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In 2015, a website (www.allmalepanels.tumblr.com/) began documenting instances of all-male panels (colloquially known as a ‘manel’). This, along with the Twitter hashtag #manel, has helped drive recognition of the persistent and pervasive gender bias in the composition of experts assembled to present at conferences and other events.
Recent social media discussions have similarly highlighted the prevalence of all-male panels in Sport and Exercise Medicine (SEM). While, to our knowledge, all-male panel trends in SEM have not yet formally been documented or published, one need look no further than SEM conference committees, keynote speaker lists, panels and other events to see that it exists in practice. Why, in 2018, is SEM and its related disciplines still failing to identify and acknowledge the role that implicit bias plays in the very structure of our own research, practice and education? SEM is, after all, a profession that contains experts, and serves populations, of all genders.
This editorial will introduce the definition, implications and manifestations of implicit gender bias and then explore how the SEM community can begin to address this issue, advance the discussion and develop a more equitable global community.
What is implicit bias?
Social cognitive theory describes ‘implicit bias’ as the unconscious inflation or deflation of certain groups’ perceived value in accordance with socially accepted depictions of those groups (Harvard Project Implicit; see www.implicit.harvard.edu). As the term suggests, biases are not necessarily deliberate or endorsed, but rather a by-product of socialisation. We all have such biases; most do not recognise or acknowledge them (take a test to begin assessing your own biases through Harvard’s Project Implicit). This means that individuals are susceptible to perpetuating biased choices and actions, even when these are contradictory to their explicitly held beliefs. This phenomenon is clearly demonstrated in the classic riddle about the boy and his surgeon (box 1).
Who is the surgeon?
A father and his son are in a car crash that kills the father. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he is about to undergo surgery, the surgeon says: ‘I can’t operate—the boy is my son!’.
Who is the surgeon?
In order to demonstrate implicit bias, the classic answer is, of course, that the surgeon is the boy’s mother. Many people fail to recognise this due to ingrained bias about gender coded to the word ‘surgeon’.
We also acknowledge that other answers to this riddle, outside of the heteronormative, include the boy’s other father or step-dad.
Why is implicit bias problematic, exactly?
Investigating the prevalence of all-male panels using the implicit bias framework enables us to understand how such occurrences, rather than always being products of overt malice, are manifestations of a bigger, highly complex, structural problem. All-male panels are best understood as one expression of a society that structurally affords certain groups rights and privileges over others. This dynamic is further compounded across numerous axes of privilege and disempowerment, upheld through social institutions that inequitably allocate power according to skin colour, country of origin, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender identity, sexuality and able-bodiedness, among others.1
How else does implicit gender bias manifest in SEM?
National research funding in such countries as Australia and Canada has been shown to be skewed towards researchers who identify as men.2 Further, participants who identify as women are consistently under-represented in SEM research.3 4 In tertiary education and leadership, gender bias manifests as a tendency to overestimate the qualifications of men and underestimate of the qualifications of women.5 In practice, ‘our students don’t resemble the populations they came from and will eventually serve’ (www.twitter.com/sunsopeningband/status/932118025204932608). These manifestations have real-world influence on the accumulation and distribution of professional, economic and political capital within the SEM community, as well as that community’s ability to meet the population’s needs. In this way, implicit bias has complex and compound negative implications for the continued evolution of SEM research, education and practice.
How can we start building a more equitable global SEM community?
Historian Mary Beard6 documents that muthos—speaking with authority in public—has been socially coded as the domain of men in Western societies since Homer’s Odyssey. The question, then, is far from how we can merely get more women to participate, but rather ‘how can we make ourselves more aware about the processes and prejudices that make us not listen to her’ (Beard, p. 226).6 This is particularly pertinent around leadership and public intellectual work where ‘we are dealing with a much more active and loaded exclusion of women from public speech’ (Beard, p. 126).6 Instead of placing the onus on individual women to ‘lean in’, we must interrogate and dismantle the structures that are actively keeping women (and other institutionally oppressed groups) out.7
Ensuring that SEM better represents our community and those we serve will require multiple approaches. Individuals who come to recognise the existence and consequences of implicit bias can acknowledge their own potential for biases, redress these shortcomings, and help move our field forward. Speaking up about gender imbalance improves diversity among invited speakers.8 However, building a more equitable global community means that we must go further than easy answers to complex issues (table 1). Paying keen attention to who is heard (table 2) is key to advancing research, education, best practice and policy.
It’s a start. Join us.
The authors would like to thank Dr Phathokuhle Zondi for encouragement and comment on an earlier version of this manuscript.
Contributors SB drafted this manuscript. All other coauthors critically reviewed and edited the manuscript.
Funding This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.
Competing interests None declared.
Patient consent Not required.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
Correction notice This article has been corrected since it was published Online First. Table 2 has been corrected in order to remove a statement pointing to an external document, which was not published.