Avoid the Dreaded 'Manel': It's Time to Diversify Your Speaker Panel

This may sound familiar: You’re at a panel discussion and as you scan the speaker bios you realize that even though they are all more than qualified to speak, the panel will most likely not have the diversity of thought and differing perspectives you initially hoped for. Why? Because it’s not a panel at all, it’s a #manel (all-male panel).

Manels are not a new or rare problem, our 2017 Live Engagement Benchmark Report found that only 37 percent of speakers were female. And a 2015 study of top tech conferences in the Bay Area found that only 25 percent of people slated to speak over the course of the year were women. There is even an entire Tumblr page solely dedicated to sarcastically congratulating companies for their all male panels. The good news is that event planners are uniquely situated to tackle this problem.

Working with content managers or product marketers to bring more diversity to your panels will not only result in a more interesting and dynamic discussion, it underscores your company’s respect for the different perspectives and people that exist in your industry. Panelists and speakers also serve as role models and thought leaders for younger generations in the workforce. It’s time to do better.

Here are 5 tips to diversify your next panel.

1. Reach outside your own network

The first place a panel organizer typically looks for panelists is within their own network. It makes sense, they would be silly not to take advantage of the amazing people they have come to know and respect over the years. But if they stop there, it’s no surprise that most of the panelists will probably look and think like they do. As the event organizer, encourage panel organizers to reach out to an all-star female panelist, but then take it a step further by and asking if that panelist could recommend other women in the industry to speak. More often than not, they will happily recommend other highly qualified panelists.

2. Choose your language carefully

The language you use in your outreach efforts can have a big effect on who chooses to respond. And unconscious bias—when we use language that shows an inherent preference towards one type of person — could be keeping the people you are trying to attract from coming forward. Are you trying to find a “killer speaker” for the job? This type of aggressive language is more likely to attract males than females.

Instead, use language in sourcing speakers that appeal to a diverse pool of experts, such as “all perspectives welcome,” says Carol Sankar, founder of The Confidence Factor for Women in Leadership.

3. Provide travel funds and child care

The Family Caregiver Alliance estimates women account for between 58-68 percent of family caregivers. This means they typically have less flexibility in their schedules, when it comes to attending conferences. By ensuring there are travel funds and child care built into your budget for speakers you are more likely to ensure whoever you ask – male or female – can attend.

4. Make sure your event planning committee is diverse

Panel speakers tend to mirror the people who organized the panel. A study, involving nearly 2,000 speakers found that 104 all-male planning teams ended up with only 25 percent female speakers, whereas the 112 teams that included at least one woman, had 43 percent female speakers. By including a variety of genders and perspectives on your committee you are much more likely to see the same reflected in the line-up when the big day comes.

5. Don’t follow the status quo

There are certain industries, STEM fields in particular, where women are notoriously underrepresented at the top of the field. When searching for speakers, don’t just seek out people who have been recognized with awards or previous speaking opportunities. Take a risk on lesser known but equally qualified up and coming talent and you will not only diversify your panel but also differentiate your event from all the others covering similar topics.

“If panels and conference speakers fail to diversify, which is a primary complaint at events, [they] will continue to exclude attendees from registering for future events,” Sankar says.