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The word “scientist” does not specify a gender. And yet, for eons — well, ever since conferences and symposiums emerged from the primordial academic soup — the majority of prominent scientific speakers and panelists have been men.
This phenomenon has been documented in studies and spawned many mocking monikers: “manference,” “himposium,” “manel.” People have tried to understand why the Y chromosome so dominates the dais and explain that there really should be more X.
Now, the effort to achieve better gender balance has a new high-profile champion: the director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis S. Collins. In a statement titled “Time to End the Manel Tradition,” Dr. Collins, who led the Human Genome Project and has been N.I.H. director for a decade, said on Wednesday he would no longer speak at conferences that do not show a strong commitment to diversifying the makeup of their panelists.
“I want to send a clear message of concern: It is time to end the tradition in science of all-male speaking panels,” Dr. Collins wrote.
“Starting now,” he added, “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.”
His announcement was applauded by scientists who have long urged speaker diversity at conferences.
“I’m amazed and I’m so happy that he made this announcement,” said Yael Niv, a Princeton neuroscientist, who started a website, biaswatchneuro.com, that tracks the gender balance of speakers at neuroscience conferences and measures them against the percentage of women in the field.
“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,” Dr. Niv said. “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.”
Some prominent men in science echoed Dr. Collins’s call.
Dr. Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, tweeted to Dr. Collins that he and others at his large global health nonprofit organization “agree and have made a commitment and refuse to serve on panels or talk at events that do not honor the same commitment.”
In an interview after his statement was released, Dr. Collins said, “Certainly white men are wonderful contributors to the biomedical enterprise — I’m one of them. But at the same time, there’s a tendency to neglect the fact that we have lots of other people contributing to research.”
Dr. Collins said he had also become “deeply concerned about the growing evidence of sexual harassment that has made the workplace in biomedicine an unfriendly place for women.” In February, the N.I.H. announced that after examining allegations at more than two dozen institutions whose scientists receive agency funding, 14 principal investigators were replaced and 21 were fired or otherwise disciplined by their institutions. The agency said it also took disciplinary actions against 20 staff members.
Dr. Niv said the issue of gender balance at conferences was frequently one of insufficient awareness and effort. Even women who organize conferences do not always invite more women to speak, she said, noting that her website was started in response to a conference organized by two women who invited 22 men and no women to speak.
She said she often sends conferences lists of female scientists and needs to point out that they are as experienced and qualified as some of the male scientists that were invited to speak.
Dr. Collins said that from now on, whenever he is asked to speak, he will say that “we want to see exactly how you handled this issue of inclusiveness — please tell us what you’re doing.” He will ask to see the final roster 30 days before the event.
Dr. Collins said he was not going to require any quota for women as speakers or direct other N.I.H. scientists to follow his example because “I would not want anybody to do this because they’re forced to.”
He acknowledged that in some areas it might be challenging to bring in a significant number of women. “I want to be totally reasonable about that,” he said. “But I want to see the effort.”
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