Why do so few men turn up to hear women speak?

Orange Is The New Black author Piper Kerman in conversation with Jane Caro.

Orange Is The New Black author Piper Kerman in conversation with Jane Caro. Photo: Facebook/Sydney Opera House

 The success of the All About Women festival last Sunday, now in its fourth year, is a testament to how women are unabashedly reclaiming public space.

This year, I was fortunate enough to chair two sessions, the first with author Jennifer Clement on her novel Prayers For The Stolen, a look at how Mexico's drug trade targets women, namely those "stolen" and trafficked into sex slavery.

The other was a panel discussion including author Charlotte Wood, whose novel The Natural Way Of Things (long-listed for this year's Stella Prize), was inspired by the real-life Hay Institution for Girls, and is a damning account of how misogyny-driven sexual double standards ensnare and punish women while sparing men.

The overwhelmingly female audience at All About Women panel 'What needs to change?'

The overwhelmingly female audience at All About Women panel 'What needs to change?' Photo: Facebook/Sydney Opera House

As you can gather, neither were exactly lighthearted topics.


Sex slavery. Rape. Objectification. Slut-shaming. Misogyny. Sexual double standards. Abuse. The exposure to all these - and more - are part of what being a women entails in our world. And so, these issues necessarily form a large part of what women talk about when we come together on occasions like this.

But the seriousness of the subject matter were not all that these sessions had in common. Disappointingly, both had a dire lack of men in the audience. Yes, as reluctant as I am to make this about men, their glaring absence is important.


The men's room at #allaboutwomen. Also, Mallory Ortberg was excellent.

A photo posted by Mick (@mickrad) on

Why? Because it means men are still not listening when women speak about our experiences in a world dominated by men and male violence.

To be clear, I am not saying more men need to take up space in feminist or women-oriented spaces. All About Women, and similar events, are vital for giving a public platform to women (although there was certainly room for improvement in its diversity).

Given men still dominate the public sphere, women's voices at such events absolutely should not be diluted with more male speakers.

However, the importance of the issues raised means men need to be hearing them. In a world where men still accuse us of exaggerating our experiences of oppression and harassment, it is disappointing to see men yet again assume they had nothing to learn.

Sure, All About Women is all about women. But that does not mean it is only for women. Do men read the tile of such an event and equate it with a 'girly' get together, something if not entirely frivolous then certainly inconsequential to their own lives?

I don't know exactly what it is that men seem to think women talk about on occasions like this. But I can tell them that it is a tragedy that not enough of them were present to hear Jennifer Clement reveal that Mexican police treat the theft of a car with far more gravity than the theft of a daughter. And how, in Mexico and around the world, the line of visitors for men's prisons is always so long, it forms a human snake, while the women prisoners wait week after week in vain, as the outside world forgets them.

Men - who largely run the criminal justice system - should know, as Orange Is The New Black writer Piper Kerman revealed, that women get handed harsher sentences than men for minor crimes. And that women - particularly Indigenous women and women of colour - are the fastest growing prison demographic.

Had men bothered to turn up they would have seen psychologist Jennifer Whelan use reams of statistical data as she discussed the insidiousness of unconscious bias that means even those who describe themselves as "passionate about gender equality" respond badly to "bossy women."

And men, who still dominate science and politics really needed to hear the words of Bundjalong woman Amelia Telford as she described how Indigenous women are hardest hit by climate change.

But as long as men are not there to hear women say these things, they will continue to think that women exaggerate their experiences, that the "gender card" is, as Charlotte Wood noted, some sort of devious trick women play to get an unfair advantage.

And women's lives will continue to be regarded as somehow marginal and extraneous to the 'real' goings-on in the world. As if half the world's population is somehow a niche market.

When, during my conversation with Jennifer Clement, one of the few male audience members made his way to the microphone and apologised the lack of men, I put a call out to the audience, asking them to make a note to bring at least one male friend or relative along to next year's festival, because men need to be privy to these conversations. And I would like to do so again here.

It is astounding to me that men think they have little gain from an event such as this. Men need to hear first-hand what the world is like for women. Men need to listen while women speak.

The fact that so many still don't is a testament to how little they think we and our voices matter. And, as Jennifer Clement pointed out, nothing will change until women's lives matter more.