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How to counter ‘manels’ and make scientific meetings more inclusive

Atmospheric scientist Angie Pendergrass spoke to Nature about a newly-published guide to broadening participation in conferences.

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1927 Solvay Conference on Quantum Mechanics attendees.

One of these things is not like the others.Credit: Benjamin Couprie, Institut International de Physique de Solvay

Look around many scientific conferences, and older, white and male faces predominate. That’s why three science groups have just published a guide on how organizers can make scientific meetings more diverse and inclusive, in part by avoiding ‘manels’ — all-male panels. The report comes from the community groups 500 Women Scientists and the Earth Science Women’s Network and the Aspen Global Change Institute in Basalt, Colorado, which organizes interdisciplinary science workshops.

Nature sat down with Angie Pendergrass, an atmospheric scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, who coordinated the guide.

Discrimination on the basis of factors such as race and gender affects science in many ways. Why focus on conferences?

A lot of scientific culture happens within scientific institutions, but we think meetings are kind of a leverage point. It’s one place where we’re creating a shared scientific culture.

What do you want people to take away from this guide?

One of the main things is, you should make inclusion a priority and set goals and actively work on it. If you don’t actively work on it, you’re not going to succeed. It takes work, and sometimes it takes money. It’s important work to do. But it’s going to take effort.

Another key point is, you need to learn about bias1. We all have bias. Dealing with that, and having a plan to deal with it, is a super-important underlying aspect of this.

Why should meeting organizers try to increase diversity and inclusion?

The way things are is not fair; it’s not equitable. Hopefully you wouldn’t want that for your colleagues. If you’re not actively working on this, then you’re perpetuating the system the way it is. And the way it is is not good.

Having science be more diverse and more inclusive of different types of people makes for better science. There’s some documentation that if you have more diverse teams you have better outcomes, you have more innovation and more creativity2,3,4. People from different perspectives are able to challenge each other and move closer to the truth that we’re all seeking together.

What’s the difference between diversity and inclusion?

Diversity is when you have representation from different people, when they are physically present. Inclusion is going a step further, making sure these different people are also valued — that their voices are heard, and that they feel they are fully participating in the event. You can have all kinds of different people present, and that doesn’t mean they are full, equal participants in the event that you’re having.

How can meeting organizers assemble diverse speakers?

The first thing is just deciding that you need to diversify your speakers — saying something like, I’m going to decide that I’m not having all men on this panel.

And then, realize it’s going to take a little bit of extra effort. You have to find people who are not white, straight men, and invite them and get them to accept your invitation. You need to brace yourself, because women in particular turn down these invitations more. If you’re one of the small number of women in a field, you’re going to end up getting more invitations. We listed a couple of resources. There’s the ‘Request a Woman Scientist’ database, which might or might not be useful, depending on who is in your field. There are other resources, too.

Sometimes I send people to the Tumblr [that lists] manels and say, you don’t want to end up here, do you? Social shaming is really effective.

Dr. Angie Pendergrass in her office

Angie Pendergrass coordinated the writing of a guide to making scientific meetings more inclusive. Credit: Ryan Johnson (UCAR)

Any other tips?

When you’re at the beginning of the meeting, you’re setting up what the social dynamic is going to be for the remainder of the event. You can go a long way just stating, ‘It’s really important to go and see the posters, to make sure we’re valuing all the people at the meeting.’ Or have people who are presenting posters give a one- or two-minute presentation of their poster.

Take the important things, the key outcomes that need to be decided, and make sure they are formally structured as part of the meeting. If you’re a woman who has children who has not been able to stay for drinks at a meeting, you’re probably more aware of that. So, say, ‘There’s this big decision that needs to be made, and I’m going to make sure that we get this done in the formal hours of the meeting to make sure everyone has a say.’

One of the meetings I organized in the last year, I made a big effort to have childcare options available. Nobody ended up using the childcare. But it was available, and people knew it. That’s one super-specific narrow thing, but for participants who needed a more flexible situation, that made it possible so they could come to the meeting.

How can meeting organizers tell if they’re making a difference?

Data is really important. Collecting data about various aspects of diversity at your meeting, and getting feedback, is really important to demonstrate progress. And share that information publicly.

The metric to judge all of this by is what the impact is on the people, on science, on the participants in your meeting and on society. It’s not about your intentions. None of it is about you. What actually matters is what the impact is on other people.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01022-y

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

References

  1. 1.

    Banaji, M. R. & Greenwald, A. G. Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (Delacorte Press, 2013).

  2. 2.

    Nielsen, M. W. et al. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 114, 1740-1742 (2017).

  3. 3.

    Freeman, R. B. & Huang, W. NBER Working Paper 19905 https://doi.org/10.3386/w19905 (2014).

  4. 4.

    Campbell, L. G., Mehtani, S., Dozier, M. E. & Rinehart, J. PLoS ONE 8, e79147 (2013).

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