Expert Voices: Redressing Gender Imbalances, One Panel (or “Manel”) at a Time

Sick of “manels”—expert panels composed only of men? Us too. A new group, Voz Experta, or “Expert Voice,” aims to balance the scales. Since its creation, Voz Experta has been able to change the composition of over 100 panels.

Expert Voices: Redressing Gender Imbalances, One Panel at a Time
Veronica Irastorza, co-founder of Voz Experta, crashing an all-male panel at the “7th Mexico Gas Summit,” organized by Industry Exchange in San Antonio, Texas, May 2019. (Courtesy of Voz Experta)

The energy sector in Mexico is known for its gender imbalance. While women are underrepresented in board of directors in all sectors, the energy sector is worse, with only 3 percent female participation.

In order to support women’s advancement to the upper echelons of the industry, a group of prominent women in the sector have formed an advocacy organization called Voz Experta—in English, “expert voice.”

Founded only three years ago in Mexico City by Bertha Angulo (a senior advisor at the Albright Stonebridge Group) and Verónica Irastorza (former under-secretary of energy planning and transition and associate director at NERA Economic Consulting) the organization aims to advocate for its members to balance out expert panels composed only of men, or “manels,” as the members call it. 

After becoming frustrated with often being the only women when attending conferences and board meetings, this mission allowed Voz Experta to bring more visibility to senior women in the energy industry quickly, effectively and with measurable results. Since its creation, Voz Experta has been able to change the composition of over 100 panels.

“We wanted to start using our positions of power to point out that there are never any women speakers at events,” says Angulo. “Our mission is to highlight that there are no women participating in the public debate and that it’s not that there aren’t any women [who are experts], it’s that there’s a bias about who is considered an expert.”

Expert Voices: Redressing Gender Imbalances, One Panel at a Time
Rosaney Barrios, Voz Experta founding member, crashing an all-male panel at the “National Forum on Energy,” organized by the Mexican Institute of Finance Executive (IMEF) in Mexico City, April 2019. (Courtesy of Voz Experta)

Lucia Bustamante, who is on the board of the organization, is one of the more than 100 experts on the list which includes finance specialists, electrical engineers, geologists, and more—all women with at least 10 years of experience in the sector. Bustamante is the head of government relations at Shell in Mexico.

“Every time that we manage to get one woman on a manel, that is success to us. The objective is to make women more visible in these panels.” she says.

Many prominent women are members, including Lourdes Melgar, who served as Mexico’s under-secretary of electricity and later as under-secretary for hydrocarbons between 2012 and 2016. She has played a critical role in the design, negotiation and implementation of Mexico’s energy reform, and is currently a research fellow at MIT as well as a nonresident fellow at the Baker Institute Center for Energy.

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Members of Voz Experta recognise that significant progress has been made since they entered the industry early in their careers. Despite this, women remain significantly underrepresented. A 2019 study by Clúster de Energía Coahuila in collaboration with the UK Prosperity Fund found that women represent only 19 percent of employees in the energy sector in Mexico—compared to 32 percent in the broader industrial sector. Women also tend to occupy administrative positions, while management roles are held by men. 

“It’s funny how a lot of men don’t perceive that. When I talk to my friends or we meet with allies, they are shocked to see pictures of themselves at panels where it’s all men. They can’t believe it because they think they are feminists and they support women. Just to make that change and to make people conscious of this is really good,” explained Irastorza. 

Expert panels address two key challenges that women face in the workplace —perceptions of competency as leaders, and representation.

Catalyst, a women-centered research organization, found recently that gender stereotypes create a lose-lose situation for women. When women displayed strength, assertiveness and leadership, they were seen as competent, but disliked. When, on the other hand, they were caring, emotional, empathetic, they were liked more, but seen as less competent leaders. 

Expert Voices: Redressing Gender Imbalances, One Panel at a Time
Casiopea Ramirez and Cintia Angulo, founding members of Voz Experta, crashing an all-male panel at the “Colloquium: Challenges of Mexico’s Energy Sector,” organized by Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City, May 2019. (Courtesy of Voz Experta)

A study conducted by the Harvard Business Review separated the attributes of competency and leadership, and found that men were more likely to achieve leadership positions, regardless of competence. Ensuring that women have a voice on expert panels aims to dismantle these stereotypes, normalizing their presence in roles of expertise and leadership.

Women are not only underrepresented as leaders in the energy sector. This is also the case on company boards across all sectors in Mexico and the United States, where they represent 7 percent and 22 percent of members, respectively, as well as in executive committees (2 percent and 21.6 percent).

Other organizations have also found that advocating for a place in expert panels can help to change the conversation around women in leadership, and can give a voice to competent women in their sector. For example, Mujeres Conectadas focuses on the development of women leaders and the promotion of best inclusion practices in the telecommunications sector, while Abogadas MX works to develop an inclusive professional environment and to promote the growth of female lawyers.

“We are now looking at how to include more junior women, how we can support them and be mentors to them. So now it’s become more about sorority, which is really great in a society where even a few years ago the message was that women cannot trust other women, women should not help women, women should step on women,” said Melgar. “We look out for one another, and that’s something that I really like about Voz Experta.”

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About and

Eleonore Fournier-Tombs is a professor at the University of Ottawa and a senior consultant at the World Bank. Her work has been published in the MIT Technology Review, Policy Options, and Thrive.
Christina Darvasi is a researcher on gender issues based in Mexico City.