Envision a panel made up of the world’s top scientific experts. Who do you see? Unfortunately, it is likely that many of you, like me, thought of a lineup primarily comprised of men. I recently came across the term “manel” which describes the all-too-familiar sight of a cis-male-dominated presentation stage at scientific meetings and professional events across other sectors. Why is this still a thing?
According to a 2019 estimate, women in the United States comprise nearly 50 percent of biological scientists as well as life, physical, and social science occupations. However, conference panels have too-often neglected to include the voices of non-male scientists. Demands for the inclusion of more diverse voices have gained traction in recent years as prominent figures such as Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, call for change. In his 2019 statement, Collins pledged he will decline speaking invitations at events for which inclusivity is not evident on the agenda.
Despite efforts like this, a recent publication in JAMA Network Open found that women made up only 30 percent of speakers at 98 conferences across medical specialties. Researchers also found that 37 percent of panels consisted of men only, while a mere 7 percent consisted of women only. While prior studies suggested the unequally high proportion of all-male panels might be due to the gender imbalance present in the specific medical specialty, analysis performed by researchers in this study found that in all geographic regions and specialties studied, the number of women on planning committees was consistently associated with more female speakers. These findings suggest that all conference planning committees must pay special attention to creating a more diverse and inclusive environment and speaker lineup.
The composition of panels at conferences may seem like an odd subject of critique. However, manels concretely symbolize the deeper gender-based inequities that exist within science and other professional spheres. The people who speak on conference stages shape public perception of who the experts are, and manels silence important voices and leave out diverse perspectives. With this as historical precedent, it is no surprise that I initially envisioned a stage of men when asked to think about experts. This must change because spotlighting women on stage is a matter of shaping and fostering the next generation of brilliant female scientists. It is time for women to hold the microphone.
Ke'ala Akau is a fellow with Women's Health Research at Yale and a junior in Branford College majoring in the History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health. Read more on her blog: "Why Didn't I Know This?"