© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

NIH Director On Why He Is Declining To Speak On Panels That Exclude Women


It is time to end the tradition in science of all-male speaking panels. That's the word from Francis Collins. And he should know. Collins is the head of the National Institutes of Health. He led the Human Genome Project. And he has been to a lot of all-male panels or manels. Seriously, it's so common, there are multiple nicknames for the practice, including manferences and himposiums. Now, in an attempt to break down that tradition, he is vowing not to speak on panels that do not fairly consider scientists of all backgrounds. He joins us more to talk about this pledge. Welcome to the program.

FRANCIS COLLINS: Nice to be with you, Audie.

CORNISH: So you've been in this business a long time. What do you think has prevented women or diversity in general from these panels?

COLLINS: I'd like to think that there's not an intentional bias going on, but there certainly seems to be an implicit bias. When people are setting up workshops or panels or symposia, they kind of pick out, oh, I know this person and I know that person. And all too often, the people they're thinking of are the men. And then you end up coming to one of these events and being embarrassed to be part of something when we have a wonderfully diverse scientific workforce, and it doesn't seem to be getting represented. And I just decided, enough of this already. I'm not going to take part in such things from now on.

CORNISH: Now, roughly at the same time you announced that you wouldn't be appearing on panels, you know, that were not diverse, the National Institutes of Health released this result of an employee survey there - right? - that said, among other things, that 22 percent of women who responded had experienced gender harassment. This is at NIH. So how do you address this?

COLLINS: I'm very concerned about that. And we decided to organize our own very scientific survey to find out just how widespread the problem is. It's been certainly reported in lots of other circumstances. And it turns out it's true in our own group here at NIH. And that's something we needed to know. And now we can start to act upon it. It's time to face up to this and not simply say, oh, well, you know, it's just the way it is. We have potential solutions here. We should implement them.

CORNISH: I ask 'cause all of this publicity opens you up personally to a lot of criticism, right? I mean your deputy directors are men if we go on the website right now.

COLLINS: I think if you looked at the most recent meeting of my advisory committee to the director, which just met two weeks ago, you would see we invited seven new members this particular cycle out of a group of 20. They are all women. We are trying also with our own senior leadership to change this. As far as institute directors who come as full-time employees. I have the chance to do a lot of that recruiting. Of the last six institute directors that we've recruited from the outside, five of them have been women.

CORNISH: So have you turned down any speaking engagements so far?

COLLINS: I have certainly sent a message to one meeting that wanted me to come that unless something changes with the way that agenda is set up, I'm probably not going to be able to be amongst their speakers. So we'll see.

CORNISH: I'm asking this 'cause I'm a woman, and no one's going to tell me - what have you heard from men in your field since your statement?

COLLINS: Most of the men that I've heard from have been extremely supportive. And some of them have also gotten out there to say, OK, me too. I'm not going to do this, either. I won't show up for such meetings if they're not balanced. There have been a few cranky responses from men that probably I would consider to be a little bit living in the past and maybe a little bit entitled who are complaining that this is somehow not consistent with the meritocracy. But I think, actually, their perspectives are unsupported by data and are frankly offensive to women.

CORNISH: Interesting. So you're going to use a data-driven argument for this to try and make your case against the naysayers.

COLLINS: I'm always in favor of backing up whatever we do at NIH with data. And this is no different.

CORNISH: Francis Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Good luck with your pledge.

COLLINS: You're welcome. And thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.