On chairing Ming, Shami and John – and how I failed to find questions from women

by Stephen Tall on September 28, 2012

I enjoyed chairing Liberal Reform’s fringe meeting on civil liberties at the Brighton conference this week, featuring Shami Chakrabati, John Kampfner and Ming Campbell…

… though (as usual) the request to speakers to speak for 5 minutes to allow plenty of time for audience questions was blown out of the water, mostly by Ming and then in retaliation by Shami! (They were on opposite sides in the debate on secret courts.) I’ve never yet found a way of keeping speakers to time in a way that doesn’t end up detracting from the event overall.

One innovation we did try was to invite questions in writing from the audience in advance. I requested this for two reasons:

1) To enable me to pick a good range of questions given the broadness of the topic. The danger of taking three from the floor – the usual thing – is you end up with an assortment of people making speeches / mounting their pet hobby horse / rambling on / going off-topic / asking basically the same thing. As it was, though we only got through six questions, they were each short, to-the-point and allowed us to cover a lot of policy ground in short order.

2) I’d also hoped it would encourage more questions from women. Attendance at conference is skewed towards men as it is, and questions from the floor generally even more so (though it can depend on the topic). Unfortunately on this I failed entirely. Of the 10 questions I received, just one was from a woman — not, I don’t think, representative of the ratio in the room. So my question is this: how do you try and ensure better representation of female questioners at public meetings?