Avoiding ‘Manels’

At ZS, our firm-wide Inclusion and Diversity initiative is picking up steam, and it’s generating a lot of interesting and thought-provoking discussion about how we can continue to improve and evolve as a firm.

Just this week, my friend Arun Shastri sent me a short piece written by Francis Collins, who is the Director of the National Institutes of Health (where Arun’s wife is a practicing physician). Collins stated that “it is time to end the tradition in science of all-male speaking panels, sometimes wryly referred to as ‘manels’.” He goes on to say that if the agenda and panel do not appear inclusive, he will decline to participate. In a follow up piece by the New York Times, Collins also expressed his concerns about the growing evidence of sexual harrassment in biomedicine.

The original piece by Collins generated some good dialogue internally, and I wanted to share an excerpt of that exchange here, and hopefully broaden the discussion.

In the internal communities for our Unconscious Bias training, an article from the Economist was shared, which described some of the challenges facing women in academia. The article states:

On average, half of each seminar’s audience was female. Men, however, were over 2.5 times more likely to pose questions to the speakers—an action that may be viewed (rightly or wrongly) as a sign of greater competence.

This male skew in question-asking was observable, however, only in those seminars in which a man asked the first question. When a woman did so, the gender split in question-asking was, on average, proportional to that of the audience. Simply handing the microphone to a woman rather than a man when the floor is opened for questions may make a difference, however small, to one of academia’s most intractable problems.

It is discouraging to learn that women question-askers at conferences are underrepresented even in in subfields where women make up the majority of attendees. You can read more about that in this Science Magazine article, which also goes on to say that:

… if fewer women raise their hands in the first place, that could indicate women feeling their questions need to be flawlessly formulated before they can ask them, which leads to them not asking at all, Kaatz says. Women may fear that a poorly worded question gives the impression that they are less competent, she notes. Because women are often evaluated by higher standards, men “don’t have the same consequences as women do for saying things that aren’t perfect.”

There are so many things we’re proud of at ZS – our gender parity in salaries, raises, promotion rates and more. It is a wonderful place to work in many respects. But, there is always more we can do, and I’m pleased to be part of a team that is working to make bold and ambitious changes to both our firm demographics and our practices over time.

So, how do we take these insights from The Economist and Science Magazine forward in our own lives? For goodness sake, find qualified women for your public speaking engagements! Call on women first, or perhaps helping women formulate questions before opening the floor, which in turn might help them see the value in contributing to the conversation.

What else do you suggest? I’d love to hear your thoughts …

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