N.I.H. Director Vows to Decline Invitations to All-Male Speaking Panels

“It is not enough to give lip service to equality,” Francis Collins said, “leaders must demonstrate their commitment through their actions”

Francis Collins speaks during the Children's Tumor Foundation's 40th Anniversary at American Museum of Natural History on October 22, 2018. Photo by Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

They’ve been called “manferences,” “himposiums,” “manels” and more: expert panels where all or a majority of the speakers are men. And now, as Pam Belluck of the New York Times reports, National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins has taken a major stand against what he deems the “manel tradition.” In a statement, Collins said he will decline to speak at conferences or scientific meetings where women are “conspicuously missing in the marquee speaking slots.”

When considering invitations to conferences, Collins added, he will expect “a level playing field, where scientists of all backgrounds are evaluated fairly for speaking opportunities.” Collins tells Belluck that he won’t require any quotas for women speakers, but, he said, “I want to see the effort.” If an event’s agenda fails to measure up to his expectations, Collins vowed that he will not take part—and he challenged other scientific leaders to do the same.

The National Institutes of Health is, according to NBC News’ Erika Edwards, the largest source of biomedical funding in the world, investing more than $32 billion each year in medical research. Collins is thus an influential player in the scientific field, and his anti-manel pledge is already having a ripple effect. For instance, Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, tweeted at Collins that members of the trust “agree & have made a commitment & refuse to serve on panels or talk at events that do not honour the same commitment.”

Lopsided gender representation at expert conferences is not limited to the medical world, and the “no-manels movement” has spread across a number of fields, as Francie Diep of Pacific Standard points out. Sociologist Shaul Kelner, for example, vowed years ago that he would not participate in all-male panels. Male experts in the worlds of business and technology have done the same.

The manels issue, Collins suggested in his statement, is symptomatic of larger “cultural forces that tolerate gender harassment and limit the advancement of women.” In fact, the director’s pledge coincided with the relsease of an interim report that found 21.6 percent of N.I.H. employees experienced sexual harassment at work over the past 12 months, with women reporting higher rates of harassment than men—26.9 percent versus 12 percent, respectively. Last year, a landmark report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that sexual harassment was “rampant” in the STEM fields at colleges and universities. One survey revealed that nearly half of female medical students had been harrassed by staff or faculty members. Changing this culture and climate, the authors of the report concluded, will require sweeping measures, including “revising organizational systems and structures to value diversity, inclusion, and respect.”

In his statement, Collins stressed that “[i]t is not enough to give lip service to equality; leaders must demonstrate their commitment through their actions.” His decision to demand more accountability from organizers of speaking panels has been hailed by advocates.

“We’ve been working on this for years, and it’s great to have someone who’s a leading figure and a man do the same thing,” Princeton neuroscientist Yael Niv, who started a website that tracks speaker compositions at neuroscience conferences, tells Belluck of the Times. “People really want [Collins] at a conference—he brings the crowds. So if he says, ‘I’m not coming to your conference to give the keynote speech because I don’t see adequate representation,’ that is huge.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.