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#SayNoToManels- A Hype or an Urgent Need? – In conversation with Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Through a friendly video chat, Dr. Jenice Jean Goveas connects with Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Head, Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative, and Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation to get answers to some pressing questions on a hot topic that has a trending hashtag #SayNoToManels. Dr. Pillai has been vociferously campaigning against all-male panels or ‘Manels’ on social media and other fora. In this conversation, she dissects the problems with, about and around manels. 


Jenice: The Lockdown has definitely increased the number of online discussions and panels. However, the excuses of non-availability of female experts and selection of ‘best in the field’ (irrespective of gender) is used to justify manels to such an extent, that there have been Manels to discuss women-related problems. What could be the underlying reasons for such gender exclusion?

Raji: This is indeed a very interesting topic. Manels are not a new phenomenon nor are the efforts to call out manels. They have always existed in society but have clearly gained greater visibility  especially under the lockdown situation  where everybody is trying to showcase online discussions, webinars etc. Therefore, we are beginning to see a lot of events that are completely male-dominated and a burst of manels. It is a reflection of the social bias that has prevailed in our society for decades and centuries. We are beginning to call out manels again because social media, I believe, provides us with an effective tool and our efforts are heard and seen to a large extent. Manels are a reflection of our blindness towards this bias. I have spoken to many organisers of these manels and it doesn’t even occur to them that they are doing anything wrong. They are not conscious of the fact that they don’t have any woman on the panel. Most recently there was an online summit on China where there were dozens of men who were not even top line experts whereas there are equally good and even more qualified women experts in the field. They are not given a space or chance to voice their opinion. Organisers give the silliest of arguments like time zone issues. The lockdown should have made it easier for women to be a part of such conversations but it is clearly not the case. Many of these meetings are organized by men who simply call out their immediate peers but don’t make an extra effort to expand their circle of experts.

Jenice: Don’t you feel that manels are actually a superficial manifestation of a more systemic, chronic and complex problem? How important is it to provide visibility to professional women and change the public perception that subject and technical experts can be women too? 

Raji: Like I said, manels are a reflection of the patriarchal society, therefore, very deep rooted in the Indian case. It is going to take a lot of sustained effort to change this to bring in diversity, balance and inclusiveness in our conversation if we want to have more nuanced discussions and debates of the subject. So far, repeated efforts that try to engage such organisations to convey the message that there is a need to make panels more diverse has met scant success. You and I encounter this problem many times. Nevertheless, I would say the effort has to continue because the absence of women means a significant expertise is lost because of gender bias. An entire body of work done by women is ignored  because they are not given the space or platform to talk. Manels are skewed and unhealthy; they have to stop. 

Jenice: Looking deeper into the factors causing such exclusion, do you believe that ‘Manels’ are just a microcosm of poor female representation in leadership positions? How can we enhance women participation and bring more women to come forward from ‘behind the scenes’?

Raji: Absence of women in senior levels and leadership positions affect to a large extent in continuing the unhealthy practice of manels. The question is, can a couple of women break this glass ceiling and change the role of women in general or even within smaller domains like international relations or security studies? Even though there is an increase in the number of women as compared to more than 20 years ago when I started my career in this field, the numbers begin to dwindle as one looks at the higher levels. The number of women, for instance, graduating in international relations has seen an uptick but is not necessarily reflected in leadership in think tanks or even government bureaucracies. This is also seen in the number of women in the senior executive positions or mentoring or supervisory roles. Women make a sizable number in pure numerical terms but their upward mobility to senior and management positions have been limited. Having female peers and leaders is important because it can get lonely otherwise. There are plenty of men who will try and bring you down and don’t give you that opportunity.  I have experienced so many such instances even after I made a reasonable name for myself. 

Jenice: While we often criticise Manel organisers, do the panellists and participants/attendees in these manels also have a role in addressing this problem? Don’t you think if eminent experts and practitioners decline to be a part of manels, it would send a strong message to the community at large? For that matter, is there a need for such action? 

Raji: I think it could help the case a great deal if the speakers are also cognizant of the issue of manels and they do not accept the invitation if the panels are not inclusive, balanced or diverse. But everyone appears to be in a rat race, so they don’t want to miss opportunities. I have seen very few men who say that without appropriate representation, they will not be a part of a panel. I see repeat offenders in the few months that I have been a warrior on manel issues be it on the United Nations Security Council, China or nuclear issues. Some don’t even know what ‘manel’ means. So, speakers and panelists have an equal responsibility in addressing this issue. 

Jenice: How important is it for organisations to have a clear policy against Manels, not just in terms of organising them but also in terms of participation?

Raji: Every organisation should have a policy of ‘No Manels’and have an inclusive, gender and age wise balance. Luckily I belong to an organisation that had taken up a policy decision on the subject well before it became the hot issue. At ORF, we always bring in diversities of various kinds. Age and gender have always had a prominent role in determining the panelists but also in terms of the overall participation. But I think it is essential that the management of  every organisation needs to be sensitive and that is possible if women are also part of the management. It is important for an organisation to provide an inclusive and balanced work environment because it instills different perspectives and viewpoints and that gives a wider range of perspectives. It is essential, as a good policy comes out of good academics. It’s a continuous and a cyclical process. It’s essential to have an institutional policy at the highest level not to have manels and to have balanced and inclusive platforms. 

Jenice: There is a section of people who support ‘Wanels’ as a means of countering ‘Manels’. Do you agree with this line of logic? How urgent is the need to sensitise people on the priority for inclusion and not as a male vs female issue?.

Raji: I see this wanel issue also gaining some traction. We all need to recognise that it’s not a male against female issue and therefore wanels do not make sense to me. Infact, some of the organisations justify manels stating that they have recently organised wanels as well, hence it’s okay. But it’s not okay. Some others justify that women are working behind the scenes. My question is, why are women behind the scenes? Qualified women should not be just organising panels but should be a part of them. Hence, it should not be exclusive either ways for men or women. Having different perspectives under one roof is a much healthier practice. 

Jenice: Generally, male domination is seen even today in certain fields particularly in international relations, defence, space, nuclear and strategic technologies. As one of the few women-experts that people know, how has your experience been in terms of attitudes of your male counterparts towards you during professional interactions. Has it changed over the years?

Raji: More than 25 years ago, I came from Kerala to pursue my M.Phil-Ph.D Programme. It may have been slightly better because when I came to JNU, I did see a number of women, both faculty and students. Even though the field was dominated by men, we still had a few role models like Prof. Urmila Phadnis. There was a bit of comfort seeing other women at top positions. After my M. Phil, I joined The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), a ministry of defence funded think tank where there were no women at the leadership, top level but there were a lot of women scholars. Thereafter, I went to the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) and towards the end of my five year stint, there was Ambassador Leela Ponnappa, who was the Deputy National Security Advisor. I was fortunate to see a lot of women and not feel so isolated, but I think as you are growing up you start recognising this problem slowly. In the earlier days, I tended to accept these things as natural and an extension of the patriarchal system that we have been part of. Therefore, I assumed that international relations, security studies, and defence are to be done only by men. But it is only when one gets older one starts questioning this dominance by men alone. And for me this became particularly loud in my mid-career, when I started attending professional meetings. For instance, when you want to intervene in a conference, first of all you are ignored most of the time because you don’t look old or don’t have grey hair and you are a woman. There are also a whole lot of situations when you make a comment and your comment is ignored but when men make the same comment they are tagged on. Initially, it was a lot of irritation but then you start to wonder why this is happening? You start addressing it and begin to most fiercely write  and take up these issues. 

When I came to JNU, I didn’t know anyone and all my classmates came from prominent colleges and families with elite backgrounds. As a woman, it was an added disadvantage and I had to battle it. 

I think this is something that everybody goes through but you have to be convinced as to what you are doing and why you are doing it. There have been repeated incidents where people have tried to stop me. For example, in early 2000, when I had to attend a conference my Director told me that I was too young and asked me to give my paper to an older man to present. But I protested. People try to box you into various things like- you are a woman and you will not be capable of doing defence or security studies. So you won’t get the opportunity. But you have to fight it out. And then there is no substitute to hard work. 

But there were some unexpected turns as well in my role at the NSCS and in 2018, I was privileged to be a part of the UN Group of Governmental Experts as a technical advisor for  Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). I was associated with the UN Institute of Disarmament and Research (UNIDIR) for a year and this year, in the Science Technology and Innovation Policy 2020 process, I was privileged to be co-chairing the thematic group on strategic technologies. Things will begin to show up, but these are struggles and disadvantages that a woman goes through unfortunately in our society. 

Jenice: I wonder if the onus also lies with women themselves. Socio-cultural impacts generally decrease the confidence of women and validate stereotypes that associate capability with masculinity and physical strength; a man is considered more capable in certain outgoing professions like national security. Often, opportunities given to women are not more than tokenism. How can institutions get away with such practices? 

Raji : As women, we always tend to doubt ourselves and our capabilities. One of the organisers on gender studies commented, “I have never come across a man who doubts himself but as women we are always doubting ourselves.” We are always shaped by our surroundings where we are constantly told, “you cannot do military or security studies, or engage in technologies” and are constantly conditioned. 

First don’t go with fashion. One must have passion and courage because whatever field that we choose , we are going to spend 30 years around there. So we have to be absolutely certain as to why we are doing what we are doing. Choose the path accordingly. Second, develop self confidence and the courage of conviction. Then, despite the efforts to pull you down, you will have the confidence to pull through situations. Another important aspect is to have female mentors who are in leadership positions and your own peers, a support group that you can lean on. Otherwise you can lose your way and the confidence that you can do something meaningful. Today’s younger generations are all capable, and have great ideas. Having a role model to guide them will be very helpful to steer their path ahead and follow their dreams. 

Jenice: Speaking of conditioning, how important is the role of family and parents in terms of nurturing their children to make them strong women who can negate criticisms as well as bring them up?

Raji: I have had a very supportive family. I have been lucky that my parents have given me the freedom to choose my field, especially coming from Kerala where there is a fascination for medical and engineering. Pursuing humanities that too political science is not acknowledged. My political science teacher during my graduation days was so instrumental in me getting interested in political science and branching off to international relations. Family plays a huge role. I have a wonderful partner in my marriage and it makes a lot of difference. In my home both of us are working, and both have equal responsibilities in terms of managing home and finding a balance between work and home. Home front is very important. Many women particularly after they are married, leave halfway because they have a family preoccupation and responsibilities which come in a much bigger way. That affects the ability to make career progression and your visibility to the external world gets affected which affects your ability to be a part of panels. Publications are your external face to the world. Most often, it is women who drop halfway because of family responsibilities. I haven’t come across many men who have taken a career break because of family responsibilities. You need to call out your space and balance work and family commitments in an equal fashion. 

Jenice: This has indeed been a very enriching discussion with a 360 degree coverage. In the words of Kofi Anan who speaks of inclusion as “much more than a goal in itself its a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance. Thank you for so eloquently stating the dangers of manels.

Raji: Thank you. I would like to conclude saying, “Women make half the population, so why should they not have a voice?”

The conversation concluded with the hope that things would get better in the near future and with pleasant smiles.  

About the author

Jenice Goveas

Jenice Jean Goveas is currently a DST-Science Technology and Innovation Postdoctoral Policy Fellow at the DST-Centre for Policy Research, Indian Institute of Science- hosted at the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India. Her research involves Women in Science and Science Diplomacy. Prior to this, she did a brief stint as a research consultant for the Science Diplomacy Program at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. She also has a teaching experience of nine years as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry. She is trained in science journalism and as an amateur science writer has contributed to the ‘Science last fortnight’ column of 'Current Science' Journal.

Jenice has a Master’s degree in Analytical Chemistry and a Ph.D in Nanochemistry. She is also a soft-skills trainer, communication coach and has won a number of awards for oratory especially in the humorous speech category. Her interests include Science Policy and Diplomacy, science communication, gender issues and international relations in addition to travelling, adventure and fitness.

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