The Bechdel Test Applied to Companies and Conferences

The Bechdel test is a quick lower bound on helping us make sure we haven’t totally ignored equality in movies. We can use it in events and organizations, too.

January 11, 2022
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2
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Steve Jurvetson, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons [blurred to remove names and corporate logos]

Originally noted by none other than Virginia Woolf and credited to Liz Wallace, in 1985 Alison Bechdel enumerated the rules of what is now known as the Bechdel test. This is a simple test to see how women are portrayed in film or other literature. To pass the test:

  • The movie has to have at least two women in it,
  • who talk to each other,
  • about something other than a man.

Most movies fail. As Virginia Woolf wrote in her 1929 essay A Room of One's Own

But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austin's day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman's life is that...

A few years back I proposed the Bechdel Test for conferences. To pass a conference must have:

  • A panel with at least two women in it,
  • focused on a topic other than DEI.

While the above is about women, it could equally apply to LGBTQ+, people of color, or other minority groups. Working in tech I would go to many conferences in which, at best, there might be one woman on a panel—unless the panel was about DEI (or variations of the term) in which case it was usually all women. If you want a stricter test, you can also not count HR or marketing panels in a male dominated industry. In tech, defense, finance, and other traditionally male dominated fields, the HR and marketing departments are often female dominated, or at least significantly more gender balanced. Conference organizers should look at this metric when planning talks and panels. (Thankfully we are gaining, albeit slowly, on gender balance and on being more inclusive with other groups.)

How does this apply to companies, not conferences? Internal to a company, look at where minority groups reside. If most of the LGBTQ+ members are hired for roles around DEI itself, does that really count? I’m not saying you shouldn’t have those people in those roles. An able-bodied person like me would likely be less effective as the head of HR disability support inside a company than someone who has actually lived and worked with a disability. I’m simply saying that just as minority groups on a panel talking about minority groups in the industry shouldn’t really count towards diversity at a conference, employees who are members of certain minority groups, whose job is specifically to support minority groups, shouldn’t totally count towards the company’s diversity metrics. I’m not saying they don’t count as people or that their work isn’t important, but that the company shouldn’t really get full credit for saying, “look at the diverse range of people we hire” if most of those people are in those roles. At a company of 100,000 people, a handful in a diversity office may not be statistically significant, but in SMBs of dozens or maybe a few hundred people when a significant percentage of people from these underrepresented groups are in diversity-oriented roles, is that really in the spirit of diversity? Others can hopefully extend this raw idea in more meaningful and nuanced ways.

We continue to make strides towards equality. Applying the Bechdel Test to our events and organizations can help us continue to reach that goal in the true spirit in which we mean it.

By
Mark A. Herschberg
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