Committee to create diversity guidelines tackling all-male ‘manels’ at UBC-hosted events

UBC is forming a committee to address a lack of diversity at UBC-hosted panels and keynotes.

Spearheaded by Dr. Naznin Virji-Babul, senior advisor to the provost on women and gender-diverse faculty, the committee is looking at the university’s Inclusion Action Plan which stipulates diversity as a key goal.

Prevalent at various UBC-hosted conferences and panels, male speakers dominate these events so much that similar events have been nicknamed “manels.”

“You may be aware that the issue of ‘manels’ — i.e. keynote speakers and panel speakers who are primarily male, is increasingly being discussed on various blogs and websites across a wide range of disciplines,” Virji-Babul said in an emailed statement. “There is now increasing concern about the lack of diversity in invited and keynote speakers.”

Math professor Dr. Greg Martin and Asmin Chen of the Equity & Inclusion Office join Virji-Babul in leading the committee, which aims to create guidelines to increase the diversity of speakers at university-hosted events on and off campus.

The trio has recently sent out an open invitation to faculty, post-doctoral fellows and graduate students from both the UBC Vancouver and UBC Okanagan campuses to create the working group.

The male-dominant status quo is changing with many top science organizations banning all-male conferences and panels.

“Our goal is to address these concerns by bringing together a diverse group of faculty, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to develop guidelines and best practices for action for all members of the UBC community,” Virji-Babul said.

She added that those guidelines will in “no way” infringe on the academic freedom of conference organizers.

So far, Virji-Babul said the response has been “overwhelming.”

Studies show that white men are overrepresented in academia and that lacking representation is an obstacle for post-secondary students to pursue further education.

Graduate Student Society (GSS) President Kimani Karangu said that he’s heard of similar cases at UBC.

“One of the students … told me this student does not feel that they can advance to PhD level because the student does not see themselves themselves represented in the faculty or within the staff,” he said.

However, this is not saying that the graduate program at UBC is not diverse. Karangu said it’s quite the opposite — the graduate program is teeming with individuals from different backgrounds and cultures.

Karangu hopes that the uncomfortable conversation that will come from the committee will initiate action and not just words.

Even though the society was not invited, graduate students were invited in an open call through their departments. Karangu hopes that the GSS will be involved with the committee nevertheless.

The committee is still in early planning stages. Virji-Babul hopes to select committee members by the end of October and have a first draft of guidelines for review by mid-December.

“This is now the voice of the young,” Karangu said. “The young and the upcoming scientists or educators need to be promoted.”