What is a “manel”? The word may sound foreign to many, but the phenomenon it describes is familiar to anyone who has ever attended conferences or seminars or watched television talk shows and debates. Manels are man-panels – all-male panel discussions with no women speakers – and the latest to take a public stand against them is Sree Sreenivasan, a digital media expert of Indian origin.

As the chief digital officer at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and a prominent technology journalist, Sreenivasan is frequently invited to speak on various panels at conferences and seminars. But in a Facebook post last fortnight, Sreenivasan announced that he would no longer speak on any all-male panels, and would not even accept invitations to attend any event featuring such “manels”. The decision was made as a pledge to his daughter and as an attempt to nurture a “mini-movement” towards more gender-diverse panels.

“There was a time I wouldn’t even notice this phenomenon, mainly because I was noticing diversity of other kinds – including me being the only brown person on a panel,” Sreenivasan told Scroll.in. “But once, in Delhi, I noticed I was on a panel where the problem wasn’t that there weren’t enough brown people, but that they were all men.”

Over the past two weeks, Sreenivasan’s Facebook post has attracted hundreds of likes and supportive comments but he is, of course, not the first to have raised this issue. Women across different fields of expertise have been lamenting the lack of female representation on panels for decades. There are name-and-shame blogs documenting manels and websites where hundreds of professionals and academicians have publicly pledged not to serve on all-male panels.

Despite these efforts, manels and the politics associated with them continue to be problems that speakers, particularly women, struggle to deal with everywhere.

‘It doesn’t occur to them to seek women out’

“I have been raising this issue for 20 years at every meeting and I am fed up with it,” said journalist Kalpana Sharma who frequently participates in journalism or media-related seminars. Sharma believes women are poorly represented in panel discussions because event organisers often don’t make an effort to reach out to female experts who may be just as qualified but not as well-known as male experts, precisely because of the lack of exposure.

“Organisers end up inviting the first few prominent experts they can think of, who are usually men," said Sharma. "It simply doesn’t occur to them to seek out women in the same field. I have been called as a moderator on otherwise male panels even though the discussion was about topics I know well enough to be a speaker.”

The biggest grouse for many women is being called to speak only on panels discussing gender-related issues.

“The panels I get invited to speak on are almost always about rape, domestic violence or other women’s issues, particularly when it comes to TV talk shows,” said Flavia Agnes, a prominent feminist lawyer in Mumbai and founder of the non-profit Majlis. “I keep asking organisers why they don’t call me to speak about other issues that I am vocal about – like minority rights or communal violence – but they almost never do.”

This tendency to restrict female participation to women’s issues works to the disadvantage of other general fields. “In the case of urban planning and policy issues, for instance, we really need the perspectives of women as much as men,” said Darryl D’Monte, a senior environment and urban policy journalist in Mumbai. “Women are often more familiar with the specific problems associated with slum rehabilitation and housing. So their presence on such panels shouldn’t be just tokenism.”

The tokenism debate

While few people dispute the need for panels to be diverse in terms of gender, race, caste or ability, the question of token representation of marginalised groups is contentious. Should a woman be invited on an otherwise all-male panel simply to make a point about diversity? Is that patronising, or is the point worth making even if a handful of women are present as tokens?

In a comment on Sreenivasan’s Facebook post, a woman argued emphatically that it is quality alone that matters. “If I go to a conference...I want the best and most qualified panellists. I don’t care if they are male or female and I certainly don’t need lesser qualified women on there just to make me feel supposedly valued and included,” the comment said.

But Neera Adarkar, a prominent architect in Mumbai, believes the issue is more complicated than that. “In architecture conferences, I don’t think I have seen tokenism – there are organisers who invite women speakers because they feel she is indispensible to the topic being discussed,” said Adarkar. “But for a woman to be on a panel, she has to be really excellent, while the men on the panel may be average.”

It all comes down to women having to go the extra mile to prove themselves in male-dominated industries. “As speakers on panels, men may or may not prepare hard for their presentations, because there is an inherent hierarchy that gives them a certain confidence,” said Adarkar. “But if I or any woman is speaking at a conference, she would make special efforts to prepare, because she feels a little more pressure to prove herself. She knows she is going to be a minority there, so people will be a little more alert.”

Both Sharma and Sreenivasan believe that most fields do not have a dearth of qualified women professionals, and in that context, token representation is better than have no representation at all. “People should be able to see that women can speak on various subjects,” said Sharma.