-movement?

It may seem like a trivial protest, but New York Magazine’s Dayna Evans explains why it matters:

Sreenivasan’s self-described one-man “mini-movement” is not the only effort to push for panel organizers to include more women and people of color in their events. In Australia on Monday, a website called “No thanks, mate” launched, featuring seven prominent male tech-industry insiders who pledge to not participate in panels that only include men. (Their inspiration came from a Scandinavian pledge with a similar name.) Adam Fraser, one of the members of the Australian initiative, told Mashable that the only backlash they’ve received has been from anonymous men: “The specific complaint is that women are going to take all our jobs, unqualified women are going to take our jobs.”

The death knell for the all-male panel has been growing louder for some time, yet companies like PayPal and big conferences like Davos still appear to be confused over what a panel should be (like, not an all-male panel on the issue of gender diversity, for starters). When women and people of color (also known as more than half of the world) don’t see anyone who looks like them presenting about issues that affect their careers, they get the message that the industry isn’t for them. As the saying goes, representation matters.

“Where the real change happens”

Evans explains that merely rejecting all-male panels won’t help unless more women and people of color move into leadership positions:

There’s a reason that women’s-only conferences, panels, and meetups feel like such beautiful utopias: They bring together women who made it despite huge obstacles in the male-dominated work world. In America, women hold less than 20 percent of leadership positions across a wide range of industries. And that very limited number of female leaders are asked to represent their companies and their industries wholesale at conferences. If Ava DuVernay were to be put on every directors panel that happens, even just in Hollywood, she wouldn’t have time to actually direct movies.

Organizers try to schedule well-known leaders for panels, to boost attendance and draw media attention. So long as white men dominate leadership positions, they will dominate the panels that put faces on points of view. Thus, Evans says, leaders like Sreenivasan need to do more than boycott all-male panels:

This push toward a gender-inclusive work world is not just about tensely encouraging women to lean in: It’s the responsibility of the men in powerful positions to pull them up. Are there not enough women to fill a panel because there aren’t women occupying those leadership roles? If the answer is yes, men had better start considering women to foster, mentor, and promote within that industry. Pledging to sit out events is a start, but giving women greater opportunities in the work world is where the real change happens. Once men begin doing that en masse, pledges like Sreenivasan’s will become completely obsolete.

I agree that structural and cultural challenges require structural and cultural solutions …

“That’s how we cheat ourselves of progress”

… and that’s why I was thrilled to read Nancy LeTourneau’s analysis of President Obama’s commencement address at Morehouse College. The president offered four prerequisites for his audience to meet the challenges faced by black Americans:

First of all – and this should not be a problem for this group – be confident in your heritage. Be confident in your blackness. One of the great changes that’s occurred in our country since I was your age is the realization there’s no one way to be black. Take it from somebody who’s seen both sides of debate about whether I’m black enough…. There’s no straitjacket, there’s no constraints, there’s no litmus test for authenticity.
Second, even as we each embrace our own beautiful, unique, and valid versions of our blackness, remember the tie that does bind us as African Americans – and that is our particular awareness of injustice and unfairness and struggle. That means we cannot sleepwalk through life. We cannot be ignorant of history. We can’t meet the world with a sense of entitlement.
Number three: You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. I’ll repeat that. I want you to have passion, but you have to have a strategy. Not just awareness, but action. Not just hashtags, but votes.
And finally, change requires more than just speaking out – it requires listening, as well. In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise….

The point is, you need allies in a democracy. That’s just the way it is. It can be frustrating and it can be slow. But history teaches us that the alternative to democracy is always worse….

And democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right. This is hard to explain sometimes. You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want. And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged. And that will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair. And that’s never been the source of our progress. That’s how we cheat ourselves of progress.

I don’t know whether LeTourneau or her editors chose the title “President Obama’s (Black) Theory of Change,” but that parenthetical matters. It helps to explain why in New York Hillary Clinton won women and people of color while Bernie Sanders’ base was white men. The difference is less about what changes those groups want than about how they believe change happens …

“Believing in the righteousness of the cause”

… and Thomas Frank’s latest screed highlights that distinction, as LeTourneau’s colleague John Stoehr explains:

In Listen, Liberal, Frank describes President-elect Barack Obama, as the financial crisis is beginning to unfold, as a “living, breathing evidence that our sclerotic system could still function, that we could rise to the challenge, that could change course. It was the perfect opportunity for transformation.” Yet, Frank says, that transformation didn’t happen.

So Obama and the Democrats failed.

But what could they have been done differently? While he excels at calling the Democrats to account, Frank falls short in offering policy recommendations, even rough sketches of policy. There are none.

Populists don’t take such questions seriously, because such questions assume that knowledge, method, and procedure are more important than believing in the righteousness of the cause. Frank is no exception.

It’s much easier to declare that the system is “rigged” than to acknowledge and plan for the structural challenges in our constitutional system.

“The trouble is that America is not most countries”

Vox’s Dylan Matthews explains the flaw in the Sanders/Frank rhetoric:

The trouble is that America is not most countries. For one thing, it’s never really had a “working class” per se. It’s had a white working class, and it’s had a black underclass, and the former’s racism prevented the two from ever really joining forces in a durable way. Sanders has written that he thinks white supremacy is a tool of capital meant to effect exactly this kind of division, but that implies there was a united working class at any point capable of being divided. The two have always been apart, and the mass migration of working class whites away from the Democratic party since the Civil Rights Act passed suggests they’re not uniting anytime soon.

The second difference is that America is not a parliamentary democracy. As soon as Clement Attlee and the Labour Party won the UK general election in 1945, they controlled all the levers of power immediately, and could pass most if not all of their agenda. They passed universal retirement pensions, created the National Health Service, nationalized a fifth of the economy, and implemented a Keynesian economic policy that led to unemployment rarely exceeding 2 percent. The only thing limiting Attlee’s ability to effect full socialism was the views of other parliamentary Labour Party members – and even there he could count on considerable party discipline.

By contrast, when Obama entered office in 2009 with the biggest progressive majority in over three decades, he still couldn’t pass his agenda because of Senate rules necessitating a 60 vote majority. He needed to compromise with Republicans to pass the stimulus, and even during the brief, six-month period during which he had 60 Democrats, his agenda was subject to veto by conservative Democrats like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman, due to Congress’s inferior party loyalty relative to other nations’ legislatures.

Sanders insists his victory would be an irresistible mandate. But when it comes to legislation, what matters is not vote counts in the last general election but vote counts in the House and Senate.

As we saw in reviewing George Edwards’ The Strategic President: Persuasion and Opportunity in Presidential Leadership – despite the oft-repeated myths of “great communicators” and “great negotiators” – historical data show that in our constitutional system there is simply no substitute for big majorities in Congress.

Similarly, while Sreenivasan’s rejection of all-male panels is laudable, ultimately it is no substitute for a broader pool of well-known women in leadership. Structural and cultural challenges require structural and cultural solutions. Pretending otherwise is a recipe for disappointment.


Photo Credit: Deidre Schoo (


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