About a decade ago, I organized a conference at the Fletcher School that eventually turned into an edited volume. Many of the participants were people from my own professional network. It was not a conscious choice on my part, but the panels had a decent fraction of women participating in them.

After the conference was over, one of my female students who had helped organize it thanked me for the gender distribution. She explained that she had attended too many conferences like these with only men on the dais. Just seeing women up there, she noted, made it more conceivable that, one day, she would have a speaking role at one of these events.

To be honest, this kind of demonstration effect had never occurred to me. But that conversation stuck, and in the conferences since I think I have done a decent job on that front.

The “manel” problem has not gone away, however. Earlier this week Variety got into some hot water with its planned event “A Night in the Writer’s Room.” See if you can spot the problem:

Variety responded relatively quickly with a heartfelt apology and a pledge to rectify its mistake.

The problem of manels remains pervasive in the academy. Earlier this year Niall Ferguson got into hot water for organizing an Applied History conference in which 30 out of 31 presenters were white guys.

Beyond the reason my student offered, the benefits of ending manels are pretty clear-cut. The FT’s Michael Skapinker argues that gender diversity in his conferences has led to better panels:

Impressive women can be found all over, with no question of diluting standards (and plenty of dull male speakers can be found at every conference). Nor, in my experience, is there any need to look for specifically “women’s voices” — just people who know what they are talking about and can do it well.
… the search for female experts has led me in new directions. I have started out looking for someone to speak on one subject, and then found a female speaker who could talk about a related but more interesting one.

So yay for ending manels, particularly in professions like the academy where there is no shortage of expert women who are qualified to participate.

How to do this? Alerting conference organizers to the issue is certainly one way. But in many of the online discussions of this problem, I keep seeing references to “The Pledge,” which states, “At a public conference I won’t serve on a panel of two people or more unless there is at least one woman on the panel, not including the Chair.”

To say that I have attended many conferences would be an understatement. At the risk of infuriating many of my colleagues, however, I worry that The Pledge is one of those ideas that sounds great in theory but maybe not in practice.

The trouble is the way that academic conferences are usually run. Usually one gets an invitation to participate well in advance, but with little-to-no information about who else is participating. Or, maybe there is a tentative list of participants. Those lists are subject to significant change, however.

As a conference organizer, these constant changes to programs are unsurprising; the bigger the names you are trying to get, the more that the schedule fluctuates. This dynamic can leave conference participants in an awkward situation.  I have frequently accepted conference invitations only to learn of a problematic gender breakdown when the final conference program is released.

Imagine that one learns about a manel only a few days before the conference. Does dropping out or threatening to drop out at that juncture make things better or worse? And does invoking the pledge so close to a conference threaten to scuttle the entire academic enterprise?

Let me be very clear here: I am not defending manels. It is merely a question about how best to create a norm that eliminates them. Given how conferences are actually organized, it is not obvious how someone who takes The Pledge actually enforces this norm. It might be worth disrupting one or two events to shift the norm. But then again, it might not.

Creating new norms is a contentious process. Maybe these kinds of disruptions are a necessary wage to pay. But I am honestly unsure, and the pledge seem frustratingly silent on just how one is supposed to honor it.

Now is normally the point in these columns when I come to a sober conclusion, but in this case I don’t have one. My hope is that a decade from now, this is not even a conversation we need to have. It’s the getting from here to there that will be a bumpy ride.