In or out! Why balanced panels matter

IIED’s intersectional disadvantage and inequality lead Tracy Kajumba explores the importance of inclusion and representation, and offers tips to researchers and organisations for promoting diverse panels.

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Insight by 
Tracy Kajumba
Tracy Kajumba is IIED's institutional lead for intersectional disadvantage and inequality
29 April 2022
Three women, one wearing a mask, the other two smiling and clapping, sit at a raised desk in front of an audience

Three women lead the closing of the 66th session of the Commission on the Status of Women in March 2022. The session acknowledged the important role of women and girls as agents of change for sustainable development (Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In line with our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, IIED has published guidance on panel representation. And to those who ask whether balanced panels really matter, we say: yes, they do!

Under the slogan ‘Break the bias’, International Women’s Day 2022 called for ‘gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow’.

But despite efforts to address inequality, the 2021 Global Gender Gap Report notes that gender parity will not be attained for 99.5 years.

And it’s not only women who are excluded. Gender intersects with other forms of disadvantage to create multiple layers of discrimination based on race, class, education, location, ethnicity, caste, age and disability. This reinforces the exclusion of important voices, so it is important to challenge discrimination and exclusion wherever we see it – and that includes panels.

Authenticity of voice

Why? Because on most panels, individual presenters speak from their own experience, informed by their education, socialisation and worldview. So, if groups are not represented, their contributions and priorities are systematically excluded from policy and decision making.

Authenticity of voice allows women, youth and other groups to tell their stories, their struggles and the changes they want in ways that empower them and recognise their experiences and contributions. We don’t need ‘experts’ to speak for women and other excluded groups as if they do not exist.

Missing diverse views

All-male panels ('manels') or those that lack regional or other representation present limited perspectives due to the lack of diversity of experiences.

The intersectional nature of development means most topics have implications for gender, location or other characteristics that define the identity of end users.

Embracing diversity means providing space for the diverse views of those affected by the issues under discussion. Acting as powerful gatekeepers neither addresses inequality nor supports authentic leadership.

Addressing power imbalances and discrimination

To end exclusion in meetings and panels, we must address historical discrimination tied up with race, gender, class, wealth and power. For transformational processes that shift power, decision-making forums must be diverse and inclusive.

A robust process produces good results. So, engaging people with lived experience while identifying and addressing barriers to inclusion is a winning approach.

50% of the world’s expertise and experiences

Representation on panels is a microcosm of the global status of diversity in research and development. Although women make up half the world’s population, they are often absent from convenings of ‘experts’.

An analysis of gender diversity in some 60,000 events in 23 countries found that 69% of all speakers were male. And the survey on gender bias in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that, as in other disciplines, women in climate science face compounding barriers from unequal access to training, funding, promotion and citations.

Diversity on panels creates space for exposing neglected expertise and ensures that policies and decisions are informed by diverse views and experiences.

So, what can you do about it?

As researchers, we all have a responsibility to 'break the bias’ in our sphere of work. Here are four simple steps you can take to help promote diverse panels.

  1.  Address systematic under-representation and be accountable: accountability is important. For years, we have theorised about inequality and under-representation. And although organisations have attempted to address these issues, progress is slow.

    To stop paying lip service to excluded groups and demonstrate equity principles in all processes, we need accountable leadership and commitment to change. 
  2. Avoid tokenism/support positive representation: there has been a resounding global call for inclusion, with social movements adopting the slogan ‘Nothing about us, without us’. Including a person from the global South, a woman, a youth representative or an Indigenous Person on a panel is the latest fad. But is this representation or tokenism?

    Positive representation requires us to value the opinions, expertise, knowledge and perspectives that excluded groups bring to the table; it is not about making the organisers look good. Diversity is not about quick actions to fit with the flow. We must have consistent reasons and values behind our actions.
  3. Take individual responsibility/avoid exclusive panels: it’s time to put pressure on organisers to commit to balanced and representative panels. This requires institutional and individual responsibility to challenge panels based on class, education, race, gender, power and influence.

    I love Scott Gilmore’s unlearning process (if you haven’t read it yet, do). He notes: "There is no topic that cannot be discussed by women. There is no circumstance that would prevent one from inviting women. There is simply no rational excuse for excluding women. And, if you are invited to join a panel with no women, you must conclude it is being organised by fools’’.

    By applying this approach to any characteristics of exclusion, you can ensure you do not perpetrate these biases.
  4. Support excluded groups to participate: organisers’ search for eloquent, experienced speakers has created an elite group of speakers, largely supported by global North organisations, who move between events. So we see the same faces year-round.

    Indigenous People, youth movement leaders, grassroots women’s leaders and other groups provide diverse expertise but face huge challenges speaking at panels. To encourage their collective participation, organisers must go the extra mile and pay for interpretation, translation, internet and other costs.

Representation is important for effective solutions to global challenges. If the right people are not at the table, solutions simply won’t work.

This is not just an ethical issue; it is also a justice issue.

About the author

Tracy Kajumba ( is IIED's institutional lead for intersectional disadvantage and inequality

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