In August 2018, Mexico's Ministry of Health convened a high-profile conference on the benefits of breastfeeding. It was part of a long-standing effort to boost the nation's breastfeeding rate, among the lowest in Latin America. But what drew the most attention was a photo of the keynote panel: six dour men--presumably incapable of lactating themselves--arrayed under a banner reading "Uniendo esfuerzos por la Lactancia Maternal," Spanish for "Joining Forces for Breastfeeding." The photo sparked viral outrage on social media and instantly established the event as a prime example of all-male panels--also known as "manels," "colloqui-hims," or "him-posiums."
I first wrote about the preponderance of testosterone at think tank panels and policy events--particularly in Washington--in a 2012 Washington Monthly article titled "Where Are the Women Wonks?" The imbalance is about more than appearances. "Without greater representation from women, maybe it's not such a surprise that so many of the policy debates in Washington seem to be missing half the picture," I wrote at the time.
When the piece came out, I was thrilled to hear it was generating greater than average buzz for a Washington Monthly article. But, as it turned out, it wasn't my sparkling prose drawing eyeballs. The Monthly, whose staff I had yet to join, had chosen to illustrate the piece with a stock photo of a lush, bespectacled beauty with bedroom hair, the word "THINK" tattooed on a skimpy white tank top straining to contain her breasts. (It's a "think" tank, get it?) She's the embodiment of the brainy dream babe D.C. policy dorks fantasize finding in the halls of some obscure federal agency.
Since centerfolds are not the Monthly's typical fare, the photo naturally went viral.
"The Washington Monthly's Inner Lecher Finally Breaks Free" was the headline of a post by Monthly alum Kevin Drum in Mother Jones. "It's sort of like finding a provocative picture illustrating the minutes of the latest Federal Reserve meeting," he marveled. He barely mentioned the substance of the article. Nor was he the only one among the commentariat to give full attention to the woman wearing a think tank rather than to the piece about the women working at them.
Given that reaction, perhaps we shouldn't be shocked that the manel is still alive and well--a symptom of persistent gender inequality among the ranks of the think tanks that drive much of the policy conversation in Washington, D.C. Of course, there...