No more ‘manels’ – call to action on underrepresentation of women at medical conferences


By Megan Howe

29 Sep 2020

Neurology is one of many medical specialities in which women are underrepresented at academic medical conferences, a new study has found.

More than one-third of panels at medical conferences overall are ‘manels’ – consisting only of male speakers – with the proportion of female speakers as low as 6% in some specialties, according to a study published in JAMA Network Open.

For neurology, females accounted for a third (33.3%) of speakers at meetings in the Australasian region, and 20% of panels were manels – against a background of women making up 24% of the neurology workforce.

For international meetings, 41% of speakers at US neurology conferences were women, but 31% of panels were manels, according to the analysis of gender of invited lecturers, panellists, and planning committee members at 98 medical conferences held between March 2017 and November 2018.

The US authors of the study said gender inequity remained an issue at medical conferences, with invitations to speak serving as an important marker for doctors’ career progression.

Concern over male-dominated conferences had sparked a social media movement embodied by the Twitter hashtag #manel, the authors notes, with Twitter handles including @ManelWatchAU and @allmalepanels also highlighting the issue.

What the study found

Women accounted for 30% of the 23,440 speakers across the 98 medical conferences analysed, with the number varying widely by region and specialty.

The proportion of women speakers ranged from just 5.8% of speakers (at orthopaedic surgery conferences in Australasia) to 74.5% (at geriatrics conferences in Australasia).

Of the 5409 panels held at conferences, 37% were ‘manels’, while 7% consisted of women only.

In Australasia, orthopaedic surgery had the highest proportion of all-male panels (82.4%), followed by radiology (60.5%), neurosurgery (55.6%) and endocrinology (50%). On the flipside, geriatrics had no all-male panels, and 53.9% all-female panels.

In Europe, the proportion of female speakers at conferences was generally lower than the baseline proportion of women the speciality, while in US, the proportion of female speakers was generally higher.

Proportional representation of female speakers in Australasia was lowest at conferences on endocrinology (0.6) and oncology (0.7), followed by radiology, anaesthesiology, psychiatry, pathology and paediatrics (0.9 each).

Urology (2.5), cardiothoracic surgery (2.4), orthopaedic surgery (1.8) and cardiology and gastroenterology (both 1.7) had the highest proportion of female speakers in relation to the number of women in the specialty.

The researchers also looked at the planning committee for 82 conferences, finding that median proportion of women with steering committee membership was 33%.

There was a strong correlation between the proportion of women on steering committee and female speakers’ representation at conferences – with the authors suggesting that including women on planning committees could improve gender balance at conferences.

Underrepresentation of women must stop

An accompanying commentary article advised doctors who were invited to be part of a panel that lacked diversity should speak up and suggest alternate panelists – or consider declining the invitation.

The authors urged doctors to “call out” manels at medical conferences via Twitter.

Associate Professor Glynis Ross, a Sydney-based endocrinologist and President of the Australian Diabetes Society (ADS), said gender balance was an important consideration when inviting speakers to conferences.

“I think it is something that everybody should be very conscious of and some groups are probably doing better than others,” she said.

She said the ADS became aware its 2019 conference was male-dominated after some planned female speakers cancelled, and the society aimed to achieve a better gender balance in its upcoming 2020 virtual conference.

Associate Professor Ross suggested it may be a “matter of time” for some specialities like endocrinology to achieve gender equity at conferences. While the number of female trainees had grown significantly in the last decade, she said there would likely be a time lag before they reached the mid-senior career level that would see them invited as conference speakers and panellists.

Associate Professor Ross said she would be “nervous” about mandating a 50/50 gender split for speakers at medical conferences, because considerations such as the mix of expertise were also important.

And she would not reject an invitation to take part in a medical conference panel because it was male-dominated.

“That is probably not the best way to make stance. If you get involved in a panel and make a good contribution to, it will be more incentive to ask more women down the track.”

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