The Head of NIH Will No Longer Participate in “Manels” — and Why Companies Should Take Note


Dr. Francis Collins knows difficult.

He led the Human Genome Project and he now heads the U.S. National Institutes of Health. His best-selling book, The Language of God, grappled with reconciling faith and science. And a few weeks back, he took a stand — not for the first time — in the uphill battle to get more women into science and to support the women already there. In a statement titled “Time to End the Manel Tradition,” Francis announced that he will no longer speak at conferences that aren’t committed to diversifying their panels.

“I want,” he wrote, “to send a clear message of concern: It is time to end the tradition in science of all-male speaking panels, sometimes wryly referred to as ‘manels.’ Too often, women and members of other groups underrepresented in science are conspicuously missing in the marquee speaking slots at scientific meetings and other high-level conferences.”

Francis’s position on so-called “manels” and “himposiums” is a reminder for companies that are looking to nurture diversity and inclusion: To be successful, diversity efforts need to infuse everything you do — recruiting, interviewing, hiring, employer branding, company culture, and beyond.

To recruit for diversity, companies need to have diverse recruiting teams

When candidates from underrepresented groups are considering a new job at a company, they want to see people who look like themselves succeeding and advancing. So, your career site and recruiting materials need, ideally, to feature women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and LBGTQ+ folks who are flourishing at your organization.

And it helps if they also see people like themselves on your recruiting team.

Rachel Williams, the head of equity, diversity, and inclusion talent acquisition at X, The Moonshot Factory, recalls when a company she worked for sent an all-white recruiting team to Howard, a historically black university. “It didn’t work out,” Rachel says.

And that shouldn’t come as a surprise. “Any company that is looking to hire diversity,” Rachel says, “should start with their own recruiting team.”

That advice — which seems obvious on the face of it — is too often ignored. Philip Dana, the VP of talent acquisition and HR operations for Zovio in San Diego, points out how your efforts to bring military veterans onboard can be similarly impaired if you don’t match your recruiters to your target demographic.

“I’ve seen too many times where companies will send a superyoung college recruiter to a military function and they’ll come back empty-handed,” Philip says. “Whereas there’s a former sergeant major right down the hall who’s been with your company for 10 years.” For even more fine-tuned recruiting, Philip suggests sending a former noncommissioned officer to recruit, say, technicians and a former enlisted person to recruit junior officers for roles as project managers.

Diverse interview panels will typically be less biased and will boost your hiring efforts

When employees from underrepresented groups are included on your interview teams, you show that you’re committed to different viewpoints and you send a positive signal to candidates who value diversity.

For example, Intel began requiring that all interview panels include at least two employees who were women or members of underrepresented communities in 2014. Before the mandate, 32% of new hires at Intel were women or people of color. Two years after the change, more than 45% were.

Another benefit of a diverse interview panel is that it will reduce unconscious bias in the hiring process and increase the chances for finding new employees who don’t come from the dominant group.

Diversity and inclusion requires a mind-set rather than a strategy

In the sciences, there has been a lively and ongoing conversation about the need to get more girls into STEM classes, particularly in undergraduate and graduate programs. But Francis Collins’s statement last week implicitly makes the point that such work, even if enormously successful, isn’t enough — science needs to have opportunities for women down the entire career path.

In much the same way, companies won’t achieve the diversity they’re aiming for simply by overhauling their sourcing and recruiting to focus on hiring more entry-level women and members of underrepresented groups. Women make up only 23% of senior VPs and C-suite executives in and United States and just 19% of the directors for S&P 1500 companies. Many executive teams and boards are merely closed-door “manels.” To get more women into senior leadership, companies can adapt the Rooney Rule and require female candidates for open leadership roles; create referral programs that target women; and design programs to train and retain women who are returning to the workforce.

The most successful diversity and inclusion efforts are woven into the fabric of everything a company does. They are not singular threads, no matter how bright or brilliant, attached separate from the rest. Similarly, companies do best to adopt a diversity mind-set rather than a diversity strategy. And that means they pay attention both to what’s happening with new hires — and what’s happening with senior leadership and the board of directors.  

Final thoughts: Organizations need to welcome — and celebrate — contributions from everyone

In 1953, British scientists Francis Crick and James Watson described the double-helix structure of DNA accurately for the first time. So, what did Crick and Watson actually discover?

Rosalind Franklin’s notes.

At least according to a science punchline that points to the overlooked but critically important work of a young British woman who was a remarkable chemist and X-ray crystallographer.

The history of science is replete with bold leaps, brilliant breakthroughs, and marginalized women. But, as Francis noted, welcoming women doesn’t necessarily mean dismissing men.

“Certainly,” Francis said, “white men are wonderful contributors to the biomedical enterprise — I’m one of them. But at the same time, there’s a tendency to neglect the fact that we have lots of other people contributing to research.”

His position was cheered by Yael Niv, a neuroscientist who started a website that monitors the gender balance of speakers at neuroscience conferences around the world. “We’ve been working on this for years,” Yael told The New York Times, “and it’s great to have someone who’s a leading figure and a man do the same thing.”

After the “manel” announcement, other male scientists came forward, embracing Francis Collins’s stance and making one final point on the issue: Women and members of other underrepresented groups need allies, white men who are willing to use their privilege on behalf of others by serving as mentors, sponsors, and champions to foster diversity and opportunities for all.

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*Photo from wikimedia 


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