Over the last two days, my posts have highlighted the lack of academic speakers at the UN Forum. In this final post, I will address the problems with how women academics, in particular, have been included in the Forum.

As my last post indicated, as of 16 November at 18:00, there are 311 listed speakers, of which there are 20 academic speakers, meaning 6.4 per cent of all speakers. There are two additional academics serving as moderators (which I do not include as speakers for reasons I detailed last year). Of those 20, only 8 are speaking on panels. The others are doing snapshots presentations.

With so few academics, despite being such a significant stakeholder group (see parts 1 and 2), we are not getting this opportunity and as a result our utility as a stakeholder group is diminished. The problem is amplified for women academics. Technically, there are more women academics speaking than men, but a closer look undermines this technical win.

The women academics are primarily early career academics giving ‘snapshot’ presentations. Out of all the women academics speaking, it appears only four are at the lecturer to professor levels, meaning permanent positions that are slightly more senior. The others are early career researchers. This is quite different from what we see amongst the male academics, where all of them are at lecturer or professor level. Additionally, the women academics are disproportionately represented on snapshot presentations as opposed to panels.  Of the 14 women academics, only 4 are speaking on panels, and 3 of those are on the same panel. Of the 6 men, half are speaking on panels.

Finally, as I mentioned, three of the women are on a single panel, which is on applying a gender lens to business and human rights. This is an important topic – one I’ll make use of momentarily – but, as I noted last year, it is problematic when we pack gender panels with women academics while not allowing women academics the space to demonstrate expertise in other areas. While seemingly promoting women as experts, it can ultimately undermine us in the broader field by limiting our remit and expertise to narrower areas that are socially acceptable for women to work in while excluding us from many of the discussions in our field.

I do not wish to sound dismissive of the significance of speaking at the Forum for early career women, but there are structural issues here that need to be addressed. So, while cognizant of the fragility of the tightrope I step onto now, I step onto it all the same.

It is not appropriate to place a large number of early career women academics on snapshot presentations and the panel on gender and pretend this represents gender diversity or the integration and promotion of women academic experts.

As I noted yesterday, there is a clear difference between snapshot presentations and panels. The biggest difference comes in the nature of the conversation that develops. Panels are sustained, multi-stakeholder dialogues on a broader topic that usually last 90 minutes. Snapshots are short, one-off discussions of a particular initiative, idea or research that last 15 minutes and are disconnected from the surrounding discussions. This invites a narrower audience than a panel, and it can be difficult for attendees to justify skipping a 1.5-hour panel to attend a 15-minute presentation. (And let’s not even discuss the issue of timeslots.)

I think there are a lot of sociological explanations for the lack of academics at the Forum, but I mostly think it’s a matter of failing to pay attention. Panel organizers are not doing their due diligence when constructing their panels. They are focused on getting their own initiative or speaker out there, and on protecting their reputations so they hope to limit critical voices. While they have been encouraged over the years to pay attention to other stakeholders, panel organizers appear not to value or understand academics as a stakeholder groups. While a problem for all academics, this has a gendered impact that needs to be understood. As I have written elsewhere, women continue to be under-represented not just on academic panels but in academic citations. This is often a result of structural and social barriers that undervalue women academics in comparison to their male peers.

One of the ways that women can combat these barriers is to ensure that when their work is relevant to other stakeholders, it is heard and acted upon. This shows impact and can be used to counteract some of the other barriers. Another way that women academics can advance themselves despite other barriers is to secure grants for their research. To do so, however, they will generally need to show that they are addressing a real problem, often that they are doing so in collaboration with other stakeholders, and that their research will be heard and have an impact. This requires connections and exposure that presenting on a panel at the Forum can facilitate, but that is less palpable and robust on a snapshot presentation.

When women academics are denied a place at the Forum – a real place– they are denied not just the same opportunities that male academics are, but they are denied a significant opportunity to counteract gendered social and structural barriers they face in academia.

The reason I noted earlier that the UN Working Group is still male-dominated is because that is the result of structural and social barriers that women academics face. Looking across special procedures (other independent experts like the Working Group), you will see that these positions are dominated by academics. Academic institutions are often able to facilitate involvement (and independence) for these positions in a way other organizations are not. Given the time and resources it takes to be on the Working Group, it is likely that academics will continue to dominate it. As such, we need to ensure that women academics have access to other stakeholders, the kind of access that comes with speaking on a panel at the Forum.

Applying a gender lens to the field of business and human rights requires examining how we create structural barriers and disproportionately impact women, top to bottom, left to right, and all around. We have not done that well in business and human rights, particularly at what might be called ‘the top.’ We went from 2015 to 2018 with only one woman on a five-person Working Group despite the very large presence of expert women in this field. Now we have two. This is unfortunately a reality across international tribunals and special procedures (with some notable exceptions). Despite significant efforts, change remains slow.

By failing to integrate women academics and ensure their expertise is heard by a robust audience of stakeholders, the Forum is, I believe very inadvertently, adding to systematic barriers in a way that will continue to ensure the Working Group and other international tribunals and special procedures are male-dominated. Combatting this is not a responsibility of the Working Group alone – it is for all panel organizers to consider – but the Working Group must play a more active role in addressing this issue.

Academic speakers at the Forum

(updated 16/11/18 at 18:00)


  Monday, 26 November Tuesday, 27 November Wednesday, 28 November
8:15-8:30   Andrea Saldarriaga, Visiting Fellow, LSE


Snapshot: Respect for Human rights in Circumstances of Urgent Exit.


8:30-9:45   Markus Krajewski, Professor, University of Erlangen-Nürnberg


Panel: Crowd-drafting: Designing a human rights-compatible international investment agreement.


8:30-8:45   Başak Bağlayan, Postdoctoral researcher, University of Luxembourg


Marisa McVey, PhD Candidate, University of St Andrews


Snapshot: New insights? Projects from BHR Young researchers (I).


8:45-9:00   Ingrid Landau, PhD Candidate, Melbourne University


Kebene Wodajo, PhD Candidate, Shanghai Jiao Tong University


Snapshot: New insights. Projects from BHR Young Researchers (II).


9:00-9:15   Rachel Alexander, Research Officer, LSE


Cecily (Sarah) Ashwin, Professor, LSE


Snapshot: New insights? Labour governance in the garment industry.


9:15-9:30   Sanchita Banerjee Saxena, Executive Director, Institute for South Asia Studies, University of California, Berkeley


Snapshot: New insights after Rana-Plaza: Business, Labor, and Global Supply Chains in Bangladesh.


10:00     John Katsos, Professor American University


Panel: What do ‘Protect, Respect, and Remedy’ mean in Practice in Conflict Contexts?

13:30-4:45   Andrea Saldarriaga, Visiting Fellow, LSE


Panel: Connecting human rights due diligence and business lawyers: Overcoming Practical Challenges


Olga Martin-Ortega, Reader, University of Greenwich


Moderating, Panel: Addressing human rights impacts of toxic substances: Challenges and Human Rights Due Diligence Across Sectors with a Deep Dive on the Electronics Industry

14:30-4:45 Lisa Smit, British Institute for International and Comparative Law.


Snapshot: Human Rights Due Diligence: Practices in the Supply Chain: Findings from a Cross-Sectoral Study.

15:00-5:15   Raymond Saner, Professor, Basel University and Science Po in Paris


Martijn Scheltema, Professor, Erasmus University Rotterdam:


Snapshot: New insights? The impacts of the UN Guiding Principles and the OECD Guidelines


15:00-16:20 Minwoo Kim, Research Professor, Korea University Human Rights Centre


Sabrina Rau, Senior Research Officer, Big Data and Technology Project, University of Essex


Panel: Disruptive technology I: What Does Artificial Intelligence Mean for Human Rights Due Diligence?


Jesse Coleman, Legal Researcher, Columbia Centre on Sustainable Development, University of Columbia


Sarah Knuckey, Associate Clinical Professor, Columbia Law Human Rights Clinic


Marianna Leite, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Coimbra


Panel: Developing a Gender Lens to Business and Human Rights

15:00-16:45     Robert McCorquodale, Professor, University of Nottingham


Moderating a Panel: Human Rights Due Diligence in the Banking Sector

16:00-16:15   Joanne Bauer, Adjunct Professor and Faculty Head of the Business and Human rights Clinic, Columbia University


Snapshot: Building Trust between Human Rights Defenders and Financial Actors


18:45-19:00   Cathal Doyle, Research Fellow, Middlesex University London


Snapshot: The Implications of Indigenous Peoples’ FPIC Protocols and Policies for Business Respect for Human Rights





Disclaimer: Between the time this post was written and when it was published, I was asked to represent the Essex Business and Human Rights Project on a panel at the Forum. The selection of EBHR to discuss international investment law does not alter the views expressed in this post, which remains unchanged except for typographical corrections and other minor edits. 

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