Women, it's time to get rid of 'manels'

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (4th R) and other leaders--all male-- at the start of the ministerial meeting on Syria in Paris in December.

Story highlights

  • In recent high-level conferences, there were no women or few women on the panels
  • Esther Ngumbi, Elsa D'Silva: We are fed up; the lack of women in such settings is alarmingly common

Dr. Esther Ngumbi is a scientist from Kenya doing postdoctoral graduate work in the United States. Elsa D'Silva co-directs Safecity and works on women's rights issues in India. They are both 2015 New Voices Fellows at the Aspen Institute. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN)When foreign ministers from 10 countries -- Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE and United States -- met in Paris in December to discuss possible solutions to the crisis in Syria, the absence of women was noticeable and inexcusable, despite the fact that U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 explicitly says all parties in any conflict should support women's participation in peace negotiations.

In the all-important Paris Climate Conference (COP21) in the same month, only 16 out of the 58 main figures were women. This is a deplorable number.
Elsa D'Silva
Esther Ngumbi
We are fed up. The lack of women — whether in peace negotiations, high-level conference panels, or boards — is alarmingly common.
    Just visit the Tumblr All Male Panels to see hundreds of examples. It makes the world leaders who are campaigning for gender equality appears all talk and no action. Are their words just empty promises? To see such a big gender gap in 2015 is disheartening.
    Or course, there is also a shameful lack of racial diversity in many important events. For example, a glance at a list of the most sought after speakers in technology in the United States does not include a single Africa-American or Latino speaker. This is unacceptable.
    There are enough qualified women to be speakers. Statistically, the all-male panels -- or "manels" -- should never happen. The fact that they do clearly shows that gender discrimination is taking place.
    Mathematician Greg Martin has created a statistical probability analysis that can be applied to any field where there is reliable data on the field's gender distribution. He estimated that women are 24% of PhDs in mathematics, so statistically, panels of these high level mathematicians should have at least 1 in 4 women speakers, not 1 in 19, as was the case at a recent mathematics conference.
    Hans Schulz, a vice president at Inter-American Development Bank, found that at the 22 conference in 11 countries at which he spoke this past year, only 20% of the 1,905 total speakers were women. After being on an all-male panel at one conference, he vowed to never let that happen again
    Now, before agreeing to speak at a conference, he makes sure there is at least one woman on the panel before he says yes. He is encouraging all men to make the same pledge. And he created a database of women he knows and meets who would be good speakers. Already, his list has 350 names.
    While it will take a different approach to ensure that high-level ministerial meetings are not all-male, we believe that technology can be used to end the "all-male panel" nonsense.
    We are creating a database and an accompanying Google map that allows anyone to see the vetted women professional speakers in their area. We want to make it the largest crowdsourcing effort in the world and significantly change who is seen as the experts in our world.
    It will end the excuse that people don't know where to find qualified women speakers, board members and panelists.
    Data can change the world. For example, Safecity has successfully used crowdsourced data in India to document sexual violence in public spaces and make the issue more visible. It is not only bridging the gap between reported and unreported statistics, it is also being used by communities to demand better services from police and elected representatives to increase funds for women's safety efforts, increased patrolling, or cleaner and safer public toilets.
    When women become visible, everyone benefits. In Kenya, the organization Oyeska Greens empowers female farmers through training, provision of critical resources, and technology that allows them to be more successful in agriculture.
    Today, many of the farming groups in the region are women-led. These women farmer leaders have become the "to go to farming experts" for other farmers in the Kenyan South Coast region.
    Imagine how our world would improve if women experts in all fields had a chance to be included and heard. In 2013, the 50/50 pledge was unveiled to showcase professional women who could speak at technology industry-themed conferences.
    Thousands of women registered. She Source has a database of female experts. But even with these initiatives, equal representation hasn't been achieved. Furthermore, these lists only include experts from developed countries or the United States.
    Our goal is to create an international list of women experts from every country. If you are an expert or know women with speaking experience and an area of expertise, join us in our effort. There will be challenges, like trying to find female experts in a country like Saudi Arabia. But if we don't get started now, in 10 years there will still be no women or few women at the decision-making table.