I had a full, rich Readercon experience this last weekend. The panels I participated in were all lively and interesting (particularly the panel on How To Suppress Women's Writing, which was led by Andrea Hairston and included me and Brit Mandelo [whom we drafted from the audience] as well as intense participation by an engaged audience, most of whom had already read the book). Reading from my novel in progress (working title "Deep Story") brought me reassuring feedback (viz., that a middle-aged woman lacking superpowers or stunning beauty or personality, holding a gray job and without a heroic bone in her body, is an acceptable protagonist). And best of all, I made new acquaintances and got to hang out with various friends I never can get enough of.
And yet, of course, at the same time I was enjoying the con, I was aware of problems. Genevieve Valentine writes eloquently of two types of those problems here. (At the time I read her post, there were already 264 comments, including one by Nora Jemison offering an excellent analysis supplementing Genevieve's.) The first type of problem, which is condescending insensitive behavior by a male panelist incapable of taking a woman panelist seriously merely because she's female, occurs everywhere at sf cons, of course. (Yes, it occurs at WisCon, too. It has occurred to me at WisCon. And this last WisCon it even occurred to one of the GoHs, who was moderating and had to physically struggle with a male panelist over possession of the microphone.) This situation occurs most often when panels have only one woman on them, but can (and does) occur even when panels have only one man on them. As Genevieve notes and several of the commenters to her post attest, the almost inevitable result of having only one woman on the panel is to make her point of view and representation of interests nearly inaudible. It is also, as Vernoica Schanoes, my roommate at Readercon this year, observed to me, means that she ends up carrying the burden of making Feminism 101-sorts of points where necessary, meaning, of course, that all the interesting things she might have had to say get subordinated to the burden of providing remedial education to people who should by now know better.
When on Friday morning, as an audience member, I saw a USian man on a post-colonial fantastic literature panel turn to address Vandana Singh (probably telling himself he was educating the audience though he was actually looking at her) and mansplain the difference between Britain's colonization of the US and Britain's colonization of India, I instantly wondered if it was his position as a man speaking to a woman or of a USian speaking to an Indian that made him so confident that she knew less about her own country's experiences of colonialism than he did, even though she'd already referred to India's 5000 years of history. (Don't worry. I knew, of course, that it was both.) The presumption of authority some men carry around with them apparently surges irresistibly to the surface whenever they are in the presence of "others" who aren't white and male. It's the sort of presumption Jane Austen loved to skewer in both men and women. But see, not all of those presumptuous white males who can't take female panelists seriously treat other white males that way. And that's where the sexism comes in.
This is a subject that is not going away. It's not a fun subject, I know. But it's one in which a wider, greater consciousness of it will reduce the problem's presence at cons significantly.