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8 March 2018 | By Rain Newton-Smith Insight

Women on stage

Sometimes being the only female speaking on a panel can be a miserable experience. CBI's Chief Economist offers her top tips to moderators and prospective panellists

On International Women’s Day, I thought I’d play out a dilemma that’s been on my mind. I’m a female chief economist. There aren’t many of us.    

With the shifting pressures to more diverse voices on panels and in the media, I’m often called on to give my views. I say yes because I believe whole-heartedly in hearing a diversity of voices. It makes for far more interesting conversations and for better decisions. And particularly for economics where there aren’t enough diverse voices. But economics is all around us. It’s about why some countries are rich and some are poor. It’s about how you design social programmes in developing countries so that you lift more children out of poverty faster.

In the UK, it’s about how we decide to fund the NHS or education, what type of businesses we want to see on our high streets and why young people choose one career over another. It can even be about how many children you decide to have and whether women or men have more influence in that decision.

And yet why aren’t more women inspired to study economics? It’s a good career and many of us went into it because we wanted to make the world a better place. Yes, we are that idealistic. But the number of women studying economics is declining. I suspect it’s because when people says economics, students think Finance and working in the City of London or Wall Street. They don’t see development economics, health economics, and the economics of behaviour. We need to change that.

So when I get asked to speak, I tend to say yes. I want more female voices to be heard. I want more economists with heart, humility and a sense of humour to be heard. But I also sometimes want to squirm. I want to be known for being an excellent economist not for being female.

And sometimes I hesitate because being the only female voice on a panel can be a miserable experience. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had some brilliant experiences. Some journalists and TV anchors who were kind when I first went on air did everything to make me feel welcome, valued and at ease. And business leaders who have been warm and funny, and valued what I had to say. But that hasn’t always been the case. I have sometimes felt uncomfortable and not included.

So here are some top tips. Both for those running panels and for women deciding whether to appear on a panel.

For moderators:

  • If you’ve invited someone on your panel who is female, younger, or different in an obvious way to your other panellists, don’t ask them to speak last. It makes them feel like an afterthought.
  • Find out what the specialist subject of your guest is and ask them about it. Simple.
  • If you can see your newer/younger/different guest is keen to join the conversation, make it easy for them. Don’t ignore them because you feel you need to give more airtime to the ‘safer’ or more known guest.
  • Invite the audience to join in the conversation early.  They are likely to have the widest diversity of views and they’ll have interesting things to say.
  • Keep inviting diverse guests (in all senses) and speakers to your events. And if your preferred guest isn’t available, ask them to recommend a colleague with a different view.

Women:

  • if you are asked to be on a panel. Go for it.
  • If you can’t do the panel, pass on the invitation to someone else who deserves a voice.
  • Don’t be afraid to bring your humanity out in the discussion – be a mum, be a wife, be an enthusiastic guinea pig owner or a rock-climber or whatever passion drives you. As well as the fantastic professional economist/scientist/FD/social entrepreneur you already are. As we all know, you can do both at once and that’s what makes you interesting.

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