Notes on Diversity & Innovation (1)

It’s 2019, Folks. We Need to Stop “Manels” Once and for All

Anita Zielina is director of innovation and leadership at Craig Newmark School of Journalism in New York and will now be a regular contributor to FemaleOneZero. In her first column she writes about men-only-panels (manels)

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to curate my first-ever conference, Darwin & Marie, in my hometown, Vienna. We spent half a day discussing leadership and innovation in technology and life sciences with a special focus on female leaders and diversity. The conference came about when I became increasingly frustrated by the terribly undiverse setup of tech conferences (representing the equally terrible level of diversity in board rooms, but that is a different story); specifically, women being all too often reduced to the role of moderators, or not being on stage at all. The excuses I heard (and still hear) from organizers are plentiful — we just don’t know enough great women. The companies we invite always send men. We are focusing on C-Level, and there are just not enough female executives. There are not enough great female speakers. We invite women, but they decline. We had one woman, but she could not come, so we had to replace her with a guy. 

Are manels just the result of lazy organizers?

I’ve heard these excuses for years, and what I really wanted to find out when I curated the conference was if there are any substance behind them, or are they just weak excuses of lazy organizers?

The answers I found are a bit more complicated than I expected, and the solution is maybe not as straight forward as I’d hoped. Let’s start with some facts. It’s 2019 – and it is simply unacceptable to have a series of men-only-panels (manels) and a general lack of diversity at conferences. If you are the organizer of events of all kinds and sizes, you need to understand that and make diversity a priority – however difficult it might be.

If you say “We tried, but it did not work,” – you are not making it a priority.

If you say “Well, we asked women, but they declined,” – you are not making it a priority.

If you say “We wanted to, but the organizations just keep sending men,” – you are not making it a priority.

Many event coordinators pretend they care, but they don’t care enough.

That being said, some of the experiences I had organizing an event with a predominantly female audience and speakers made me see the other perspective as well. To get about 20 international female leaders on board, I approached about 100 (!) women for a speaking slot. Now keep in mind that those were women in my network, so they had some – first or second degree – connection with me, and, I assume, were therefore more likely to attend than strangers.

Maybe that is an average relation of requests versus commitments for events, that I don’t know – I am not a professional conference organizer. So I am not even going to ponder this number, although I find it surprising.

What did strike me were some of the reasons women mentioned when they declined. Childcare was an obvious one – the broader societal issue behind that being that, obviously, women still carry a majority of the weight of “family work”.

The female factor of manels

The second reason – and this made me cringe every time I read or heard it, was: “I am not sure I am competent enough to speak on that topic.” And to clarify, those were women who lead tech teams in multinational companies, founded successful startups, or are academic experts in their respective field at world-renowned universities. Ladies, have you ever – ever – heard a man say that sentence? Being modest is ok, but a certain level of self confidence is essential to break the barriers we are still facing as female leaders.

My least favorite excuse was the following one, because I find it the most dangerous misconception: “I have so much work to do, so I just don’t have time for things like this”. By ‘things like this’, the women I talked to meant time to travel, network, present on stage, promote themselves, build alliances, connect. There seems to be the misunderstanding that these things aren’t part of the job, and that is fundamentally wrong. Success is never just the result of good work in the office; it is the result of fostering human connections and building a sphere of influence. Hardly ever in my career did I hear a male manager decline a networking event or a keynote just because he had ‘too much work to do’. Let’s learn from that behavior and leave the office more often to grab a drink with peers – or to talk on a panel.


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