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Banishing Manferences and Manels

It’s safe to say that we’ve probably all had the experience of perusing the programme of an interesting conference or panel only to realise that the speaker list is dominated by men. In her article ‘How to Banish Manferences and Manels’, Holly Else explores the phenomena of manferences and manels. (As Else conscientiously points out, she only looks at men and women and does not analyse the representation of non-binary scientists.)

The problem is simple to describe but harder to solve. Conferences, panel discussions, and other important meetings often feature overwhelmingly male speakers. The phenomenon has been well documented on social media — for example on the Twitter account @ManelWatchAU and Saara Särmä’s Tumblr site on which she posts images of manels with the caption ‘Congrats, you have an all male panel!’. Fewer speaking invitations for women translate to accumulating disadvantages in academic careers — as the scientist behind @ManelWatchAU points out, speaking engagements are essential for demonstrating your international profile on grant applications.

Else takes a look at the invited speakers at nine major conferences in five STEM fields (neuroscience, artificial intelligence, chemistry, geology, and microbiology), and at first glance the numbers look good. All fields except chemistry saw a significant increase in the proportion of female invited speakers. But these kinds of promising statistics nonetheless cover up the problem that actual gender ratios can vary dramatically from year to year and from conference to conference. A meeting that in one year had an even 50-50 split among invited speakers can the next year go back to being almost entirely dominated by men.

So what can be done to banish manels and manferences? Among the ideas Else explores are quotas (though these can be tricky, especially when other axes of diversity are also at play) and specifically stating the gender ratio of a conference in order to raise accountability and awareness. And, as she points out, good practice builds on itself — when one conference or individual adopts diversity measures, others often follow suit.

To learn more, read the full article in Nature.

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