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‘All male panels’: what does it mean when they say they can’t find female experts?

Integrating women into scientific activities is just a matter of will and responsibility

‘All male panels’: cuando dicen que no encuentran expertas
A woman works in the cell cryopreservation room at the Hospital Clinic of Barcelona, on September 28, 2023.David Zorrakino / Europa Press (Europa Press)

We have data on the number of women working in different scientific disciplines. We have legislation that promotes and requires gender parity in the formation of commissions, working groups, evaluation tribunals and other bodies. All of this data and legislation has been applied, for several years, at all government levels: regional, federal and supranational. And, in the creation of all these “official” (and mandatory) working groups in the scientific field, generally speaking, there hasn’t been much difficulty in meeting the required gender parity.

Logically, there are specific scientific disciplines with a predominance of one of the sexes. In these fields, it’s necessary to search more intensively for representatives of the underrepresented sex. Still, overall, the equal formation of these groups has developed normally and correctly. This is what tends to happen in the public sphere of science.

However, when these scientific groups are private in nature — such as those that depend on scientific societies — the challenges in finding women for congresses, symposiums, meetings, conferences, roundtables and other such sessions are (according to the organizers) substantial. And this alleged difficulty results in the fact that scientific and technological programming still has a limited presence of women. Oftentimes, there isn’t a single female speaker. In recent days, various scientific events with this lack of female representation have been advertised, resulting in protests on social media.

When the organizers of events with this bias are alerted to the lack of women in their activities, their responses usually claim that there are no female experts in the specific field, or that the women who were invited declined. Another common response is that “the moderator is a woman.”

But what lies behind each of these events — which have been referred to as “manels” rather than panels — is that either there are apparently no women in that specialty, or that organizers simply (and egregiously) feel that there are no female scientists of the caliber required to be included. Regarding the first notion, we know that this isn’t the case: there are women present in all science and technology fields. Hence, the reason must be the second, which is most probably linked to a lack of skill — or will — when it comes to organizing said events.

The result is that these private scientific activities are considerably hindering the rise of women’s recognition. To a large extent, it’s the actions of scientific societies that help promote research careers, and gender parity isn’t common within these organizations. There’s no parity because — unlike in the public sectors of most high-income countries — it’s not mandatory, because the decisions are subjective and because there are groups of colleagues empowering each other (they call it “networking”) without any internal or external oversight.

The absence of women experts not only occurs in the programming organized by scientific societies. In fact, it’s also very common in a multitude of events organized by companies, schools, foundations and other events. This lack of equality is even more likely to be the case if the events are financially remunerated, as is the case with certain roundtables, reports for companies, or conferences.

At the Spanish Association of Women in Research and Technology (AMIT), we try to be alert to these discriminatory acts against women, not only because we know that our level of knowledge is equal to that of our male colleagues, but because women also need social and professional rewards that bolster our work. We’re also totally convinced that the conclusions on any matter will always be more scientific, more useful and fairer for men and women if there is gender parity.

Various male and female experts have analyzed how to eliminate so-called “manels.” There are formulas that are quite easy to follow. The first is that the support of men is needed. If you’re a man who is dedicated to science and technology and you’re invited to participate in an event, you should ask for the list of speakers to be sent to you. If there’s no gender parity on that list, don’t participate in the event, or, better yet, propose the name of a female colleague who can replace you. If the organizers don’t accept this, the most decent thing would be to not attend.

As audience members, whether we’re women or men, participating in one of those events without parity causes them to perpetuate themselves. So, it’s best to think about it before going to one. And for organizers: it’s clearly demonstrated that a diverse group of panelists and participants that includes women makes it much more likely that the outcomes will also be more diverse. Now, that doesn’t mean one should invite a woman just because she’s a woman: there are experts in all areas. Looking for them is key, because oftentimes, the problem can simply be found in the inability to conduct a proper search. There are resources that can help with this. At AMIT, for example, we’ve launched a database of experts that has been in operation since 2018. More than 3,900 female scientists and technologists are registered. There are also other related lists of experts that can be consulted.

Achieving gender parity in the sciences is just a question of will and responsibility. If all of us — or, at least, many of us — aim to end this form of discrimination, it will be much more difficult for it to continue happening.

Maite Paramio is president of the Spanish Association of Women in Research and Technology (AMIT).

Translated by Avik Jain Chatlani.

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