Guest blog: BirdFair for all by Amy-Jane Beer

Amy-Jane Beer. Photo: Lyndon Smith

Dr Amy-Jane Beer is a biologist and nature writer, based in North Yorkshire.

My summers follow a familiar structure. The rampant joy of May, the hot and heady days of June, the awful realization in July that cuckoos and swifts are already looking south and that it can’t last. But in August, a holiday allows me to fool myself for a few weeks that it’s still summer, and even when that ends, there’s always those giddy three days on the shores of Rutland Water: BirdFair with its unique blend of inspiration, information, entertainment and conversation.

I’ve come to know those avenues of stands well over the years, and the snickets and backwaters between marquees – perfect places for a rendez-vouz, for taking a quiet breather or just using as alternative routes avoiding the temptation of the art marquee when you’ve blown your budget on books. How strange though, that for more than ten months of the year, the bustling tentscape of BirdFair exists only in the mind. My folks live very locally so I’m also familiar with Egleton in other seasons. It’s hard to resolve lie of the land without all the white canvas. From October to June, when the action is all on the lagoons or the lake, or in the thickets and reedbeds, it’s all but impossible to imagine yourself and thousands of others sitting for hours among the sheep droppings, largely oblivious to the fact that you’re in a nature reserve. The transformation that takes place every August has been honed over so many years that to the outsider it seems to happen all by itself. Of course it doesn’t. Creating that ecosystem of tents, stands, latrines and catering vans, and populating it with the same familiar community every year is an extraordinary annual feat of planning, logistics and goodwill – a true labour of love for 30 years.

But (you knew there was a but coming, right?) the thing about a well-oiled machine is that the components go on working a long time and there’s not much call for new ones, unless you start tinkering, building, or modifying. If you don’t, things might go on chugging away indefinitely, but eventually even a classic  model and its beautifully maintained components start to look, well, somewhat antique.

BirdFair 2018 was the one when a lot more people noticed that the number of women on stage (and in particular in the Events marquee) and on the cringeworthy ‘Personalities’ section of the website did not come close to matching the number in the audience – or indeed in the wider wildlife and conservation sector. A few people, me included, pointed this out some months ago, after which another woman’s name appeared on the Question Time panel and a request was sent out from BirdFair HQ asking for women to offer their services. I heard from more than one source that it’s very difficult to find women to perform. Hmm. Ask the regulars. They all know women who could do at least some of what they do, as well as some things they can’t do.  And ask the audiences themselves – many of whom have already been making suggestions on social media – lists of talent that would be enough to fill the schedule several times over.

It wasn’t that 2018 was a particularly bad year. The imbalance has been called out before. But we’re a lot less willing to accept it now, especially when there are so many women working and engaging with nature in other ways – their scarcity in the upper echelons is becoming a serious embarrassment. At a time when our wildlife needs every man woman and child to recognize and value it, it’s potentially disastrous for the largest event of its kind in the national calendar to fail so dismally in its equality and diversity ratings.

Amy-Jane’s article from the Bird Fair programme.

Mark has his own thoughts on the gender issue and has blogged about it in typically provocative style, asking which of the ever-popular male presenters BirdFair should drop. I’d say none. But many men appear every year and make multiple appearances. The regulars are great at what they do – I love hearing them as much as the next person. But there’s not a single one whose absence for a day, or even a year would kill the event. The repetition isn’t necessary. Plus there are formats that could allow others (including a lot more women) to debut and build a following. In-conversation events, panel events, double-handers featuring seasoned performers and newcomers have been tried and tested and work brilliantly well, still drawing big crowds. Some of the new faces should be male. Next year though, most should be women. There’s an impressively large pool to draw from.

Mark also asked whether women would be crowd-pullers, and made that comment about eye-candy. I flinched when I read it, partly because it sounded, well, crass, but also because over the weekend, I heard those comments too. Humans of both sexes are visual animals. Of course we pay attention when a person we consider attractive is says things we want to hear. But it also works the other way. How long does it take to lose interest in a crush when you discover that you have nothing in common, that their opinions stink, or that they are in fact deadly dull? Less than the 45 minutes of an event marquee lecture, for sure. While it can take considerably less than 45 minutes for someone whose looks didn’t initially excite to become an absolute hero. I have no doubt that at an event like BirdFair, substance will win over style every time. Of course women speakers will be crowd-pullers, because they have things to say that audiences want to hear. There is the possibility that the crowds they pull might be different. But different is representative. Different is good. In fact, different is bloody essential.

Mid-August is school holidays and many potential speakers (of all genders) have families to put first. You won’t get the same ones every year. But we don’t need to have them every year. Some might just not want to come. Fair enough, but it would be useful to ask why – do we have an image problem? The self-knowledge might be illuminating. They come might another time. Don’t write them off forever. I’d also urge the organizers to look into other pools. The event has already begun to feature lots of non-bird talks – and they appear to be popular. Writers, presenters, photographers campaigners and conservationists are now well represented alongside hardcore birders and tour guides. But there’s room for more… how about some more scientists? Some nature-inspired poets, some musicians? What about other perspectives? I’ve already written about the need to recognize people who engage with nature in different ways for the programme (see pic), but in addition, I’d love to see more farmers and more policy makers in the line ups, and I like to think we could respectfully entertain contributions from thoughtful estate managers and gamekeepers. There was one this year, you know  – a panelist in the Next Generation Conservation debate organised by A Focus On Nature and held in the new WildZone (itself an excellent development). Megan Rowland is not only a deer stalker, but young, and a woman. Bravo, I hope she’ll be back.

I’m not saying it will happen overnight. But diverse presenters of BirdFair’s future are already there, if you look. Half of them are female. Some (not enough yet) are not white. Many of them are young, some startlingly so, and full of energy and drive which in some cases means they will make mistakes – perhaps horribly public ones. But we have to give them space to earn their spurs, and fast, because there are bigger battles ahead, and we need them. Meanwhile, a new Facebook group Female voices in conservation and nature has been set up – and the discussions there promise to be productive and passionate.

I have a good feeling about BirdFair 2019, and it can’t come soon enough for me.

Mark writes:  over 250 of you have responded to this questionnaire which asks about which men could give way to make room for more women speakers at the main events at Bird Fair, and for your suggestions on which women you would like to see,  I’ll publish the results, or at least a non-wounding summary of them, on this blog next week and I’ll be passing them on to the Bird Fair organisers.  Do you think that men and women will differ in their responses?


19 Replies to “Guest blog: BirdFair for all by Amy-Jane Beer”

  1. A wonderful article Amy which nicely compliments and follows on from your similarly insightful piece in the Birdfair magazine. I agree with everything that you say and I think you tackle this issue with a good degree of balance and sensitivity. You display a calmness and wisdom in delving into this issue and present some sensible solutions for Birdfair to consider moving forward with.

  2. I agree with everything Amy says, and she says it so well, I hope that the people who need to, are listening.

  3. Thanks Simon. The solutions will come. The standing room only audiences for several talks at BF in smaller marquees will also have been noted.

  4. A nice thoughtful piece on the issue. You are of course right that it is not necessary to have exactly the same roster of speakers every year and consequently the question ‘which male ‘star’ would you drop’ rather loses its sting; no-one is booted into touch forever by a policy that mixes up the line-up from one year to the next and which seeks to accommodate a true diversity of voices.

    I also agree that a diversity of views is desirable. Your ‘thoughtful estate managers and gamekeepers’ and representatives of the farming industry could no doubt contribute to lively, interesting and potentially informative debates. Of course such speakers should be sensitively and carefully chosen and it does not mean the more intransigent, disingenuous, shouty, ‘fingers in their ears – I can’t hear you’ trolls of the YFTB type should be invited along but we cannot be harmed by occasionally hearing views that challenge our own. We may not agree with a farmer’s views on how agriculture should be subsidised or what environmental protection policies on farmland should be but it is probably helpful and certainly not harmful to be able to see things from his or her perspective as well as from our own.

    1. I am just enjoying a little daydream about YFTB appearing at BirdFair. But it involves stocks, rotten veg and custard pies. Probably not helpful. But there are people on ‘the other side’ who I think can contribute sensibly, even if I don’t agree with their position.

  5. A well written article, thank you Amy-Jane. I won’t say I agree with it all, I’d rather not have ‘personalities’ from the hunting, shooting brigade taking up space that otherwise could be given to one of a number of real conservation causes. LACS were missed this year and I doubt wild horses could drag Thérèse Coffey through the gates unless her attendance was sponsored by Monsanto.

    I’ve completed the questionnaire and made my suggestions for female speakers and I’m sure most of the names would’ve been suggested by others, it’s quite a small pool whatever we like to think. I belong to a local bird club and there are very few women speakers doing the circuit. If you know of any please let me know.

    Personally, I like to attend talks on subjects I’m interested in, not whether the speaker is male or female. Birdfair is practically run by women (sorry Tim & Martin, I know you both play a valuable part) and the reserve where I volunteer has female senior and assistant wardens – so what? it’s never something I lie awake at night and think about, it’s not even an issue, why should it be?

    On a lighter note – Is it Birdfair, Bird Fair or BirdFair? Sorry to be flippant but it’s driving me nuts.

    1. An image of Thérèse Coffey dragging a team of wild horses around a field will linger in the memory all day

    2. Dave J – the proposed pool is not so small, but maybe not everyone will agree with eaqch drop of water in it. It will be quite a task for me to summarise the suggestions in a clear way but I’m thinking about it now.

      Is it Bird Fair, Birdfair or BirdFair? On the programme it says Birdfair – so I guess it’s partly my fault that you are going nuts because I’ve always called it Bird Fair. I don’t remeber it being the Birdwatchingfair before it became the Birdfair, so because it was the Birdwatching Fair i tend to call it the Bird Fair – but maybe I should do a global edit of my blog. Would that help?

      1. Mark, thanks for the reply. Maybe the pool isn’t as small as I’d imagined, just difficult to find compared to the ocean of male speakers.

        No need to edit your blog to correct Bird Fair, it’s just that my small brain receives a tiny electric shock when I encounter typos, extraneous apostrophes etc. that I struggle to get beyond. Some kind of latent mental issue for being punished at school or some such ingrained memory from my past. Or maybe I’m just pedantic.

        Keep up the good krow. 😉

  6. Great piece Amy, and thank you Mark for giving it such an appropriate platform.

    I’m not sure it is helpful to think about which male speakers to drop. Speakers change naturally from year to year so that we have new perspectives. Therefore people haven’t been dropped because they aren’t asked back. And we have to recognise that the Birdfair doesn’t choose the best speakers – it chooses a group of excellent speakers. There will be plenty who are just as good who don’t get invited simply because there isn’t time. For some reason, if you ask for a speaker people almost always suggest a man (in my experience men and women are equally guilty of this). Women who are well qualified don’t get invited, so sometimes we need to work a bit harder to get a diversity of speakers who are top quality. It’s easy to do if you are looking for white men, it takes more work if you are thinking of diversity. This isn’t a competition, and the quality of the talks needn’t suffer.

    1. Yes women are guilty of it Rebecca. Me included, though I am trying a lot harder to check myself. That’s because the status quo is easy. Change requires effort. Positive discrimination is deeply divisive and I understand men who feel threatened by it, because hey, being discriminated against is horrible, isn’t it? So gently does it, mix and match, let’s bring everyone with us.

    2. Rebecca – thanks for your first comment here.

      And although Amy-Jane used the word ‘drop’ I think I’ve usually used the phrases ‘see less of’ and ‘move over’ and ‘make way for…’ and ‘miss the least’ – but dropping them is an option too. The identities of the celebrity speakers at the Bird Fair do change, but not very quickly.

      But unless there is more time conjured up from somewhere, more women performing in the Events tent almost certainly means fewer men. And there are some clear preferences emerging from the questionnaire responses – I won’t reveal them in a hurtful way but I will pass them on to the Bird Fair organisers. Here is the link to the questionnaire

  7. It might be worth asking Jim Al-Khalili how his research team finds the contributors to ‘The Life Scientific’ as the male/female mix is very good. Some of the ‘lives’ would make good Birdfair contributors, too.

  8. Thank you Amy for writing this important reflection on Birdfair and thank you Mark for giving it a platform where many of those who need to read it will read it. As part of A Focus on Nature I’ve been part of the team trying to increase the youth presence at Rutland Water in recent years (and we’re getting there, slowly). I completely agree that there is a lot of ground to make up regarding other types of diversity. By increasing diversity you increase the variety of voices and perspectives, broadening the debates and giving audiences the respect of seeing people more akin to their own on stage (at least when it comes to gender). In the short term all women panels might be the way forward (I’d be interested in your views on this Amy) but generally it should be about constructing panels that reflect or indeed create a new vision of diversity of voices. Over time this will then be the norm. If this means dropping regulars, so be it. We can cope with change.

  9. Hi Ben. All women panels – well, it depends. Ideally no – they suffer the same problem as all male ones in not being representative. So if the panel was a stand-alone event then definitely no, unless the subject was an exclusively female one. In an event like Birdfair, single gender panels shouldnt be necessary, but the odd unbalanced session wouldn’t hurt, as long as the overall ratio across the piece was 1:1. Of course there will be occasional slips, but if they are in the context of an otherwise equally event, then I can’t see alt reasonable objection to that.

  10. I don’t/won’t go to shows and fairs voluntarily any more – too much hassle, traffic congestion, expense and down-time recovering from the food poisoning – so I can comment from a neutral viewpoint.

    The ability to speak knowlegably, confidently and entertainingly in public is not necessarily acquired during the formation of an expert. Some have it, some don’t. If someone has been raised to the status of Cleb in their field, they must have got there for some reason so someone knew to ask them. Trouble is there is an expert in every topic in every bar, it’s a universal Law of Nature, but you just don’t know who it might be. So you end up with Clebs, who have some kind of track record.

    So – if you had the choice of voluntarily attending a topic-based event where the speakers were chosen according to a strict demographic template or one where the speakers were chosen according to their potential to deliver insightful and interesting talks – for which one would you be prepared to pay the entry fee and the time/energy/money costs of getting there?

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