Say no to manels

Careers  Learning
07 September, 2020

Take a stand against all-men panels and, instead, promote more gender-diverse discussions

If conferences are meant to spread knowledge, empowerment, and fresh narratives for the benefit of everyone, why are men the storytellers-in-chief? Women deserve a seat at the table, and they deserve a microphone, too. Selena Rezvani, Leadership Speaker

Recently, an eminent medical association held a webinar on the needs of women and newborns, with a line-up of four experts. A premier business organisation hosted a discussion on HR challenges during the pandemic, with eight panelists. A tech company teamed up with a government agency to conduct an energy summit, featuring seven speakers.

While these three events were held by different organisations on different topics, they had one thing in common: they were all ‘manels’, i.e. all-male panel discussions with no women speakers.

As I was reflecting on this, I thought about some of the panels that I had recently been part of. In two of the last three panels that I participated in, the moderator was a woman. However, all panelists were men. A few days back, a colleague also raised this concern on male-only panels on a Whatsapp group that I am on.

The issue of manels has been steadily gaining traction over the past few areas, with concerned leaders and organisations drawing attention to it. Many of them have taken public stances and articulated policies against participating in or sponsoring male-only panels

Today, the concern with manels is more pressing than ever. Under COVID-19 lockdowns, organisations have been exploring new avenues to showcase their knowledge and engage with clients, industry and the public. There has been an unprecedented rise in online panel discussions, virtual conferences and webinars. It is critical that women get the opportunity to be more visible in these discussions.

Ungender, an Indian firm working in diversity and inclusion, has been tracking and calling out manels for the past many months. A quick look at their social media account reveals that the problem is deep-rooted: even eminent organisations are prone to hosting numerous discussions without a single female speaker.

So, this week, my message focuses on the need for more gender-diverse discussions. Why don’t we see enough women speakers on panels? And how can leaders push back against the disturbing trend of manels?

The reasons for manels

In many cases, the lack of diversity may not be intentional or malicious – it is simply the default setting. For example, organisers often complain that there are no prominent female experts in their field. In a Scroll article on manels, journalist Kalpana Sharma points out that this is a vicious cycle:

Women are poorly represented in panel discussions because event organisers often don’t make an effort to reach out to female experts who may be just as qualified but not as well-known as male experts, precisely because of the lack of exposure.

Women experts are less well-known than their male counterparts mainly because they aren’t invited to platforms that could give them the necessary public exposure. By returning to the same male-dominated pool of speakers time and again, event organisers keep reinforcing this imbalance.

To put it simply, women experts are less well-known than their male counterparts mainly because they aren’t invited to platforms that could give them the necessary public exposure. By returning to the same male-dominated pool of speakers time and again, organisers keep reinforcing this imbalance. As Rezvani points out: 

If your industry is known for lacking diversity, it’s even more important for women and minorities to see representation at your keynotes… 

Interestingly, even if women constitute a much smaller percentage of available speakers, probability dictates that they should be over-represented, not under-represented. Software developer Aanand Prasad has developed a helpful tool, Conference Diversity Distribution Calculator, where you can calculate the probable gender mix of a panel chosen via random selection, based on the size of the panel and the percentage of women among available speakers.

Another watch out is that women sometimes get called to speak only on panels discussing gender-related issues. For example, a female HR leader may be called to weigh in on topics around gender diversity and sexual harassment – but be left out of discussions on digitization, analytics and governance. Hence, female participation gets restricted to ‘women’s issues’, while gender-neutral discussions are mostly (or even entirely) comprised of male speakers.

Then, there is the question of tokenism. The Scroll piece mentioned above raises valid questions: 

Should a woman be invited on an otherwise all-male panel simply to make a point about diversity? Is that patronising, or is the point worth making even if a handful of women are present as tokens?

The fact is that female experts have just as much to contribute as their male counterparts. So why approach gender diversity simply as an item to be checked off a list?

In his op-ed piece in FT “Ending men-only panels is a spur to creativity”, Michael Skapinker mentions:

Impressive women can be found all over, with no question of diluting standards (and plenty of dull male speakers can be found at every conference). Nor, in my experience, is there any need to look for specifically “women’s voices” — just people who know what they are talking about and can do it well. 

… the search for female experts has led me in new directions. I have started out looking for someone to speak on one subject, and then found a female speaker who could talk about a related but more interesting one.

Here are some ways in which you can take a stand against manels and help to create more gender-diverse panels:

1. Take the pledge

As leaders, we can take a pledge to turn down invitations to all-male panels and conferences, both as speakers and as participants. Let’s make a commitment, be it publicly or privately, to only attend events that are inclusive and gender-balanced. Be sure to explain why you’re declining and clarify that you would be happy to attend if women panelists are brought on board. There are numerous cases where such feedback has had a positive impact.

In recent years, several male leaders and experts have taken a pledge to stop speaking at manels, among them Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the US National Institutes of Health; Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer for New York City; and David Rothkopf, foreign policy expert and CEO of The Rothkopf Group. In his Foreign Policy article on the puzzling lack of women participants at Davos, Rothkopf gives the reasoning behind his decision: 

On issue after issue – economics, politics, health, education, development, climate, combating extremism, stabilizing societies – you can’t have a serious discussion or effectively influence outcomes without including the perspectives of women…. I’d much rather participate in discussions where the organizers actually demonstrate that they are committed to producing the best possible work product.

2. Recommend your colleagues

The next time you’re invited to an all- or mostly-male discussion, call on the organisers to include more female speakers. Point out that the discussion will benefit from a diversity of voices, and suggest 3-5 suitable participants from among your co-workers and industry peers. Given that personal recommendations carry a lot of weight, this is an important step you can take to expand the pool of speakers. 

3. Create a resource

Since one of the commonly-heard excuses from organisers is that they can’t find any female speakers in their field, why not make this information more accessible? Industry leaders can kick-start and drive efforts to create a database of women experts in their field, highlighting their areas of specialisation and interest. This way, organisers will have an easy resource at their fingertips. Such databases already exist in some countries and industries; for example, Request a Woman Scientist and Visionary Voices Speakers Bureau.

4. Ensure gender-diverse panels

If the organisation you lead is holding a webinar or virtual panel discussion, insist on gender diversity. Ask your team to dig deeper and find women participants who will add value to the conversation. In the rare event that they are unable to find an adequate number of female speakers within the industry, ask them to cast a wider net across sectors – academia, government and non-profit.

5. Seize every opportunity

CEO Juliana Chan offers this advice: 

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.

Chang also advises women to maintain a visible and up-to-date Internet presence, since organisers often search for potential panelists online – even more so in the current WFH scenario. This includes creating a complete LinkedIn profile, preferably with clips of previous speaking engagements.

Manels have no place in organisations that claim to value inclusivity and diversity. Along with creating much-needed visibility for the contributions of women, gender-balanced panels also help to change public perception about who is an expert, who is a leader and who has earned the right to shape the conversation. Not to mention that amplifying female perspectives will enrich the dialogue and increase its relevance for all.


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