‘Manels’ have no place in business
All-male panels officially off limits at MassBio
By Shirley Leung
Globe Columnist

Bob Coughlin, president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, gets invited to speak at business events all the time. But he refuses to be part of the all-too-common all-male panel many have dubbed the “manel.’’

“When they showed me it was going to be a bunch of dudes, I said, ‘I’m not going to participate,’ ’’ said Coughlin.

He won’t name that particular life sciences conference, but he said he participated only after helping the organizer find a qualified high-profile woman to join the discussion.

The panel epiphany came earlier this year, and Coughlin decided it wasn’t enough that he take a stand. He wanted his staff and the trade group’s 1,100 members to boycott “manels.’’ MassBio — which conducts over 100 events annually — now pledges that it will not organize all-male panels and will strive for gender balance on its event planning committees. The group will also gather data so it can measure diversity of invited speakers and attendees.

And anyone who partners with MassBio on events should expect to follow the group’s rules, which it released last week so everyone is aware of them.

“The people who work in this industry are so progressive and inclusive. We would talk about these things. On a negative note, we talked about it a lot. We weren’t fixing things,’’ said Coughlin, a former state representative who has run MassBio for a decade. “If you want to change how things are, you need to change how you do things.’’

Women have come a long way in the corporate world, but the glass ceiling must be made out of Pyrex. Women continue to have a tough time breaking into boardrooms and CEO suites. The “manels’’ are just one more example, and they’re particularly insidious because they perpetuate the image of power and knowledge belonging only to men.

But the tide is turning on gender and racial diversity.

The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce under Jim Rooney has made sure women of color are well represented. They have made up half of the speakers at female networking events this year, and accounted for at least 20 percent of the chamber’s board training program, up from zero in 2017. The 28-member chamber staff itself is remarkably diverse: It’s almost all women and nearly half are minorities.

The Alliance for Business Leadership, which pushes a progressive agenda, has a female president, Jesse Mermell, and a female board chair, Beth Monaghan. In 2015, the board pledged that women or people of color will make up at least half of each new group of directors.

Even the Associated Industries of Massachusetts — which at times can feel like the cavemen of business groups — is paying attention. The group reviewed a decade’s worth of its events for me and was happy to report that all had at least one female panelist.

But AIM acknowledged it can do more, and at its annual meeting on Friday, the group will launch an initiative to diversify its board and staff. Women currently make up about a third of its 68-member board, and only five directors are people of color.

“We recognize we have a hell a lot of work to do in this area,’’ said AIM spokesman Chris Geehern.

At MassBio, the new event policy is part of an effort by the trade group to shake up the status quo in the male-dominated industry. In January 2017, MassBio got 100 life science leaders to sign a pledge to gender diversity. That fall the group released a 142-page eye-opening report — billed as the most comprehensive study on women in the industry — on why gender inequality persists, especially in leadership ranks. The study simply concluded: “The answer is that the system is broken.’’

In Massachusetts, women hold only 14 percent of the seats on life sciences boards, and women run only a quarter of the companies.

Diversity matters because study after study shows that a diverse workforce is better for the bottom line, and different viewpoints are particularly valuable to companies that require innovation to grow.

This year, MassBio hired Edie Stringfellow, a black woman, as its first director of diversity and inclusion. She was the one who took Coughlin’s idea and turned it into a multifaceted policy on diversity at events.

What makes MassBio’s approach a bit different is that it ultimately wants organizations and companies it works with to adopt a similar diversity policy for events.

Stringfellow said pushing the policy on other organizations is the only way to create a movement that can change the industry.

“When I say inclusion revolution, it’s not just a hashtag,’’ said Stringfellow, referring to the #inclusionrevolution phrase she likes to tweet out.

The tactic seems to be working.

Kevin Hrusovsky, founder of Powering Precision Health Summit, has pledged to adopt MassBio’s policy for its big conference in December. At last year’s summit, women made up the majority of the keynote speakers and more than a third of the panelists. But to Hrusovsky’s chagrin, there were a few all-male panels. Endorsing MassBio’s policy was a way to double down on gender diversity.

“I can do something here to further the cause,’’ said Hrusovsky.

Even the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau — the group I have vilified for tone deafness on diversity — will consider adopting a policy similar to MassBio’s after I shared it with them. The bureau’s multicultural committee, which met on Thursday, is recommending that the full board create such a policy.

“We’re diligently making sure that our mission and vision are represented in policies,’’ said Carole Copeland Thomas, a member of the board and chair of the multicultural committee. “This is a strong commitment to how diversity should be portrayed in the industry.’’

The momentum is real. Let me know if your organization is ready to step up.

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