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NIH Director Francis Collins: I won’t go on another all-male panel

The “manel” is a longstanding problem for women in STEM — and for science itself.

Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health
Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, has sworn off panels featuring only men.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

The director of the National Institutes of Health has had enough of all-male panels. And he’s vowed to do something about it.

“It is time to end the tradition in science of all-male speaking panels, sometimes wryly referred to as ‘manels,’” Dr. Francis Collins wrote in an online statement this week. “Too often, women and members of other groups underrepresented in science are conspicuously missing in the marquee speaking slots at scientific meetings and other high-level conferences.”

“When I consider speaking invitations, I will expect a level playing field, where scientists of all backgrounds are evaluated fairly for speaking opportunities,” he continued. “If that attention to inclusiveness is not evident in the agenda, I will decline to take part.”

Thousands of other people have already signed a variety of pledges not to participate in panels featuring only men, but Collins’s promise is a big deal because he’s one of the most high-profile public health officials out there.

He referred to a landmark 2018 study, “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequence in Academic Science, Engineering, and Medicine, which found that a high proportion of female science students experience harassment (20 percent of them experienced it at the University of Texas, for example).

The study emphasized that leaders in the sciences need to make their fields more welcoming to women — otherwise, promising female scientists will leave. Not only will they not end up on panels, but the world will also miss out on all the breakthroughs and treatments they could have produced. I personally know several brilliant women who’ve left the sciences because they were sick of getting sexually harassed in the lab.

“It is not enough to give lip service to equality,” Collins wrote. “Leaders must demonstrate their commitment through their actions.”

This problem isn’t limited to the sciences: 69 percent of professional event speakers are male, according to a recent survey spanning 23 countries.

Over the past five years or so, people have increasingly been taking action in a number of ways. For starters, they’ve compiled a bunch of lists and databases full of women experts on every subject imaginable, so that panel organizers can no longer use the “I just couldn’t find a qualified woman” excuse. There’s Request a Woman Scientist, Women Also Know Stuff, She Source, Informed Opinions, and Equalisters, just to name a few.

At the same time, people have gotten bolder about calling out “manels.” To that end, there’s the “Congrats, you have an all-male panel!” Twitter account, which posts photos of manels stamped with an image of David Hasselhoff giving a thumbs-up. It features some panels that are specifically dedicated to exploring issues that concern women, yet have zero women speakers. Here’s a roundtable on abortion laws in Poland:

I think this manel on women in math takes the cake.

There’s also the Gendered Conference Campaign, which keeps track of all-male philosophy conferences, of which there are a depressing number. (Philosophy departments are male-dominated, as I found out the hard way when I majored in the subject.) One of the conferences listed is a 2013 Oxford event about “Being a Human Being, Being a Person.” The organizers apparently thought it made perfect sense to contemplate what it means to be human without hearing from a single woman.

Lest you think it’s all doom and gloom, though, I leave you with the Gendered Conference Campaign’s theme song — because, yes, they have one of those, and it’s pretty awesome.

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