A well-meaning manel is not a good panel

Every issue must not be boiled down to gender divide.

I came across this comment on Twitter, in response to a tweet (below) that announced a panel discussion entitled ‘In Defence of Science and Scientific Method’, all the panellists on which were men.

It strikes me that the time has come when the issue of science at least must be boiled down to the gender divide (among other divides of similar nature).

We have spent a lot of time and effort on science for science’s sake – the idea that we should look past the identities of individuals and to their scientific work. This idea has brought the world a long way, of course, but at a steep price, one that in hindsight we know we should never have paid: we have limited, excluded and/or ‘filtered out’ a considerable number of women, and indeed most non-cis-men. It’s not for nothing that historian of science Meera Nanda says in The Life of Science‘s new book that “the history of science is the history of exclusion of women”.

Enough also of men defending science: to extend Meera’s comment, any defence of science through history has ipso facto been a defence by men, of an enterprise dominated by men. I’d like to hear how the women would do it, or wouldn’t for that matter!

We don’t need an enterprise that promises a steady stream of technological benefits and increasing consciousness of the universe’s wonders in exchange for generational, and increasingly wicked, social inequities, psychological harm, and opportunities to abuse power. Obviously my decision to characterise science thus is exaggerated, yet every ‘explanation’ for why, say, a panel discussion is really a manel discussion is today increasingly indistinguishable from the excuses of the past in its outcome. Today, or indeed on any day you pick on which people are already generally aware of the ill-effects of hosting a manel, we need outcomes to change. This is why the gender-divide question deserves to take centre-stage no matter how well-meaning the organisers of an event have been.

The first time this happens – say, at a panel discussion, a conference, or an award ceremony – is going to throw a spanner in the works. That’s the bang with which the idea that “a manel is not a good panel” will begin. This is the principle of it. In practice, the problem is quite easy to solve: don’t organise a men-only event, or change its date, time, venue, or whatever so at least one woman (and people of other genders), but ideally more, are able to attend. We need to look at the science, and then peek around the door to ask who’s doing it.