When is a manel acceptable?
June 22, 2023
By Dominic Graham
The EcoSySTEM Asia Summit is about empowering women leaders — so why is there an all-male panel?
Under normal circumstances, all-male panels would not be allowed to happen at STEM conferences. In fact, there are rules in place to prevent them. But on the second day of the EcosySTEM Asia Summit for Leaders in STEM(opens in new tab/window), supported by a partnership with the Elsevier Foundation(opens in new tab/window), that taboo was an exception. Via a deliberately curated “manel,” an all-male panel comprising leaders in the field of science was provocatively but respectfully put on the hot seat.
Pictured above: Male allies answer tough questions on their experiences in actively enabling and unconsciously inhibiting gender diversity in STEM (from left): Moderator Jason Chan, APAC Communications Director, Elsevier; Dr Anders Karlsson, VP of Global Strategic Networks, Elsevier); Kashyap Chandrasekar, Head of Robotics Research, Dyson; and Brian Lin, Director of Editorial Content, EurekAlert! (Photo © Wildtype Media Group)
As panelist Brian Lin(opens in new tab/window), Director of Editorial Strategy at EurekAlert! at AAAS, proclaimed: “Just because you’re not guilty doesn’t mean you’re not responsible.”
And as Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat(opens in new tab/window) stated in his instructions to male allies the day before: “We need to do our part to ensure we aren’t part of the problem.”
Moderator Jason Chan(opens in new tab/window), Elsevier’s APAC Communications Director, made the point that apathy seems to be more prevalent in Asia, where the norm is to simply keep your head down and accept the status quo. “Challenging an established practice is not who I am or what I’ve been brought up on,” he said, “but I’ve come to realize that if I’m going to be standing for something, then I’ve to act and be heard. Coming into this manel so publicly as a moderator, I get to represent women in STEM in presenting their challenges and aspirations. That’s my affirmation for and responsibility to them as a male ally.”
Weeks later, I find myself asking: How exactly do I, as a male ally, actively ensure I’m not part of the problem?
Women represent less than a third of researchers globally, and in Asia, only 19% to 23% of researchers are women(opens in new tab/window). Regarding the Nobel Prize in science, women make up less than 4% of recipients. And even though gender diversity has been proven to drive better science(opens in new tab/window) — and women’s research, especially in the developing world, is driving ground-breaking discovery — women are far less likely than men to be in positions of seniority(opens in new tab/window).
The 2-day summit aims to mend the gap and empower Asian women to become leaders in STEM. “This is a space where the Foundation can make a real difference,” said Ylann Schemm(opens in new tab/window), Executive Director of The Elsevier Foundation. “Convening critical stakeholders and providing women scientists with networking, visibility and recognition, as well as spotlighting changemakers, can lead to even more opportunities.”
“We have 100 shots at the goal,” added Dr Julianna Chan(opens in new tab/window), CEO of EcosySTEM, a community for STEM professionals in Asia, and Architect of the Summit: “We hope at least one will score and that some of the content here will help light that spark.”
“To make positive changes, we have to build from the identity level up.”
The diversity of content offered was incredible, ranging from job-seeking tips for women returning to work to storytelling workshops and guidance on shifting to an empowered mindset. As Summit presenter Crystal Lim-Lange(opens in new tab/window), CEO and Co-Founder of the Forest Wolf leadership training firm, explained in her session on limiting self-beliefs: “If we want to make positive changes at work, we have to build from the identity level up.”
As a member of the LGBTQ+ community (and someone who has had their fair share of therapy), Crystal’s session spoke to me most of all. Limiting self-beliefs often originate as a defense mechanism in early development, a form of protecting ourselves from humiliation or worse. If left unchecked, these false narratives can turn toxic, inhibiting us and becoming self-fulfilling prophecies in adulthood. It is empowering to think that we hold the key to liberate ourselves from all of that. What if we can re-frame our experiences and how we see ourselves as a step towards leadership?
This strikes me as a necessary exercise for both men and women in plotting a path to, as Brian Lin put it, becoming “the role model we wished we had.”
“Risk in the status quo”
A related theme that echoed through the panel was the need to embrace change.
“The person who succeeded in the past 10 years won’t necessarily be successful in the next decade,” asserted Carolyn Chin-Parry(opens in new tab/window), Digital Innovation Leader at PwC, on a panel titled “Leadership of Tomorrow.”
“CEOs used to have the luxury of a 10-year plan, but no longer,” she said. “You must be willing to change, to learn, because there is risk in the status quo.”
Women scientists who challenge the status quo
The closing panel of the summit was among the most inspirational. It featured moving insights from three women scientists working in resource-constrained environments who were unafraid to challenge the status quo. Recipients of the 2023 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Early-Career Women Scientists in the Developing World — Dr Munkhjargal Tserendorj of Mongolia, Prof Renuka Attanayake of Sri Lanka and Prof Gawsia Wahidunnessa Chowdhury of Bangladesh — are all first-generation university goers working in the Global South who purposefully carved out spaces in their own offices so that students have somewhere to conduct their research.
“I have always followed the philosophy of ‘think globally, act locally,’” said Prof Chowdhury. “So those who don’t have an opportunity to travel afar to gain education … we bring back what we learn for them.”
This generosity, a habit of sharing success, was apparent in each of the panelists — and from the audience — some of whom expressed their hopes of returning to their home countries to do the same.
Hearing such sentiments, I felt grateful to have been able to participate in the summit, and especially proud that the Elsevier Foundation is supporting this dialogue. Such a program invites participants to be vulnerable, and in that vulnerability, it’s possible to discover shared identities and perspectives, which strengthens allyship. At the same time, we discover the limitations of our own experiences, paving the way for a deeper and intersectional understanding of the challenges women scientists in Asia face.
My own call to action
Of course, there’s still more work to be done. Afterwards, I reflected on how I can I actively ensure I’m doing my part and avoid being part of the problem. I may make mistakes fall short at times, but inspired by the women scientists and leadership coaches at the summit, I renewed my commitment to the following (and invite all male allies to do the same):
Advocate, always, for equal pay and opportunity for women.
Show up, be humble, be vulnerable and participate in (sometimes difficult) conversations. How? Make yourself available for panels on gender. Or why not join or sponsor your company’s ERG (employee resource group) supporting women? If that doesn’t exist, collaborate on starting one.
Acknowledge your privilege. What does that mean? It’s our responsibility to do the work to find out.
Share your success, and be conscious that you don’t hog “self-promotable” opportunities. You can also pay it forward via mentorship. Again, if there is no such program at your office, start one today.
Speak up when you hear or witness something out of line — inside or outside the office.
Challenge your own biases and behaviors. Start at home.
Listen to the voices of women and amplify them.
In that spirit, I asked two participants at the summit, young women researchers from SMART(opens in new tab/window) (opens in new tab/window), for their take on the content at the summit and what they will try to carry with them.
All opinions expressed in the article are those of the speakers and not the organizations they work for.