Ladies Only: the Problem with Gender & Diversity Focused Panels

digital comics museum. Baffling mysteries 005

It’s time to change the way we do panels at conventions.

Right now women, LGBTQ, and people of color are invited to speak on panels such as:

  • GMing as Women
  • Gaming as Other
  • Diversity in Gaming
  • Race in the Gaming Industry
  • Queer as a Three-Sided Die

I love the titles of these panels. They’re fun, badass, fierce panel titles. I also hate them a little, because they serve to remind me that in a hobby I’ve not only had for years but also work in, that I am not the norm. I am the other.

As much as I love unicorns, I don’t really want to be one.

Panels focused on diversity can give you have a level playing field to start out with. I moderated an online panel earlier this year that included myself and several other female artists working in the industry. We didn’t have to do the awkward-dance-of-acknowledgment thing at the beginning: yes, I am a lady person, and I draw RPG art. Yes, I have feelings and thoughts that may or may not be different than the assumed dude audience for said RPG art. I don’t have to laugh or smile thinly at stumbling attempts to ask my opinion on a character design that has large breasts without saying the word “boobs” or looking at mine. We dove straight into discussing software and tablets, and geeked out in such a way that it was obvious we were starved for that kind of interaction.

The recent panel at GenCon I was on, GMing as Women, had a predominantly female presenting audience. If I were at a GMing tips panel, I don’t think I would have heard the same questions from the audience about managing players’ out-of-game interactions, avoiding becoming the “den mother” of the group, or being used as free babysitting during a con game. Some of these concerns feel unique to the female experience, and it was a good space to address them, to feel the solidarity of looking around the room and realizing that everyone was shaking their head at a question that felt particularly familiar.

So yes, our experience is different than yours, and sometimes we need to discuss that experience and you should listen. These types of panels don’t need to go away. They are an invaluable experience for both speakers and audience.

Yet this leaves us in a kind of limbo, where we only get to talk on these kind of panels. The women and other minorities sit at on the edge, looking in on … all the other panels. Panels on game design, game theory, how to get started in the industry, how to network, how to run an online convention. And for the most part we’re not invited to talk unless our label, our otherness, is in the title.

Con organizers — when you invite a woman to speak on your diversity panel, invite her to speak on another panel also, one that doesn’t have the word “woman” in the title. To use myself as an example, I can speak on: being an artist, RPG graphic design, organizing an online convention, running online games, running *World games, creating a zine, and working as a freelancer. Notice none of those are specific to the experience of being a woman. All of the people you invite to your diversity panels have a list of skills that don’t involve their “otherness.” Ask them to talk about these other things as well.

Con panelists — find out who is on the panel with you, and ask for more women, LGBTQ, and people of color to be included in it with you. Tell the organizer you’d like someone from one of these groups to moderate the panel as well. Let them speak. Listen.

Bring this knowledge into panels that aren’t specifically about diversity. My experiences, or those of a woman of color, or those of a queer man — those experiences will skew their perception of these subjects, and that’s okay. Nothing will break if I mention how being a female gamer effects which projects I accept while on a panel about working in the industry. It might speak to the woman in the audience who wasn’t able to attend a panel on being a woman in gaming, or it might help the man in the audience think and then broaden who he contacts for his next project.

Treat us as part of the community, not just the edge! It’s not easy to talk, to put ourselves out there, but if you want to see more of us, let us talk about our whole experience, not just the one part. Acknowledge not just our experiences, but what we make and do. That means walking the walk. Invite us to be on all of your panels. And then listen when we talk.

Reader: What has your experience with panels at convention been like? What has been your experiences moderating, participating, or proposing them? Do you see a wide variety of people in the panels you go to? If you do, tell me about them too!

Sarah Richardson

Sarah Richardson

Sarah Richardson is a graphic artist living in Chicago. In addition to illustrating and laying out tabletop RPGs and zines, she burns through comics and books as fast as her eyes can move. Sarah swears a lot on twitter as @scorcha79.

4 thoughts on “Ladies Only: the Problem with Gender & Diversity Focused Panels

  1. I’ve been invited to be on diversity panels. And I’m happy to do it, but I agree that my voice would still be valid and audible if I wasn’t specifically there because I’m a woman.

    1. I hear you, Annie. I enjoyed my GMing as Women panel, and feel like it was valuable to both me and the audience. I’d do it again.

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