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Let’s all contribute to the demise of “manels”

NIH Director Francis Collins made news when he called for an end to all-male panels. Here, Michele Barry provides context and encourages all to take part.

Three years ago, at a medical conference in Nairobi, a panel of medical school deans discussed how they would ensure that Africa would offer the most progressive medical education available in the world. The panel consisted of only men, which happens so often at scientific conferences that people now refer to them as "manels." 

As a senior associate dean at the School of Medicine, I have sat through more manels than I can count. The most disturbing are the manels at conferences discussing maternal child health or the transmission of the Zika virus to pregnant women. It is inconceivable to me to discuss women's health issues and not include their voices.

That day in Nairobi, I had to comment even though I was in the minority. "If you want to lead as the most progressive continent, look at who's on your podium. You don't have a single woman," I said. Unexpectedly I got a standing ovation from the African women in that meeting.

Francis Collins, MD, PhD, the director of the National Institutes of Health, was also at that conference and tracked me down during a break between sessions. He challenged me to find a solution and I accepted his challenge, so long as he agreed to support my efforts.

Back at Stanford, where I direct the Center for Innovation in Global Health, I worked with my team to create the first Women Leaders In Global Health Conference, where women from around the world working in global health could come together, identify barriers to diversity and commit to building the solution. True to his word, Collins provided seed money for the conference, which launched with more than 400 attendees from nearly 100 countries.

Earlier this month, Collins surprised many when he announced that he would no longer accept invitations to speak on manels, or at conferences that hold them. I was not surprised and I applaud him for taking such a public stance. 

When women and other underrepresented groups are left out of conferences, their voices are not heard. When the questions and perspectives they bring are left out of the scientific discovery process, science suffers. And when it comes to health-related inquiries, we all lose out on better, more rigorously supported solutions. 

A speaker at the 2018 Women Leaders in Global Health conference in London.

As Hannah Valantine, MBBS, DSc, the chief officer for scientific workforce diversity at the NIH, has said, "Diversity enriches the quality of our science and ensures that our scientific endeavors are more ready to tackle complex problems." Inside the NIH, Valantine and Collins have instituted programs that have increased women in tenure track positions from 35% in 2014 to 42% today, Valantine told me.

In his statement, Collins wrote that "leaders must demonstrate their commitment through their actions," and he challenged other scientific leaders across the biomedical enterprise to follow his lead by saying no to manels. 

Owen Barder, PhD, the director of the Center for Global Development Europe, created an online pledge for men to say no to manels. In this country, the activist Gender Avengers Group created a similar pledge and have encouraged members of Congress to sign. 

I'm urging everyone to sign a pledge and decline to serve as a panelist at a public conference when there are no women on the panel. To move this concept from simply one good intention to action that creates better, more complete science, we need both men and women to engage. A useful list to ensure women are well represented if you are organizing a conference is available at the Consortium of Universities for Global Health.  

For Collins' call to take hold, we all need to take action. The future of science depends on it. 

Michele Barry, MD, is the founder and director of Stanford's Center for Innovation in Global Health. The Drs. Ben and A. Jess Shenson Professor of Medicine and a senior associate dean for global health, she also founded the Johnson & Johnson Global Health Scholars Program, which has sent more than 1,000 physicians overseas to underserved areas. 

Top photo of attendees at the first Women Leaders in Global Health Conference at Stanford by Rod Searcey; photo of woman speaking by Jody Berger

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