• Leading scientists are beginning to recognize the need for equality on panels.

• 'Manels' are a microcosm of poor female representation in science.

• Male panelists should decline the opportunity if a female speaker can't be found.

When Dr Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), called for an end to all-male speaking panels at conferences, he was surprised by the scale of the response.

In June last year, Dr Collins, who runs one of the world’s foremost public funders of biomedical research, released a statement on the NIH website, stating that “I want to send a clear message of concern: It is time to end the tradition in science of all-male speaking panels, sometimes wryly referred to as ‘manels’.”

Not only did he pledge to decline speaking opportunities at scientific conferences where “attention to inclusiveness is not evident in the agenda”, he also challenged “other scientific leaders across the biomedical enterprise to do the same”.

Among those to show support was Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, who tweeted: “We @wellcometrust agree & have made a commitment & refuse to serve on panels or talk at events that do not honour the same commitment.”

At Davos earlier this year, I had the pleasure of running a press conference on the COVID-19 outbreak with Dr Farrar and moderating a panel on Alzheimer’s disease with Dr Collins.

By taking action, both men are trailblazers for diversity and inclusion, and changing the playing field for women scientists everywhere.

Manels are symbolic of a bigger problem

In the first place, manels are simply a superficial manifestation of a deeper and more complex global problem, namely the lack of female representation on public boards, in political leadership, and in the senior management of universities, start-ups and Fortune 500 companies.

While we certainly can’t fix the boards of companies, we can manage the public perception of who the experts are – subject experts can be women too! In turn, it will hopefully change the perception that technical expertise lies only in a small pool of men. By providing visibility to professional women, we are chipping away at a much larger problem.

In a 2002 randomized double-blind study published in PNAS, 127 faculty members from research-intensive universities were asked to rate the application of a candidate for a laboratory manager position. The candidate was randomly assigned a male or female identity.

Not only did faculty participants rate the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the female applicant, they also offered him a higher starting salary and more career mentoring. This subtle bias was seen across all faculty participants – both female and male faculty were equally likely to view the female applicant as less competent. Therefore, the meritocratic notion that “the best person will be hired for the job” remains a flawed one.

Manels, manels and more manels

Almost daily, I attend conferences stacked with all-male panels, or manels. In the most egregious case I’ve witnessed to date, the panel was stacked with seven men.

On the occasion that I’ve called these manels out on social media, I’ve been offered a version of the following:

Conference organizers: “We asked X number of women, and all of them said no to us. We tried our best.”

Speakers: “I did notice that there were no women on my panel, and I flagged the issue with the organizers. I’ve done my best.”

Attendees: “I paid for my ticket to attend this conference. It’s not my problem!”

As I work closely with conference organizers, I understand the challenges they face when recruiting women speakers. At Asian Scientist Magazine, we face similar issues when searching for female interviewees. Hence, for conference organizers to find more women speakers for their panels, I encourage them to cast their net wider across all sectors: academia, industry, government and non-profit.

For male colleagues deliberating over a speaking invitation, I recommend that they decline the opportunity if a female panelist cannot be found, as well as proactively suggest the names of their female colleagues. It will be helpful if more prominent individuals follow in the footsteps of Dr Collins and Dr Farrar, by publicly pledging to never again speak on a manel.

Even conference attendees can make an oversized impact on the diversity of panels, by calling out manels on social media platforms like LinkedIn. Peer pressure works, especially if the person speaking up is respected in their industry.

What women speakers can do

Although conference organizers and male speakers have leverage on how diverse a panel turns out, professional women can also take matters into their own hands.

I often hear women tell me that they do not want to be placed on a panel just because they are a woman. Here’s what I think – regardless of motivation, they should seize the opportunity when it is offered to them. They absolutely should say yes and then prove how much their opinion matters. In the event that they have commitments elsewhere, they can always recommend other women speakers.

Conference organizers regularly search for new speakers on Google and social media platforms. It is therefore critical for women to maintain their visibility on social media. A simple hack would be to complete their LinkedIn profile, and to include video clips or photos of past speaking engagements.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

Virtual networking aside, the value of real-life networking cannot be underestimated. As a start, women could commit to attending industry events regularly and following up with new contacts via email. At these events, they may meet younger women in search for mentors. By providing guidance to these younger women, they are creating a pipeline of future female leaders.

Frankly, having one woman on a panel is still not enough. The critical number is 50%! But it is more important that we start somewhere. To achieve true inclusion and diversity, everyone from conference organizers to speakers and attendees can do our part.