Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Why It’s Harder to Get Diverse Keynotes

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I’ve got two blogposts weighing on my heart that I’ve wanted to write for a while, but haven’t been sure I could articulate them clearly and sensitively enough. Actually, they might be 3 or 4 blogposts. I don’t know if putting them all into ONE post is going to help or make it worse. And I also don’t want to unintentionally hurt anyone as I write this. I don’t think I need to clarify why I care about diversity in keynote speakers. There are a lot of ways diversity can be interpreted that don’t address equity and power issues. I am mostly interested in diversity that addresses power issues. So I’m not necessarily looking for diversity that just signifies difference in other ways, though that can be valuable, too, in certain contexts.

So here’s dilemma # 1

I’m involved in organizing an event locally and I am often called upon to find appropriate high profile keynote speakers because of my network. Obviously. Of note, in the past I have invited the following people to various events I was involved in: Ana Salter, Bonnie Stewart, Amy Collier, Jesse Stommel, Sean Michael Morris, Jim Groom, Ruha Benjamin, Kristen Eshleman and my ex-PhD supervisor Job Nixon. Note that this list contains only two white straight males. But all of these people are Anglo and only one isn’t white. 

Now this semester, I’m involved in organizing an event for next semester and I had a long list of potential speakers (most of them women) but from my list, my boss prioritized inviting two men and so those are the first two I invited. One agreed to come, the other agreed to join virtually. I was not too worried because we had on our list a couple of women to invite virtually or who would be coming from a nearby country, and one my boss thought might come in person, so I didn’t fret. There was a third keynote speaker choice, which I had made, who is also a white man, but he has a special situation in that he is invited because of his role historically in establishing our center and so he is the right person to invite to keynote this particular event.

But here is what happened. Every single female keynote option fell through. It’s not that I don’t have backup options (especially for a virtual invited talk), but now my colleagues are looking for different kinds of diversity (e.g. someone from a STEM background rather than humanities/social science and not necessarily edtech focused), in which case, I can’t help as much (I did recommend a few women in STEM, but I am guessing my colleagues now want to choose their own).

So look. First of all, among the invited white men, every single on is awesome, and one is a global South scholar and so already addressing diversity in that way. All three are REALLY good at what they do and really prominent names. Could I have invited someone else with a similar background who would have been just as good, but female? Yes. Not the exact same impact, but similar. However, for some reason, those are the names that resonated most with my boss and I could not say no.

There’s still hope to get at least one female speaker. It’s not optimal, but something. I hope it works out.

Just realizing how institutional and social factors stand in the way of truly doing everything in accordance with our own values.

Two of the men on this list care a heck of a lot about diversity. When inviting them, I promised them there would be women speakers. I know they would not like to be a part of a lineup of all white male speakers, and they would not expect that from me. I don’t expect it from myself. And even as my colleagues understand kind of what I’m about, I think they think I’m a little crazy and evangelical about this. I don’t know if they realize how central this kind of thing is to my digital activism and writing and such. So…that.

Dilemma # 2

I used to be that person who didn’t care about money. I’ve been privileged enough in my upbringing to never need to worry about it. Not like rich, but comfortable, you know? And in Egypt, your parents are responsible for you financially til you get married, after which the husband is responsible financially even if the wife works. 

But things change when you have kids. It’s not that money is a worry now, as much as that every minute and pound has an opportunity cost. Every time someone invites me to do something, outside of work, it’s time I spend away from my child. When it’s stuff in a different country, there are decisions to be made about where my child will be while I do that thing, and whether it’s worth it or financially viable for my family to come with me.

I don’t think people realize when inviting someone like me to go somewhere that

  1. My country’s currency is REALLY weak. A trip to a Western country is really costly. If I take my family with me, that’s a big load of money we could have spent doing something else or paying for something better for our child 
  2. It’s not an easy thing for me to leave my child behind. I don’t have a care system in place that would last for more than a day. Working on a weekend is difficult ; staying late at work one day a week is difficult. Don’t even get me started about the nightmare of traveling. My child is still young and my husband’s work (and our culture) makes it difficult to rely on him for childcare while we’re in Egypt. 

And so it’s extremely difficult for me to accept invitations that don’t offer honorarium. I’m not being materialistic or overinflating my own value. It’s not at all about my value. It’s about financial viability. And whether a trip is worth it for my family. In the past, I have accepted invitations because there was some value in the trip to my family beyond the value to my career, whether because of the location or something else. FYI London once a year is usually possible for that reason. 

I was recently in two really confusing and frustrating situations:

  1. Some folks invited me to something and offered a really good honorarium. By the time I convinced my husband it was financially viable to make that trip, they backpedaled and suggested I so something virtual instead. That was…embarrassing? I mean, I never asked for a particular honorarium – they offered it. It was slightly higher than I would have asked, but who am I to say no to a higher offer?
  2. Someone else asked me to go to something in the US. I tried to explain that I could not afford to go to something like that (even if my own expenses were paid) because I had other invitations where I was offered honorarium. And I actually had to turn down invitations because it wasn’t financially viable. So it would be stupid and again, not really viable, for me. He misunderstood and thought I was asking for an honorarium. It was so weird because it wasn’t at all what I was saying! It would not even make sense in that context! All I meant was, if I have opportunities to go to 5 different international events each year, I have to be rational and choose the ones that are viable for my family for financial, logistical and other reasons. I’m not sure why this isn’t obvious to people, but there may be a lack of understanding for what my culture expects of moms of young kids, my particular family situation, and the financial burden of international travel 

All of which actually connects slightly with dilemma #1 – inviting women and minorities may be a more complex endeavor than inviting men. And we should be prepared for it. 

I hope I manage not to be misunderstood in this.

4 Comments

  1. I won’t tell you not to be so hard on yourself because that’s who you are as a self critical person.. I don’t think you understand how gracious and self-reflective you are while being embarrassed by praise. Awareness of where we are as people is not a vanity regardless of the feeling of the authentic and complete In our discomfort and our attempts to escape.
    Can I ask here why women feel themselves imposers or unable to be authentic when they are obviously themselves without need to have qualifications? What have us men taken from you and what recognition can we genuinely offer as an honest gesture that doesn’t seem condescending?

    How are women included and why does that feel like an absurd question?
    Thank You for this posting. .

  2. I think this is a very important reflection – and highlights some of the systemic challenges. Diversity isn’t just about fitting into the existing system, it needs to be about changing the system itself. I’ll say it again, this reflection is REALLY important.

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