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At biotech’s biggest showcase, the lineup is light on female speakers

BIO International Convention is having 25 “manels,” or all-male panels, just weeks after the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council declared war on the manel, refusing to participate in or organize one.Charles Krupa/Associated Press/File 2007

Well, this is awkward.

The BIO International Convention, the biggest biotech gathering in the world, is coming to Boston next week. There will be the usual keynote speeches, fireside chats, and educational sessions. There will also be panel discussions — 25 of them “manels,” the dreaded all-male panel.

This just weeks after the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council declared war on the manel, refusing to participate in or organize one. The Cambridge trade group went as far as to say it will compel partners to adopt a similar stance.

MassBio will have a pavilion at the four-day confab, which is expected to draw about 17,500 attendees to the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, starting Monday. Still, the group doesn’t consider itself BIO’s partner; rather, the annual gathering is being organized by the world’s largest life-sciences trade group, Biotechnology Innovation Organization.


MassBio did have a word with BIO about the downside of all-male casting.

“At MassBio, we felt that now was the time for this policy so we can effect positive change,” said MassBio president Bob Coughlin. “We also realize other organizations may take more time to respond.”

No doubt planning for the BIO convention was well underway when MassBio issued its diversity policy for events. Maybe it was too late for BIO to course-correct, but that many manels? C’mon, that sends the wrong message to an industry that is desperately trying to recruit women and that perpetuates the image that power and knowledge belong only to men.

Helen Torley, chair of BIO’s workforce development, diversity and inclusion committee, offered up this explanation:

“Like MassBio, we are focused at BIO at increasing the diversity of our panels. We are not just focused on gender diversity,” said Torley, who is also chief executive of Halozyme Therapeutics, a San Diego biotech company.


Torley said BIO measures diversity more broadly, factoring in race and sexual orientation, which is why the group is not taking MassBio’s pledge to ban all-male panels.

GenderAvenger, a group that monitors gender diversity at events, pored over the schedule to determine that there would be 25 manels at BIO. By GenderAvenger’s tally, men will account for about 70 percent of the speakers and panelists at the convention.

That figure is in line with BIO’s own calculation that women make up about a third of the convention’s 860 speakers. That, according to BIO, represents a 30 percent improvement from last year.

Torley said the organization’s struggle to get women on panels reflects a larger issue in the industry.

“The real root cause: We need to advance women in biotech to become functional leaders, and we need to get more board members,” she said.

The statistics are depressing, according to a landmark study MassBio commissioned last year. Women enter the life sciences in equal numbers as men, and women aspire to the corner office or serve in the boardroom at similar rates as male peers. Yet only 1 in 4 “C-suite” executives are women, and only 1 in 10 board members are women.

Torley said she plans to propose that BIO create a database of women who would be good candidates to serve on biotech boards as well as on panels.

“We’ve got to make these talented women known and make them easier to find,” she said.


Meanwhile, GenderAvenger will be on social media and co-opting the convention’s hashtag, #BIO2018, to call for more women on panels and for BIO to commit to no manels in 2019. GenderAvenger also has an app that attendees can download to rate panel diversity and tweet photos of manels. Users can also praise panels that are gender-balanced.

“Our role is to amplify what is happening at conferences, to create an awareness of the value of women and why an organization is not valuing them enough to put them on panels and as keynote speakers,” said GenderAvenger cofounder Gina Glantz. “It begins to force an internal conversation. Someone at BIO won’t want this to happen again. They will be more sensitive when they have their next conference.”

Last week, 16 women met at District Hall for a strategy session on how to use the GenderAvenger app and online tool kit. Along with discussing upcoming conferences to track, the group is recruiting local leaders to sign the “GA Pledge,” which says: “I will not serve as a panelist at a public conference when there are no women on the panel.”

Glantz launched GenderAvenger in 2014, after she went on Facebook to rail about the prospect of an all-male panel that was to convene at the Harvard Kennedy School. Glantz, a veteran of political campaigns, was at the time a lecturer at the school’s Shorenstein Center. A blackout forced the cancellation of the event, and it was never rescheduled, but the response on social media made Glantz realize she was onto something.


GenderAvenger, a national group with a Massachusetts chapter, isn’t the only one in town squawking about the lack of women on panels. Bobbie Carlton, the marketing maven and founder of Innovation Nights, which showcases new local products, got so tired of seeing white guys on panels that she decided to create an online platform to make it easy for event managers to search for panelists and speakers. Manels happen because people tend to look just within their own networks.

Carlton’s three-year-old database, called Innovation Women, is free to event managers and lists 1,000 female speakers on everything from yoga to blockchain, at innovationwomen.com. I got a taste of how hard it might be to look for female biotech speakers; when I used the site, there were only eight names.

“Public speaking is a path to career enhancement, funding if you’re an entrepreneur; it’s board seats, it’s partnerships and customers,” Carlton said. “If we want the world to be different, this is the stuff we have to pay attention to.”

With sites like Innovation Women and efforts by GenderAvenger, there should be no more excuses when it comes to manels.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.