“Sorry Johanne, We Just Could Not Find Any (Women)!”

Johanne Poirier

I had just arrived in an African capital, to take part in an international conference, notably on “Diversity”. It was a major 3 day event, with Heads of States, etc. Each day, the 600 participants from around the globe were divided into some 15 round tables. At the end of each day, 15 Rapporteurs would report to 5 Chief Rapporteurs, in charge of the 5 major themes of the Conference. Those Chief Rapporteurs would then each summarize the day’s conclusions to the Plenary, before the 600 participants.

As soon as I landed, organizers came to me to say “Johanne, we have a major problem: one of the Chief Rapporteurs is sick and cannot make it. We need someone to replace him rapidly. Could you prepare the statements for the end of each day, from the workshop reports? We could then get a couple ‘local experts’ to read them to the Plenary.” I normally do not refrain from helping colleagues who face these kinds of difficulties, but I was a little puzzled. The rather worried organizers suggested that I write the statements on a theme I had not prepared, and have two (obviously) male “local” personalities read them? I turned to an older – male, African – colleague and asked: “Do I understand well that they think these (black, male) colleagues cannot write? And that I (the white, female) cannot speak?” He reinforced my instinctive reaction: “That is so hugely patronizing, Johanne, to all of you.” By then, I had understood that of the 20 or so speakers at the 3 daily Plenaries, not one was a woman.

I went back to the organizers: “You could not find any woman to report and/or speak at the plenaries?” The answer just stunned me: “But you were not available, Johanne!” I had, indeed, declined to act as one of the Chief Rapporteurs, due to prior commitments. But I was clearly not the only woman able to do the job. And, frankly, for an international conference held in Africa, there ought to be African women speaking, not a white Westerner.

This said, we were facing a bit of an emergency: one of the themes did not have a Chief Rapporteur. So I agreed to step in, but with 2 conditions.
First, I would work in a team with the two local experts. We would draft the statements together (in a rush, at the end of each day, from the workshop reports) and would each deliver one statement at each of the 3 plenaries… I stood up, very humbled, at the First Plenary, as the only (white!) woman to address the dignitaries and the participants from five continents.

Second, I asked the organizers if we could hold a “Women’s Networking Lunch” the next day. I had made a similar request several times in the past, to the same organization, without any response. This time, they were quite willing to accommodate what some of them must have perceived as my “whims”.
Over 60 women showed up for our Networking Lunch, which had only been announced once, the night before. I set up white boards, with “titles”, so that we could have a bit of a sense of the competences around the room. I wrote down “politicians”, “lawyers”, “doctors”, “civil servants”, “professors”, “NGO managers”, “diplomats”, “journalists”, etc. Amazingly, several women put their names under several lists. They were “doctors AND ministers”, “journalists AND professors”, “diplomats AND lawyers”, “mayor AND engineer”. And, as we all introduced ourselves to each other, several insisted “and I am a mother and a grand-mother”.

In short, at least 60 of the 600 participants were women (not brilliant in itself, of course). Yet, these were 60 women with an impressive array of competences, expertise, and even “formal titles” (ambassadors, etc.). But none had been considered able to deliver a statement at a plenary, even in a last minute situation, and even with someone’s help to draft the statement. My amazing lunch partners kept telling me: “Don’t worry: this always happens to us” (this being ignored/bypassed in public events, despite the fact that their expertise was clearly put to use sur le terrain).

This was some 10 years ago. Social networks were almost in their infancy and keeping in touch has not been as simple as I would have liked. My hope that I would no longer hear “but we could not find any (women), Johanne” has not entirely been met. Some of my (male) peers, from way back then, get it. I actually received the strongest (and I dare say the most effective!) show of support from an older (white) male colleague, who had experienced the undeniably constructive impact of women in peace-making. Others are still bemused, puzzled, or annoyed, not quite getting what “sex equality” has to do with major constitutional design issues. Dealing with this expressed or implicit bewilderment is also a constant work-in-progress. But I soldier on, insisting, again and again, that gender equality be on the radar of any event and organizations I am involved in.

The atmosphere at the Networking Lunch was constructive, joyful, even mischievous. I had turned my anger into action, and met a number of courageous, impressive, generous and funny women in the process. It remains one of the most moving and transformative moments of my working life.