How to avoid all-male panels (manels)

The last time I blindly accepted an invitation to speak was in 2012, when I was invited to an exclusive round table on the future of linguistics at a renowned research institute. As a fresh postdoc I was honoured and bedazzled. When the programme was circulated, I got a friendly email from a colleague asking me how I’d ended up there, and whether I thought the future of linguistics was to be all male. Turns out the round table was not merely exclusive but also exclusionary. (Things that often go together.)

I was ashamed and embarrassed. Both that it happened and that I had not seen it. That was my introduction to the notion of an all-male panel, or manel for short. It seems stupid to me now, but that notion had not occurred to me before. Yet once I knew it, I saw it everywhere. I realized that I had been too dense to see what more than half the world’s population can’t help seeing.

The title of this post is ‘how to avoid manels’. I’m going to take it as a given that you understand why you might want to avoid them, but if you would like to sealion about that I would invite you to read up on the literature, starting maybe with Martell et al. (1996), followed by Martin (2016). I can also recommend the personal perspective from Särmä (2016), one of the folks behind the fabulous Tumblr blog Congrats, you have an all-male panel! Also let me note this post is aimed especially at (white, cis) men who keep finding themselves being invited to panels, or keep putting together panels without thinking about diversity.

So, how do you avoid manels? It is said that sophisticated people can hold up to ten rules in their mind but I’m going to boil it down to two:

  1. Don’t participate in them. This means —if you’re a (white, cis) male— pledging to not be part of line-ups where everybody looks like you, and letting organisers know at the first opportunity that this is a condition for your participation. In the film industry this is also called an inclusion rider or equity rider.
  2. Don’t organize them. This means thinking of diversity ahead of time. If you’re organizing panels or inviting speakers, diversity should not be an afterthought. In particular, don’t start thinking about it after you’ve invited the first five male speakers and one of them (if you’re lucky) mentions this.

For both #1 and #2 it’s good to be prepared to suggest speakers that you think should be represented. This holds especially if you’re a (white, cis) male, as too often, this kind of work falls to minoritized people. Oh, and two more things:

  • ‘But I can’t think of anyone!’ is probably more an indictment of your own thinking than of the state of the field. If you don’t know excellent speakers beyond a few white male usual suspects, you don’t know the field well enough.
  • Likewise ‘I tried, but they said no!‘ is not an excuse but more likely an indication that you started too late or went for the already overburdened superstar everyone reaches for. Branch out to early career researchers; platform new voices. It takes work to achieve diversity and inclusion.

There is more to say. Perhaps most importantly, underrepresentation is not just a gender issue, as a second look at just about any offending panel will show. Intersectionality matters. On this, Better Allies is worth following. Another thing is that many people have written about this more eloquently than I have; some references are below (and see, e.g., seminar speaker selection). And finally, today there are many resources to help you find excellent speakers, e.g., in one of my own fields, Women in Cognitive Science.

The Panel Pledge is now ten years old, but unfortunately no less relevant. The immediate reason to write this post was that I saw an advert for an all-male event on replication and open science methods in linguistics — a field where there is a lot of choice when it comes to qualified folks, and where the “bro” problem has specifically been called out by scholars like Whitaker and Guest (2020). I don’t know the speakers at this event and am sure they are qualified — but I hope they’ll sign the Panel Pledge and prevent themselves, the organisers and all of us from the embarassment of all-male panels in the future.

References and further reading

2 thoughts on “How to avoid all-male panels (manels)”

  1. Yes but an additional warning should be made against tokenism. It’s not enough to have the token minority represented, which I’ve also seen in panels. Believe me, the audience can and will notice.

  2. Agreed! Also, due to how things work, a pledge may mean that organisers reach for the most obvious non male choice (often a truly exceptional speaker), who consequently gets to be inundated with requests, which they can’t say yes to indiscriminately, which then gives organisers an excuse to say ‘but we tried’.

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