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How we can (finally) put an end to ‘manels’

Imogen Coe is Dean, Faculty of Science, Ryerson University.

The Globe and Mail's public health reporter André Picard recently withdrew from an invited panel at the 2017 Trottier Public Science Symposium at McGill University. "Regretfully, I've withdrawn from the #TrottierSymposium roundtable," he tweeted, "because it consists of 10 men." He received an outpouring of appreciation for holding the organizers of the event accountable for failing to put together a panel that looked like McGill, Montreal, Canada or the world.

The organizers should not need reminding that women are 50 per cent of humanity and are involved in all aspects of public life, science, arts, politics and many other human endeavours. Women have expertise, opinions, perspectives and insights. They also have voices that deserve to be heard. So it is a reasonable expectation that discussion and debate in many venues, panels and meetings held in Canada in 2017 would include men and women of different demographics.

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All-male panels have become known derisively as "manels" and have their own Tumblr blog. The range of topics on which men (and usually white men) are, apparently, exclusively experts is impressive and includes (but is not limited to) sustainable cities, infection biology, street photography, forestry research, youth economics, bioinformatics, block-chain technology and, remarkably, obstetrics, gynecology and infertility. Social media shaming has extended from "manels" to conferences, where the hashtag #YAMMM has gained popularity as people share examples of "yet another mostly male meeting." Lack of diversity on panels and in conferences is being called out.

The value of diversity as an economic imperative is well established. Diverse teams are more innovative and produce better outputs. Last week, at the Canadian Science Policy Conference, I hosted and moderated a panel on "Embedding equity, delivering diversity; The next 150 years in science." The CSPC lays out clear expectations for diversity in panels and learning to disrupt our natural unconscious bias enables intentionality around choosing to be inclusive. Consequently, our discussion on the topic of equity and diversity in STEM in Canada from the perspectives of gender, ethnicity, First Nations, disabilities, and age, was rich, substantive, thought-provoking and meaningful.

In contrast, at the same meeting, a session entitled "Artificial intelligence and discovery science: Playing to Canada's strengths" consisted of 14 panelists of whom only two were female. One of 14 appeared to be from a visible minority and all were from an older demographic. (The composition of this panel was clearly in contravention of CSPC expectations.) One panelist made a comment about investments – our taxpayer dollars – being used to start a dating service for the "fellows" working in Montreal so they could find partners, have babies and thus stay. Social media shaming for this sexist remark quickly followed.

The more pressing question is who has a platform to speak to a topic? Why have they been given that platform? And are there others who can contribute and bring different perspectives? Panels, conferences, meetings and teams are better because of diversity and the world of AI is an example where failure to embrace diversity will cost us all.

The opportunities and potential for AI and machine learning as transformational technologies are enormous, but concerns over the lack of diversity in research and development teams has been well reported and the bias that exists in current forms of AI/ML, have been known for years. Google Translate has a male default and shows the same gendered bias in language as exists in society. Gendered innovation is a real issue that requires an awareness that teams involved in innovation be diverse and inclusive and that this leads to better outcomes. For our science, our research, our governance, and yes, our panels and conferences.

Whether we are in science, business, industry, government or academia, we can all act with intentionality in terms of who is asked to participate in a discussion in a public forum. Men can formally pledge not to be on an all-male panel and, when asked, can be ready with a list of five women or members of under-represented groups who could be asked instead. Organizers have many resources at their fingertips to find experts who are also women. Leaders in all fields can make clear public statement to their communities (such as a scientific organization) that panels and meetings that look like humanity can be highly impactful. Hold others accountable. Jenny Martin, an Australian doctor, published a guide with 10 simple rules to achieve conference-speaker gender balance. Be aware of "conference speaker bingo" – a card full of excuses for not having more female speakers – and don't be the conference that wins.

Denise O'Neil Green, vice-president of diversity at Ryerson University, reminds us that diversity is a fact while inclusion in a choice.

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And Melanie Goodchild, the Senior Indigenous Research Fellow and Ambassador at The Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience, reminded me of something that voices like André Picard already know: We all have an obligation to share the platform.

Black on Bay Street: Hadiya Roderique's three ways to retain diverse talent (The Globe and Mail)
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