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To Highlight Gender Gaps, Scientists Decline Opportunities
To Highlight Gender Gaps, Scientists Decline Opportunities

To Highlight Gender Gaps, Scientists Decline Opportunities

Activists are protesting imbalanced conferences, editorial boards, and other professional activities by refusing to join.

Aug 24, 2018
Diana Kwon

When neuroscientist Rogier Kievit was invited to join a journal’s editorial board earlier this month, he took a look at the skewed gender ratio of its current members—21 men and 3 women—and said no thanks. 

Kievit, a junior faculty member at the University of Cambridge in the UK, is among a community of activists turning down professional opportunities due to a lack of female representation. This practice has become more common in recent years, as scientists on Twitter and other social media platforms have increasingly voiced their displeasure with the gender imbalance in conference panels (dubbed “manels” when they lack women speakers), editorial boards, and other academic roles. Websites such “Bias Watch Neuro” and “All Male Panels” have helped boost the visibility of this problem, and hundreds of professionals across various disciplines have signed pledges to refuse to serve on “manels.” 

Casper Albers, a statistician at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, says that he recently declined a position on the selection committee for his university’s new president. “The committee had four men and one woman, which was too imbalanced in my view,” Albers says. “So I talked with the council and decided to give my place to a female colleague.”

Empirical investigations of gender inequality in science have helped increase awareness within the scientific community. Last year, for example, Heather Ford, a paleoceanographer who was then at the University of Cambridge, and her colleagues examined the gender distribution of speakers at American Geophysical Union (AGU) meetings between 2014 and 2016 and reported that women received significantly fewer speaking opportunities than men. 

See “Women Are Underrepresented at Conferences: Study

There’s now a strong awareness of the underrepresentation of women in scientific gigs, and “people of both genders are getting more comfortable about openly complaining about these sorts of things,” Ford, who will be joining Queen Mary University of London next month, tells The Scientist. “On Twitter, people will openly [say] they are turning down ‘manels.’ I would say that the outward expression [of that] has increased in the last year.” 

See “Study Tracks Gender Ratios at Conferences

Naming and shaming the manel

Jonathan Eisen, a microbiologist at the University of California, Davis, first declined an offer to join a “manel” in 2014. Since then, he’s called attention to dozens of male-dominated scientific meetings on his blog

Conferences should be places where gender bias is easily addressed, says Eisen. Unlike decisions about hiring faculty, which typically involve multiple people across the university, it’s usually just one person who selects panel members, he adds. Still, manels happen, but Eisen also states that he’s noticed an increasing number of male colleagues turning down “manels” over the last year. While he can’t say for sure if that’s effecting any change, “I have seen way more big, medium, and small conferences trying to deal with these issues, and being successful with dealing with them on some level.” 

Microbiologist Elisabeth Bik, the scientific editorial director at uBiome, a San Francisco–based biotech company, says she too sees a better balance of women panelists and invited speakers at conferences, particularly within her field of microbiology (Bik has published a list of hundreds of female microbiome researchers to help address the “manel” problem). However, she adds, “there are still a lot of conferences that have not heard the word yet or aren’t willing to change.” 

Over the last few weeks, for example, at least two scientific meetings have been called out on Twitter for their lack of female speakers. Individuals taking action is important, Eisen says, but ultimately, “it should be up to the organizations, the societies, the departments, the journals to fix this, rather than requiring individuals to deal with this themselves.”

According to Kievit, his decision to turn down the editorial board invitation—and his reason for doing so—was well-received by the journal’s editor, who acknowledged the problem and indicated that he would invite more women to take on the role (Kievit declined to name the journal). 

More female representation on editorial boards will ultimately benefit the journals, Kievit says. “If you have a homogeneous editorial board, then you’re going to accept homogeneous papers, which in the long-run is not good for science.”  

Correction (August 27): The story has been updated to indicate that Rogier Kievit is currently a junior faculty member, not a postdoc, at the University of Cambridge. The Scientist regrets the error.