Moderating a Conference Panel? Don’t Let Sexist Language Sneak In

The biotech industry has never been more aware of the need to increase gender diversity among its leadership ranks. The topic has made its way into our board rooms, our favorite trade publications and increasingly, onto the programs of important life science conferences such as the BIO International Convention.

However, even as we as an industry continue to make steps in the right direction, it’s easy for both men and women to fall into the trap of relying on commonly used — but definitely sexist — language during a panel discussion.

If you’re moderating or participating in a conference panel on gender diversity, or on any topic for that matter, here are some important dos and don’ts to keep in mind.

Do: Introduce each panelist by noting his or her career accomplishments and reason for being on the panel. This one is easy, right? Set up each panelist’s area of expertise, and let the audience members know why they should care about what the panelist has to say.

Dont: Describe women on the panel as being nice, feisty, ambitious or other adjectives you just wouldn’t use to refer to a man. CEOs and board members got where they are because of their business acumen, not because they are nice.


Do: Ask men and women panelists how they are working to support gender equality in biotech. When this topic emerges, it’s important to gain insights from men and women, who both play important roles in supporting gender equality. Men, for example, can make a big impact on women’s careers by acting as mentors, which a recent E&Y study showed is what women cite as key to their advancement.

Dont: Only ask women how they support equality in science. The lack of diversity impacts men and women, yet too often the onus of change is placed upon only women. A solution requires effort from everyone. With men comprising the majority of the biotech industry leadership, any change will be difficult without their actions.


Do: Normalize diversity. Holding a gender-diverse panel speaks volumes. Don’t feel obliged to call this out further.

Dont: Make a big deal out of having women on your panel. Highlighting the lack of women in biotech seems helpful, but actually serves as a reminder to women that their presence in this industry is not normal. Instead, let’s normalize equality. Let’s make diversity so normal that seeing an all-male panel is shocking. Rowan Chapman, head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, California, said it well in a recent blog post: “I want all of us to take notice of when the room is not diverse. We need have a heightened sense, as I do now, of when we don’t have the right mix of opinions and backgrounds at the table. And when we don’t have the right mix, we need to create it.”

This is very short list, and leaves plenty to discuss. Do you have more thoughts on this topic? Share them on Twitter @CanaleComm.

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