On 19 May 2014, Article 36 began compiling a list of men pledging not to speak on all male panels in global disarmament, arms control and peace and security forums. This followed an expert meeting on autonomous weapons at the United Nations where men took up all 18 expert speaking slots. There has been an encouraging reaction to this list, with 50 men signing up so far. Also encouraging have been the many questions and discussions sparked off by the list.

Initially, the list was a response to the invitation by women in the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots not to speak on all-male panels. The purpose was to draw attention to the issue and get people to think about it.

There are a multitude of women with the necessary expertise and experience to speak on panels on global disarmament, arms control and peace and security issues. The Just Security blog is hosting a list of women actively writing or speaking on the issue of autonomous weapons. Excuses that women have not been included in a panel because there were no suitable women is a sign that some extra effort is needed to find a female speaker, not that there aren’t any. There is no excuse for underrepresentation of women.

More fundamentally, however, the initiative is about redressing power imbalances and discrimination on the basis of gender. Men occupy more positions of power than women do. Men get paid more than women do. Women bear the brunt of domestic violence and sexual violence. These are facts. We have to face up to these facts and work together to change them. Gender discrimination is real. It is perpetuated by both men and women and the first step towards taking action to end it is recognition.

There have been a number of questions about what the commitment means in practice. How many people constitute a panel? Does a one-on-one debate count? If the moderator is a woman does that mean the speakers can all be men? What if I don’t know who is on the panel in advance? What if a woman pulls out at the last minute? What if my superiors require my participation in a panel that ends up being all male?

These are all reasonable questions, but they should not draw attention away from the central point of the exercise. We would encourage men to sign up to the list and when invited to speak, do everything they can to ensure that the panels they are on feature a diversity of gender identities. Put pressure on the organisers. Don’t commit until you know the line up. Suggest speakers that are of gender identities other than your own. In foreign policy making, we don’t think there is any excuse for an all male panel! We also agree with others that having a woman moderate an all-male panel is not the answer.

The underlying point is that hierarchy and gender are significant. When so many political leaders and senior officials are men, so-called high-level panels may end up being all male by default. But this is the very reason for having the list: men disproportionately occupy positions of power. This presents challenges for protocol, but ending gender discrimination is more important than having the most senior people represented on a panel.

We have also heard that all-female panels should be avoided as well, since they constitute discrimination against men. This assertion misses the point about discrimination. Discrimination is about power. If women occupied positions of power disproportionately, to the disadvantage of men, it would make sense to talk about avoiding all-female panels. Ideally of course, gender would not matter in the composition of panels or the assignment of roles in society. But imbalances have been ingrained into our societies over generations and we have to take deliberate action to correct them and to build fairer societies.

The list should also be seen in the context of the wider effort to end discrimination against women. We need to ask ourselves why women and people with non-conforming gender identities are not picked for panels. Why are their views not valued? There are underlying attitudes within societies that need to be challenged and changed, even as they manifest in different ways in different societies.

Gender discrimination is by no means the only form of discrimination that we see in the world, including in foreign policy circles. Class, race and sexual orientation are key indicators of power and influence as well. And of course discrimination based on class, race and sexual orientation frequently work together with gender discrimination to produce even greater marginalisation.

There’s much work to be done against all of these injustices. The list on the Article 36 website is one activity that we hope will draw attention to discrimination, get people thinking our own roles in perpetuating it, and in so doing, help to undermine it and make it less likely in the future.