Bird Fair 2018 – more thoughts on gender balance.

Authors’ forum: I hear from Duncan MacDonald of Wildsounds (the ‘official’ Bird Fair booksellers), some interesting news on the Authors’ Forum speakers for this year and next year.  Duncan has to be thanked for putting a lot of effort in to attempting to redress the gender imbalance in the Authors’ Forum with some success this year. Some of the female speakers suggested by the over 150 of you who have responded to this questionnaire (60% male, 40% female) will be pleased to know that some of your favourite female authors were asked this year but were unable to make the date but that Isabella Tree (her book Wilding was reviewed here), having rearranged her holiday plans for 2019 already (!), will be speaking at Bird Fair next year. That’s great news.

Travel talks:  why is Tim Melling like a swift or a harrier?  Because he ought to be quite pallid given the number of talks he gives in dark and sweaty Bird Fair tents over the Bird Fair weekend. I think Tim gave a dozen talks this year on birding locations around the world. So why Tim and not a bunch of women?  I imagine its because most (I’m guessing, but I’m pretty sure I’m right) of the travel guides on wildlife holidays are men – does anyone have the data to disprove this? And the travel talks are largely sponsored by travel firms who presumably put up their best available speakers to promote the locations they visit and part of that is intimate knowledge of the places from having visited them in the past.  So this is like that fact that many male celebrities who appear in the Events Marquee at Bird Fair are celebrities because they have been on the TV for years.  This will change, and it would be good if it did fairly quickly, but it won’t be very much under the Bird Fair’s control.

Handshakes and chats:  one of the nice things about the Bird Fair is the fact that I have a lot of short conversations with people who read this blog – but whom I’ve never met before. When I meet a man, they usually stride up to me with their hand outstretched for a handshake, they say something like ‘I just want to shake your hand for what you do’ and I say something self-deprecating and we, in a very manly way, move on.  I move on with a bit of a smile on my face and a song in my heart. It tends to be different with women, in those cases they tell me that they read my blog every day and enjoy it (which sends me off with a smile on my face and a song in my heart too). But I always ask them whether they have ever commented on the blog and the answers are usually along the lines of ‘No, I’m not sure I am expert like many of the people who comment’.  I’d just like to point out that I cannot recall a single instance when a man has said this to me.  This is  quite like the way that men and women look at job adverts.  Without wanting in any way to put off the regular commenters on this blog (many of whom are blokes – at least they say they are) I would really like more comments from a wider variety of perspectives.

Which personalities do people want to hear and see at Bird Fair?: although I’ve had a bit of flak from the provocative way I raised this issue I’m interested in which female celebrities you would like to see performing in the Events Marquee in future. But unless there is a way of summoning up a fourth Bird Fair day or having talks through the night, then more women almost inevitably means fewer men. So those who want to have more women and all the same men aren’t really living in the real world. And, although many, including me remember, are asking for a rebalancing of the gender gap of speakers at the Bird Fair, as far as I am aware, the 150 respondents to my questionnaire is already the largest survey of what men and women want in this respect.  I had a quick look at the results a while ago and they are interesting; I’d be surprised if they change a lot even if the sample size doubles (because I’ve done a few surveys online before) but go ahead, surprise me!  Click here to tell me which female celebrity speakers you’d like to hear and which males could make way for them, and I’ll give you a summary of the results (without hurting any blokes’ feelings) and pass the results on to the Bird Fair organisers.

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27 Replies to “Bird Fair 2018 – more thoughts on gender balance.”

  1. I was appalled by the piece you wrote about women choosing speakers .I feel that you have used the power you have as a respected male conservationist to patronise women. I wonder how you ensure that your surveys are gender unbiased? I am very nervous about daring to criticise such a well known celebrity but wanted to let you know that I would gladly drop anyof the male speakers for a variety of gender and colour and experience. You wonder why women are not forthcoming and you may be interested to know that I have personal experience of being told not to question you .
    Again I will say that I admire your conservation work but please be aware of the personal power that you hold as a white male expert.

    1. Shelagh - thank you for your first comment here. If you fill in the questionnaire then you will see how it works, if you don't, then you'll be removing a potential female voice. Your choice.

      I can't do much about being a white middle-aged male - I'm rather stuck with that. As for power, I don't have any. I write things and people can take them or leave them.

  2. I'm much happier with this post. Personally I'm only interested in the content, and not at all in celebrity but am certain that people of sexes other than men could be heard more to all our benefit. Sorry for the flak in your earlier post as you are one of my heroes.

    1. Alex - not a problem. I feel that some of the flak is a bit unwarranted, but then I am used to people reading something other than I write (and acknowledge that what I wrote was rather clumsy). But this has kicked off a debate that is useful, I believe.

      1. Hi Mark. I don't think any of the flak that you have received is unwarranted. I think it is completely justified and I am not surprised you have received criticism. You could have framed the debate in a more considerate way and did not need to make the comments and jokes that you did. Plenty of other people have been successfully debating this issue for many years now without needing to resort to framing it in the manner that you did. I am glad you have admitted that your words were clumsy and that you have reflected on it.

        1. Simon - well I certainly do think that some of the flak is unwarranted, but not all. It's always best if one admits one's mistakes but it's never really sensible to admit the mistakes one hasn't made. Have you filled in the questionnaire? I think it might help put some of the debate on a sounder footing.

          1. Hi Mark. I think we'll have to agree to disagree. I think the main thing to focus on is that it is good that people are discussing this issue. It was rightly raised last year and Birdfair was put under pressure to include more female speakers, which I think did happen this year, albeit still not enough. The ratios for things were still hugely skewed towards men. I was not going to fill in the questionnaire as I am not sure I like the idea of having to pick which men I would like to see less of, however I respect you wanting me to do it and I will therefore fill it in.

          2. Simon - thanks. And yes, I was one of those who raised these issues last year both here and in conversation.

  3. Just been catching up on your blog from the last few days Mark and my first reaction is to put my head in my hands. How on earth do you manage to make this issue one about men who need removing from slots and not about the women who should be speaking at these events? Your framing of the issue is appalling. I'm not surprised you got lots of flak.

    1. Gordon - because if you want more women, and there is no more time, then you need fewer men.

      Thank you for your first comment on this blog.

  4. Your first piece was indeed clumsy, and that’s putting politely. However a debate about this is good and action long overdue. More women are attending the Birdfair, myself included, but to say we’re there to see our favourite “eye candy” is just a little bit insulting. Even if some are, it’s wrong to assume every woman is the same and I hope you and your readers do not think this way. In your Q&A session with David Lindo at the Birdfair on Sunday you talked of how new experiences are daunting. Visiting a nature reserve (or a sauna for you) can be intimidating and assuming women are at the Birdfair merely to leer over male “celeberities” is damaging and could stop some women from attending the event in the future.

    In order to encourage more women we need to make them feel welcome and valued, and reinforcing archaic stereotypes is unhelpful. The master of ceremonies in the Events Marquee on Friday made me angry with a remark he made in between Mark Carwadine’s lecture and Jonathan Scott’s lecture. He did his normal, “Is this your first Birdfair” routine and then asked the crowd if they were enjoying themselves. My side of the crowd wasn’t as loud as the other side and he remarked upon how it must be only women on my side and the other eide must be all men. Is this honestly what he thinks?! I was shocked! Women are quiet and men are loud?! I think this again reinforces a stereotype about women which completely undermines confidence. Something that was commented on in the Question Time event on Friday evening. Ruth Peacey rightly said, “support women, encourage them”, so don’t undermine their confidence with apparently off the cuff sexist remarks.

    I spoke to Chris Packham about the gender imbalance at the Birdfair and he was rather angry. I said thank you for giving up you seat to Ruth Peacey and he replied with how fed up he is about the lack of women, and the lack of diversity, at the Birdfair. Chris gives a voice to women, and I think more should follow his example. I can think of two slots that could have been filled by women. Simon King spoke on all three days in the Events Marquee with the same lecture, surely once is enough? The other two slots for female speakers? Another Marquee perhaps? There is surely a solution to this.

    1. Elsbeth - thank you for your first comment here.

      I hope you have filled in thwe questionnaire and thank you for making some suggestions along the lines that I was seeking.

    1. David C - thank you for your first comment here. Yes, that would work. Which of the male speakers should talk less? Please fill in the questionnaire.

        1. Natalie - yes, which ones? Please suggest in the questionnaire. And who would you like to hear in their place?

  5. Hi Mark
    Thanks I will. I meant all the talks. They don’t align time wise with with the lecture marquees which can be unhelpful plus shorter talks in the events marquee would allow for more talks and a broader range of speakers.

  6. Okay, I'm going to be brave and leave a comment!

    I wrote a whole blog because I had a lot of ideas.

  7. I'm a middle aged woman who manages to spend all three days at the Birdfair each year without the aid of prosecco (although I wouldn't say no). I love the events, the author forum, the art marquee ...
    Yes, I have heroes. Yes, I get a bit starstruck and slightly breathless if I get to speak to Chris Packham, Simon King, Iolo ... I also listen to every word they speak and think they are eloquent, erudite, passionate advocates for a natural world which needs all the help it can get. Chris and Simon literally work from dawn to dusk and beyond over the weekend and have a kind and patient word for everyone. Chris actively encourages women and children to get involved.
    When I was in my teens it felt geeky beyond belief to be a birdwatcher. I would hide my bins under my arm if I bumped into anyone else. People like Chris and Michaela, Simon and Nick Baker have helped make it cool!
    Yes, we now need some youth and a better balance of gender out there. Although isn't it great that the Bitdlife International chief executive officer is Patricia Zurita. She doesn't look like a bag of spanners either, if we're talking eye candy. The women at the top are all as attractive as the men, we are all hard wired to respond favourably to it.
    However, we do not need to cut down our mighty oaks to encourage new shoots to spring up. We all know how many creatures a mighty oak supports. Let's thin out the middle layer, as you suggest, reduce the tour guide hours in the lecture marquees for starters.
    And talking of mighty oaks, when is Tim Appleton going to get a knighthood? Winning a sporting event seems to automatically qualify for one but nature still needs a higher profile. Winning Wimbledon won't save the world.

    1. Janice - thanks.

      I think the tour firms’ sponsorship of events is quite important in keeping costs down. But I don’t know the details.

  8. I know one woman from a travel company who spoke well and successfully at last year's fair who simply wasn't asked this year, whereas rival (sponsor) companies had multiple male speakers. That is much more in the fair organisers' control than you suggest. Sponsors need to get something out of the deal, but shouldn't expect cart blanche over programme content.

    As for the general debate, I agree that the fair would be improved by reflecting society's diversity much better, and I think that those of us in privilege (white, male, middle-aged, I have the lot) need to voice those concerns more widely. Use that privilege for better effect because if we are really concerned about bird conservation rather than just a minority hobby, then we need to galvanise support from the whole population.


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