The Emptiness of the All-Male Panel

Late last fall, Sophia Roosth, the Frederick S. Danziger Associate Professor in the History of Science at Harvard, sat in the back row of a packed auditorium at the university’s law school, where a gathering of experts discussed the ethics of growing human embryos in a lab.


For more than three hours, the panelists delved into the scientific, legal, and ethical considerations surrounding the current guidelines for growing human embryos. They also discussed synthetic embryos — embryo-like entities that scientists are starting to grow with stem cells rather than using a sperm and an egg from human bodies.

It was a wide-ranging discussion notable both for its importance and for its surprisingly one-sided perspective: The panelists numbered nine, and all of them were men.

“My assumption was probably I wasn’t speaking on [the panels] because it would be limited to scientists who were actually engaged in that kind of research,” Roosth later told me. “I didn’t realize that they were actually going to be bringing in bioethicists and other social scientists who would be speaking to the same issues that I’m trained to talk about.”

She continued to try to rationalize the exclusion. Perhaps she wasn’t invited to join the panel because she did not have tenure, or because her book, “Synthetic: How Life Got Made,” hadn’t yet been published? Or maybe, she thought, it was because she is not really a legal expert.

For their part, the Harvard event organizers say they did try to include women in the day’s discussion. “Melissa Lopes, Senior Research Compliance Officer at Harvard University, organized and introduced the event, and four women, experts in the field, were invited to present on day one, but were unable to due to scheduling conflicts,” university spokesman David Cameron wrote in an email.

Then again, another female faculty member with expertise in precisely these areas was also left merely to look on from the audience: Sheila Jasanoff, the Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School. Jasanoff is the founder and director of the school’s STS program, and an internationally respected expert on issues of ethics in science.

“They’re talking about the existence of an entity that normally would be in a woman’s womb,” Jasanoff said of the panel, “and it’s like if you’ve taken it outside the woman’s womb, then it becomes male property, then you don’t need to involve the woman.”

Roosth put it more simply: “The fact that Sheila Jasanoff wasn’t on the panel is bizarre.”

There is a word for these sorts of on-stage discussions populated exclusively by men: They’re called “manels,” and they’ve become so familiar that Twitter hashtags will easily unearth them (try #manel), and whole websites have been dedicated to their identification and ridicule. The most popular of these, “Congrats, you have an all male panel!” was launched two years ago by the Finnish feminist researcher Saara Särmä. The hashtag “#allmalepanel” had been circulating on Twitter for a few years already, Särmä said, and she worked to mainstream the discussion — and the terms.

“Humor, for me, is both a coping mechanism and a research interest,” Särmä said. “I wish there was an easy answer to why manels exist; then there would also be an easy fix for it.”

A fix is sorely needed. Far beyond the subject of reproduction, male-only panels are a symptom of a much bigger problem: the lack of representation and inclusion in science writ large. They perpetuate the stereotype that science, technology, engineering and mathematics, collectively known as the STEM fields, are solely the domain of men — an insidious form of discrimination that has had lasting and negative outcomes for generations of women.

“Discrimination isn’t a thunderbolt, it isn’t an abrupt slap in the face,” Yale University astrophysicist Meg Urry once wrote. “It’s the slow drumbeat of being underappreciated, feeling uncomfortable and encountering roadblocks along the path to success. These subtle distinctions help make women feel out of place.”

Science itself is diminished when they do — and not because it’s simply not fair. This is not about giving opportunities to people who are not men; it is about recognizing — and benefitting from — the intelligence and insights of a diverse group of people. It’s also about encouraging women, as well as other historically disenfranchised groups, to bring their talents to the domain of science.

Studies show that diversity is good for science and the world. Diversity makes us smarter. A diverse group asks more and different questions, ultimately producing better science. Without gender parity, without voices of people of color, of LGBTQ people, of people with disabilities, of people of different ages, with different spiritual practices and from geographically diverse places, we fail to report on and research accurately the society as a whole.

These realities are slowly beginning to percolate in the wider culture. A New Yorker magazine cover in April — a drawing of four female surgeons, head-to-head and peering out at the reader as if looking down at a patient — became social media gold, and was widely shared as part of an #ILookLikeaSurgeon movement on Twitter. Female surgeons around the globe posed for pictures replicating the image and shared these, too.

This comes on the heels of other longstanding movements aimed at foregrounding the participation of women and minorities in science, including This is What a Scientist Looks Like, launched by science writer Allie Wilkinson in 2012, or the #ILookLikeanEngineer campaign launched in 2015 by software engineer Isis Anchalee.

Meanwhile, others are directly chipping away at the prevalence of the manel. The economist Owen Barder, for example, has created an online pledge form where male experts can promise to never join an all-male panel. Gender Avenger, a community that ensures women are represented in the public dialogue, offers a similar pledge, as well as an app that lets users track gender imbalances and post about them on social media. BiasWatchNeuro has a stated goal of tracking gender representation at neuroscience conferences.

And these resources are growing outside the academic community as well. I am a former president of the Journalism and Women Symposium, which offers a Google form that will help panel organizers find women experts. There is also SheSource and Women Also Know Stuff for journalists and others to find female researchers.

I recently attended the Annual Bioethics Conference at Harvard Medical School, which this year was titled “The Ethics of Making Babies. Many women presented their work and contributed to the discussion.

I was also pleased to see a recent synthetic biology meeting actively committing to “promote diversity and equitable representation within the industry.” At the SynBioBeta conference in London in April organizers rightly bragged that nearly 47 percent of speakers were women. This was up from less than 30 percent at past conferences, the website noted.

In October of this year, Stanford will host a Women Leaders in Global Health conference.

“Women comprise as much as 75 percent of the health workforce in many countries and the majority of students in academic global health tracks,” the Stanford event page notes. “Yet they hold only 8 of 34 World Health Organization executive board positions and fewer than 1 in 4 global health leadership positions at the top 50 U.S. medical schools. Young women are entering the field in increasing numbers, but at each step of the ladder the percentage of women in power decreases.”

For all of the awareness-building, however, last fall’s all-male panel at Harvard suggests that far more work needs to be done — and Sheila Jasanoff herself is doing her part. In April, she spearheaded a symposium called Editorial Aspirations: Human Integrity at the Frontiers of Biology.

“With genome editing, there are two major female figures, [Jennifer] Doudna and [Emmanuelle] Charpentier,” Jasanoff told me. “And I could not get either of them.”

For the opening panel, that left her with Anthony Appiah from NYU, George Church from Harvard Medical School and MIT, I. Glenn Cohen from Harvard Law School and Feng Zhang from MIT and the Broad Institute. In other words, she had a manel.

“So,” she said, “I actually put myself into the panel.”

Lauren M. Whaley is a multimedia journalist who covers health care policy related to mental illness, perinatal care and health disparities. A 2016-17 Knight Science Journalism fellow, she is also a past president of the national organization Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS).