Dr. Nancy Wayne

Scientist, Educator & Speaker

YOU Can Help Solve the “Manel” Problem

A lot has been written about the “manel” problem in the past few years. For those of you not in the know, a manel refers to the ubiquitous all-male (or all-male plus one token female) panel of experts on some topic.

Manel image

Nature Publishing posted an article in December 2017 on their widely-read NatureJobs blog site, calling attention to research published in the venerable Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that female scientists across six different disciplines give disproportionately fewer colloquium talks at ‘top 50’ colleges or universities than do their male counterparts. Because these high-profile talks are important for scientists to demonstrate national recognition by their peers, outstanding women are not afforded the same opportunities for advancement as men. The authors of the original study note that their data “suggest that those who invite and schedule speakers serve as gender gatekeepers with the power to create or reduce gender differences in academic reputations.” This would be the case for any business or field, as well.

There are recent examples that have received a lot of ridicule regarding ‘manels’ on topics of gender equality. For example,

There are plenty of women experts in all sorts of fields, including STEM – and especially in the biomedical and life sciences. There is no excuse to ‘forget’ to invite women to speak at conferences and on panels. But, it takes awareness of the oversight and the will to make diversity and inclusion a priority for conference organizers.

Some good news:

The Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology held its 21st meeting in Long Beach, CA in June 2017. At this meeting, more than 50% of the invited speakers were women. When I asked one of the conference organizers if this was purposeful, she said that it was and that the organizers were committed to gender parity when inviting speakers. Given the large number of outstanding women scientists in that field, it was easy to draw-up a gender-diverse invitation list.

More good news:

I am co-hosting the 4th University of California Center for Laboratory Safety (UCCLS) Workshop in Chicago in May 2018. The figure below shows that the percent of women speakers in this workshop series climbed from 29% in 2012 to 62% in 2018. I was involved in organizing all four workshops, so why were we not at gender parity in 2012 and 2014? Why did I not influence the invitations and make sure that we had gender balance sooner? Thinking back, it occurs to me that there was a general lack of awareness – including my own – of women in the field of laboratory safety who could speak at our workshop.  I was new to the field when I started organizing these workshops, and was actually under the impression that there were relatively few women in this field. I was wrong. As my colleagues and I gained awareness about who was doing great work in this field, we were able to make the correction and balance the invitations. Does 62% women speakers in 2018 reflect an over-representation of women in this field? Did we over compensate? Perhaps, but not by much.

UCCLS Workshop Speakers 2012-18

What can people do to correct the (white) manel problem? Here’s what Slate Magazine recommends:

1.     (Whether you’re male or female) Diversify your professional network to include more women and underrepresented minority colleagues.

2.     If you are a conference organizer, be intentional in increasing diversity when you put together your speaker list.

3.     If you are a man and you’re invited to speak at a conference or on a panel, insist that there is gender equity. If there isn’t, decline the invitation and suggest substituting a woman colleague.

4.     Call out manels when you see them. There are gender equity campaigns and social media sites that track the presence of women speakers on panels, with the goal of making sure that women are part of the public dialogue. For example:

We are all responsible for making sure that there is equitable representation on expert panels and speaker lists in order to hear from a diverse array of experts. Studies have shown that diversity has measurable benefits, including increasing learning behavior and group performance. And that’s good for any organization.


Kaplan (2017) Tackling the #manel problem. NatureJobs.

Nittrouer et al (2018) Gender disparities in colloquium speakers at top universities. Proc Natl Acad Sci 115:104-108.

Jewell (2016) Here’s How To Have A Panel About Women At Davos. Buzzfeed.

Mosbergen (2017) Someone Thought An All-Male Panel On ‘Women’s Empowerment’ Was A Good Idea. Huffpost.

Matyszczyk (2018) BYU’s women-in-math session poster features, oh, all men. CNET.

Schulte (2017) There’s No Excuse for All-Male Panels. Here’s How to Fix Them. Slate.

Roberge and van Dick (2010) Recognizing the benefits of diversity: When and how does diversity increase group performance? Human Resource Management Review 20:205-308.

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2 comments on “YOU Can Help Solve the “Manel” Problem

  1. Jennifer Perkins
    April 2, 2018

    Great post on an important topic. The meeting I just attended seemed to do a good job with gender representation on the various panels, but self-identified that it needed to do more work on diversity. We’ll see what next year holds…

    • nwayne2014
      April 2, 2018

      Thanks. It seems that often times, once leadership is aware and commits themselves to inviting beyond the “usual suspects”, diversity increases and the meetings become more interesting. At least that’s been my experience.

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