Rising number of 'manels' at webinars marks the urgent need for better gender representation
These 'manels', or all-male panels and conferences have become so rampant since 2010 that feminist groups all around the world have started calling them out, and many have even boycotted events that do not have women panellists.
On 21 April, the International Paediatric Association organised a webinar on the needs of women and newborn, partnering with the World Health Organisation and United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). It's an important issue in these critical times, but something was odd about the poster the organisation shared on their social-media channels — not one of the experts invited to speak on a subject affecting the lives of women and children was a woman.
A 'manel' is a panel of experts or participants at a conference or an event comprising only men. Holly Else in her article titled How to banish manels and manferences from scientific meetings published on Nature.com wrote that "the manference and its sibling — the ‘manel’, or male-only panel — have yet to reach the pages of dictionaries but first took off as hashtags on social media in the early 2010s." This pattern of all-male panels/conferences has become so rampant since 2010 that feminist groups all around the world have started calling them out, and many have even boycotted events that do not have women panellists.
Tumblr, in fact, has a blog named ‘Congrats! You Have an All-Male Panel’, which calls out events with men-only panels. Ungender, an advisory firm working in the field of diversity and inclusion at workplaces too curates manels in India on its Twitter handle to draw attention to this trend. Other Twitter handles such as @ManelWatchUS (calling out manels in the USA), @ManelWatch (calling out lack of gender diversity on various platforms in Ireland), @EUPanelWatch (calling out manels in the European Union), @ManelWatchAU (calling out all manels and all white panels (wanels) in Australia), and several other groups and individuals have taken up the job of calling out all-male panels to emphasise on the need for gender representation.
Why the outcry?
Historically, cisgender heterosexual men have held the megaphone either in policy-making or in participatory dialogue, despite the stupendous contribution in institutional learning, be it research, media, academia, medicine, politics, or STEM, by individuals belonging to other genders. Lack of gender diversity on a panel belittles the work put in by leaders/experts other than men in their respective fields. It invisibilises them and dismisses their labour. When men hold the mic all the time, we shoot gender equity in the foot. Upper caste and privileged men and women speaking for everyone else, appropriating experiences and voices of those who do not have the stage, is usually disastrous for intersectionality.
Since the lockdown started in India due to the COVID-19 pandemic, reputed law firms, start-ups, merchant chambers, and confederations of industries, who can still manage to conduct business from home or want to showcase industry knowledge, are heavily engaging online, with clients and masses. Webinars are on an unprecedented rise and are being conducted on various issues such as the stock market, hospitality, dispute resolution, labour and employment, mergers and acquisitions, angel investing, mental health and more. Women, somehow, are completely missing from these webinars, or are on the panel as token representation because they work in the firm or company conducting these webinars.
What we found
The Confederation of Indian Industry has conducted approximately 25 webinars (and counting) in April 2020 alone. Out of these 25 webinars thus far, women panelists were included only in six. One specific webinar that caught public attention was on 'HR Resilience Planning and Preparedness in the times of COVID-19: Revival to Survival', which was a panel of six male leaders and not a single woman expert/leader in the field of Human Resources. Still think that the uproar on manels is unfounded?
Token representation: One woman does not make a panel gender-balanced
There is the obvious all-male panel, and then there is the token representation panel, where a sole female expert/leader is asked to be present.
In a recent instance, LetsVenture, a Bengaluru-based company providing a platform for angel investing and startup fundraising, conducted a webinar titled 'Angel Investing Masterclass' and boasted of 10 industry experts on its panel. Out of these 10 panelists, nine male panelists were from the industry and law firms, whereas the sole woman panelist was from the company itself. This is what you call token representation.
In yet another leadership summit on challenges and trends in healthcare named 'Ayusmat 2020' organised by IIM Bengaluru in February 2020, out of 21 experts and leaders in the healthcare sector, there was only one female leader. While this female panellist was from the industry, surely there must be more female experts/leaders who have made their mark in the healthcare sector through innovation, investment and adoption.
Can we stop this?
Actively calling out these manels, most times, urges the organisers to either change the panel constitution, or at least provide their rationale behind not including women. However, calling out a manel once it is formed is not a proper solution. Only a conscious organiser understanding the need for gender representation will address the issue. In these situations, organisers are sent scurrying about finding female experts for the conference/panel discussion and last minute changes, which are logistical nightmares for organisers.
However, more often than not, calling out such manels falls on deaf ears, and any excuse for non-representation of women on the panel is also cooked-up. Professor Imogen Coe in her article titled How we can (finally) put an end to manels called the excuse-making 'conference speaker bingo', that is a card full of excuses for not having more female speakers.
On 20 February, Ungender called out the Health Tech Summit 2020 organised by ETHealthWorld.com as an all-male panel of eight speakers. On 6 March, a revised advertisement was published in the newspaper with the inclusion of three female panellists and shared on the Instagram handle of Ungender. This demonstrates that organisers are listening and there is hope to see an end to the phenomenon once and for all.
In any case, it is the foremost responsibility of a male panellist to inquire about other panellists. Male and female colleagues are working side by side, so an all-male panel cannot be justified under any circumstances. Male panellists should speak with the organisers and suggest the names of their female colleagues, or any other female leaders or experts in their field, in case an organiser fails to identify the female panellists themselves. Not being a part of a manel is another step that can be taken by the male speakers to ensure that organisers become conscious of the requirement of gender diversity on a panel as practice. A website called the 'Pledge – I will not be part of male-only panels', is calling out male leaders actively, and asking them to deny being part of this pattern.
Here's a positive example of how men can make that change. When we pointed out to Ashish Tulsian, the co-founder of Posist.com, that he should have stepped down from a manel he was invited to, this was his response:
I agree. Guilty of this. 🙌🏼
While women representation is less in the industry overall, but the fact that this doesnt even occur to me is concerning
Who should be on panel will remain prerogative of organisers bt I Promise to bring this up n push for it in every next opportunity
— Ashish Tulsian (@atulsian) April 18, 2020
Gender diversity and inclusion are needs of the hour, and it is only natural to expect representation from all genders in discussions and conferences of seminal importance in any field.
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Suruchi Kumar is PoSH Advisor and Legal Services Head at Ungender
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