After years of being excluded from science conferences and panels, women finally have a supporter in Dr. Frances S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health.
Collins, who led the Human Genome Project and has been N.I.H. director for a decade, released a statement titled “Time to End the Manel Tradition” where he announced that he would no longer be speaking at conferences that don’t show a strong commitment to diversifying their panelists.
Hundreds of studies have been dedicated to discovering why women are excluded from these conferences and panels when the number of women in STEM has been increasing steadily. Women don’t decline invitations at a greater rate than men, nor do they debate the importance of panels. The problem is so prevalent that these conferences have new names like “manel,” “manference,” and “himposium.”
Many of these studies suggest that if more women were chairs or committee members, perhaps there would be more female participation, yet women chairs aren’t always likely to pick other women for their conferences.
Collins’ statement is incredibly important in a time when many women are coming forward with tales of sexual assault in the scientific workplace, and are being shut out of opportunities to further their careers because of their gender. Collins has made strides within the Institute to make women feel safe by firing or disciplining 21 people and taking disciplinary action against 20 other staff members.
In his statement he wrote, “I want to send a clear message of concern: It is time to end the tradition in science of all-male speaking panels. Starting now, when I consider speaking invitations, I will expect a level playing field, where scientists of all backgrounds are evaluated fairly for speaking opportunities. If that attention to inclusiveness is not evident in the agenda, I will decline to take part. I challenge other scientific leaders across the biomedical enterprise to do the same.”
The statement was widely applauded by scientists around the world who have been waiting for diversity in their field for years. Yael Niv, a Princeton neuroscientist who started a website to track the gender balance of speakers at neuroscience conferences, is overjoyed at the news. “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. People really want him 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,” she said.
Collins’ reputation has also helped keep the ball rolling. Since his announcement, other prominent men in science have pledged to do the same.
Collins realizes it could be hard to bring in a large number of women in certain fields, yet he still wants to see the groups make an effort and have a plan. It’s all about making the science field a safe and productive place for women.