Vincent Maher
Vincent Maher

Thought Leader and racial/gender representation

Before we launched Thought Leader, its management team got together to discuss the invitation process. All three of us would have been classified as “white” by the National Party government and, indeed, we have benefited from the fact our parents were white through our access to education during the transition phase from apartheid to our new democracy. All three of us, however, reached a level of political maturity precisely at the point of the 1994 elections when we were first of the legal age to vote, and our political views fall within the spectrum between liberal conservativism to radical Marxism, depending on the day. This, at least, is my impression.

So on the day we got together to discuss how we approach inviting people and what our criteria are for invitation, we were particularly mindful of race and gender and resolved to approach the practical matter of getting a solid base of contributors online quickly by drawing up a list of invitees from several sources:

  1. In media and politics, we compiled a list of contacts we have on an editorial level as well as well-known public figures.
  2. In technology and marketing, we have extensive experience and compiled a list based on public figures in the local tech industry and blogosphere
  3. Across all the categories we made use of several internal resources, such as the Mail & Guardian‘s 100 Young South Africans You Must Take to Lunch and The Book of South African Women
  4. We also tapped our own networks of people we knew to be good writers and commentators, selected some of the top bloggers from Amagama, our other blogging platform, and invited several young bloggers.

The criteria, in short, were that the person could provide high-quality critical commentary on his or her field of expertise and provide leadership in terms of starting important conversations.

As we went through the process of inviting contributors for the first phase, our lists were slanted in favour of women and racially balanced, but what we found is that white males responded more positively. Dominic Tweedie has recently circulated a document that profiles the race, gender and, in the case of Afrikaans, the language of the contributors. The conclusion: 73% male; 70% white. I encourage all of you to download and read it.

There are several ways to look at this result. The first is to see it as an obvious consequence of the medium we’re working with where internet access is still something reserved for the elite. This is total nonsense because our invitees were all members of the elite, across racial and gender lines. Everyone had access to a computer, a browser and broadband except, perhaps, some of the poorer journalists.

The second way to look at it is that we didn’t try hard enough to maintain a balance. This might be true, but only in the sense that we didn’t hold back on adding more white males while we waited for others to join. In fact, this post is very difficult for me to write because it irritates me having to revert to apartheid classification systems to describe people who are all highly individualistic and talented in their own right and resist being cast as either white or black as their defining characteristic.

The third way to look at it is the way we see it: we invited equitably and we accepted the acceptances as and when they happened. The process is only just getting started; we currently have just more than 100 contributors and the target is 1 000, so this initial sample is just the tip of the iceberg. Now that we know what to expect, we have adjusted our invitation process and are bringing in a full-time resource to manage this process.

In other words, the racial and gender breakdown of the contributors is not reflective of any ideological statement — the concerning ideology, perhaps, is that there is an articulation between expertise and public intellectualism, but the fact that there is such a strong overlap between expertise and elitism in this country is the product of the apartheid education system and not indicative of an underlying connection between the two.

At any rate, it would run counter to our organisation’s internal culture to pretend that Dominic’s document isn’t making the rounds and generating debate. Shame is something reserved for the guilty; we just want a good solid debate and hopefully some ideas and perspectives that can help us make Thought Leader an even better website. We would like to hear from our readers and contributors what they think about the issue. Do you perceive it as a problem? What are the possible solutions?