Should APSA and ISA have a “No Manels” Rule?

26 August 2017, 2013 EDT

The Financial Times just announced guidance that there will no longer be all male panels — manels — at any FT or partner events. It made me think whether APSA or ISA should adopt a similar policy.

The Emerging Norm Against Manels

In the past few years, we’ve seen a lot more attention directed towards the egregious presence of manels in international relations, particularly in events at think tanks and on talk shows. There is of course the Tumblr blog that has popularized the term, documenting the phenomenon in a range of disciplines and professions. The recognition of the imbalance in representation was one of the reasons for the network and hashtag Women Also Know Stuff.

Jacqueline O’Neill writing in Foreign Policy reported a few data points and principles for avoiding manels:

 While overall numbers are hard to come by, a Washington Post article noted that, at more than 200 Middle East-focused events hosted by six leading D.C. think tanks in 2014, a stunning 65 percent featured no women on stage. At this year’s World Economic Forum, only 23 percent of the speakers and moderators were women, and 20 percent of the panels — on topics as varied as energy, global debt, refugees, and the European financial outlook — were composed entirely of men.

recent study by Brookings looked at 45 congressional hearings on the Iran deal over the past year. Out of 140 named witnesses, only six were female.

Should ISA or APSA Adopt a “No Manels” Rule?

There are some sub-fields such as security studies which tend to be male-dominated though this likely extends to many other areas. It certainly seems true of my school, which is inter-discplinary but overwhelmingly male. Old boys networks often are self-perpetuating unless people self-consciously think about diversity. While some APSA/ISA section heads have actively sought to implement a “no manels rule,” I’m not aware of a formal rule for either organization. I’ve heard that at ISA, program chairs have strongly encouraged “no manels.” We have a few blog posts that have addressed this issue in the past (see here, here, here), but none of them seem to have data from ISA or APSA on how pervasive this problem is.

The FT approach of mandating no manels is attractive in its simplicity and ease of quantification. However, it focuses on only one aspect of diversity, potentially at the expense of others, as Cai Wilkinson points out:

However, settling for this quick fix has some potentially serious side effects for gender equity and diversity. Apparent practicality aside, a “just add women” response to AMP’s [All Manel Panels] risks perpetuating not only the notion that gender is binary, essentialized and visible, but also that gender parity between women and men should be prioritized over other axes of diversity.

I thought I’d take a quick look at a APSA 2017 security studies panels to see how many manels there were, and at first glance of the first 20 to 30 panels, I didn’t see any. But, it gets challenging when you start to have ambiguous names or names not easily recognized as indicative of a particular gender. As Wilkinson notes, this reduces gender equity to visible and easily intelligible markers. Moreover, as O’Neill argues, you could satisfy this rule by merely seeking to have a female discussant:

Panels are asked for their opinions and insights — their expertise — while moderators facilitate the conversation. Both are important roles, but they’re not the same. Women can, and should, fill both seats.

In some comments online, friends suggested that conferences should have a diversity rule rather than a no manels rule, but this raises a different issue, should this emergent norm in favor of diversity broadly, or no manels more narrowly, be a formal rule? While I imagine that academics might be more disposed than the general public to embrace this rule, I still worry about the potential for backlash, particularly in some of the cesses of the profession such as Poli Sci Rumors (or this).

While Poli Sci Rumors might not be indicative of the wider discipline, I think academics might object to being told what to do on-high, but the diffusion of this norm might yield progress without triggering the kind of backlash that a formal rule would. However, this would relegate improvement in gender representation to the relative awareness of the conference chairs and section heads each year.

Of course, these organizations could embrace a hybrid approach and adopt formal policies that mandate all section heads be strongly encouraged to reject manels. It appears that informally that this has already been done. I’m not involved enough in either organization to know how far along these discussions are beyond this.

Such a proactive approach should not just be left for leading organizations like APSA and ISA. When each of us are organizing smaller conferences at our home institutions, we should also keep in mind whether or not we are perpetuating gender imbalances in participation when there are accomplished women in the field (ditto for other sources of diversity).

Should You Serve on a Manel?

This raises a different question at the individual level. A colleague recently discovered he was assigned to a manel.  At this point, what should you as a male scholar do?  A number of male academics and other professionals have pledged not to serve on manels. So, when you get the invitation to participate, presumably you can review the participant list and (1) request that the panel be diversified or (2) decline to participate. At the very least, you can pledge not to organize manels in events that you organize.

The Way Forward

While we have impressions that manels are a widespread problem, we would be better served by empirical evidence of how widespread the phenomenon of manels is in conferences. In recent years, we have some important data on citation imbalancessyllabi imbalances (see also here). I haven’t seen comparable data on conferences, but I could see this data being useful to identifying how pervasive the problem is and whether there is some variation by section/topic.

I also imagine that this could be a rich area of study for the TRIP survey, which has examined the issue of gender diversity in the past, though I don’t think it has examined whether the norm of “no manels” has salience in the field. This might help us get some traction on whether there would much backlash to a formal rule, with specific questions asked about different potential policies that might address the perception of the need for gender/other sources of diversity and people’s willingness to support specific policies.

One final point, if you don’t think this issue is a problem, I’d be curious if we can have a productive conversation that assesses the sources of that judgment.