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Countering gender bias at conferences

Academic conferences are much more than just an opportunity to travel to new cities and score some swag at the exhibition hall. They are a chance to network with other researchers, pick up new ideas, and present results. Despite all they have to offer, many of them have fallen victim to a critical failing: a lack of gender equity. Given that hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions rely heavily on the types of opportunities that conferences can offer, it’s crucial that they not be biased against women, says Jennifer Martin, a structural biologist at the University of Queensland, St. Lucia, in Australia. “I don’t want the next generation to live with the stereotypes of the past.”

Martin and other scientists around the world are working hard to address gender bias at conferences, and social media is one of their most powerful tools. Last year, for example, more than 1500 scientists signed a petition at after the organizers of the 15th International Congress of Quantum Chemistry unveiled a list of the 29 conference speakers, chairs, and honorary chairs—all males. The petition urged a boycott; in response, the conference committee came up with a new list of speakers that included six women.

Jennifer Martin

Jennifer Martin

Credit: Gemma Ward

And the issue isn’t limited to science or academics. Fed up with seeing yet another group of presenters without a single woman represented, a group of activists created the All Male Panel Tumblr page. Its purpose is simple: to call out gender bias and bring awareness to the ongoing underrepresentation of women at all kinds of conferences, summits, and gatherings.

In the sciences, the relative dearth of female faculty members is sometimes cited to explain some of the gender imbalance at conferences. Although women make up 55.5% of those at U.S. colleges and universities with undergraduate degrees in the sciences, their presence dwindles as they move up the academic career ladder. Women make up 50.6% of those receiving a Ph.D. in the sciences, but only 44.2% of junior science faculty positions and only 28% of senior faculty positions, according to data from the National Science Foundation.

There are a lot of subtle, implicit biases that can happen with regard to conferences.

—Jonathan Eisen

Although those numbers point to a larger problem, University of California, Davis, microbiologist Jonathan Eisen believes there is a lot that conference organizers can do to improve female representation at their events. “There are a lot of subtle, implicit biases that can happen with regard to conferences,” he says. Many organizers aren’t even aware of their gender biases, he adds.

Eisen, Martin, and other researchers have made it part of their academic job to increase awareness. Toward that end, here are some strategies they have developed to ensure better gender balance at scientific meetings.

Gather the data

A chance conversation got Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, thinking about the proportion of female speakers at conferences. At the 2011 American Society for Microbiology (ASM) conference, Casadevall was sitting next to Jo Handelsman, who is currently the associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, when he asked her whether she thought the gender composition of the people responsible for selecting speakers affected the gender composition of those chosen. Handelsman said she didn’t know, and the two decided to look into the question by collecting information about the gender balance at recent ASM conferences.

Arturo Casadevall

Arturo Casadevall

Credit: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

The results, which they published last year in the journal mBio, weren’t pretty: In 2011 and 2012, only about one-third of speakers and conveners—those responsible for selecting the speakers—were women. For comparison, overall, just under half of ASM members are women. Casadevall and Handelsman also found that an all-male group of conveners was more likely to select an all-male panel. Having even a single female convener in a group responsible for selecting speakers led to greater gender equity in the resulting panel.

Casadevall shared this information with fellow members of the 2013 ASM annual meeting organizing committee. Although he didn’t explicitly tell them that they needed to include more women, he did warn them to be careful about all-male panels. In 2014, the percentage of women presenters was up significantly. At this spring’s annual meeting in New Orleans, Casadevall, who chaired the program committee, achieved near equity: 49.6% of the presenters were women.

“We didn’t interfere with the process and tell people who to pick. Just showing people the data resulted in an increase in the amount of female participation,” Casadevall says.

Hannah Dugdale, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, has a similar story. At a 2011 evolutionary biology conference, she noticed that women were significantly underrepresented among speakers, so she went through the abstracts and made a rough estimate of the proportion of men and women. A couple of years later, she published the results with her co-author evolutionary biologist Julia Schroeder in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, and she has given several talks on the subject. “It’s very important to provide awareness of bias to conference organizers and the people who are selecting talks because not all people are aware of their own bias,” Dugdale says.

Include women in conference planning

One first step toward redressing the situation, as Casadevall and Handelsman found in their mBio study of the ASM conferences, is to have more female conveners. “Having a female as part of the team that selected speakers had a tremendous effect on the gender composition of the session,” Casadevall says.

He isn’t sure why, but he believes that women may be more aware of other good female scientists and be more likely to reach out to them. Regardless of the reason, the results are clear: A better gender balance among conference planners is associated with a better gender balance among speakers.

Understand why people say no

Julia Schroeder (left) and Hannah Dugdale (right)

Julia Schroeder (left) and Hannah Dugdale (right)

Credit: Issie Winney

Dugdale also points out that a higher proportion of women declined invitations to speak at evolutionary biology conferences compared to men. “It’s important to measure this and gather data so that we can see if we need to put some measures in place to keep it from happening,” she says.

Eisen suggests that conveners should find out why speakers decline invitations so that organizers can explore possible alternative arrangements that could help make sure more people are able to attend and present. It’s something he has had to face in his own conference planning. “You have to think about whether having a meeting on a weekend is going to be a problem,” he says. But a weekday meeting could also pose a hurdle. “If a meeting starts at 8 a.m. and you think you’re going to get local people coming to it, well, the people who need to drop off their kids at school can’t come,” he says.

Eisen says he was impressed when the organizer of one conference found extra grant money to pay for child care for grad students and postdocs who needed to travel with their children. “Until then, I hadn’t really thought about how hard it might be for some people to go to meetings,” he says. “And I was also flabbergasted that someone had come up with a solution.”

Promote guidelines

Before Martin accepts an invitation to speak at a conference, she always asks about guidelines in place to ensure gender equality and diversity. If the organizers don’t have any, she offers to work with them to create some, or she suggests existing guidelines that are easy to adopt. “Sometimes it can be as simple as a statement that we think it’s important that we give everyone a chance to be represented as a speaker, and that the diversity of our society is represented in the diversity of our speakers,” Martin says. The point, she says, is to put the subject on the organizers’ radar and let them know that the issue is important to speakers and attendees.

Prepare for pushback

Not everyone appreciates Martin’s efforts, she says, but she suggests that organizers can post diversity policies online and be open and upfront about them while planning to smooth ruffled feathers.  

The most common complaint she receives is that paying heed to diversity requires sacrificing conference quality—a premise that she and others argue couldn’t be further from the truth. “If we’re going to have the best science and the best research, then we need the best brains from all of the world, not just a section of the world,” Martin says. Eisen urges conference organizers to think about why scientists want to go to conferences in the first place. If they want a conference where attendees can learn about what’s going on at the cutting edge of the field, develop new collaborations, and, overall, do better science, he says, then attracting a diverse crowd of both speakers and attendees is the best way to achieve those goals.

Vote with your feet

Individual scientists can influence conference planning simply with their presence—or lack thereof. “There have been a couple conferences where I’ve just pulled out because they didn’t address gender equity,” Martin says. Eisen boycotts conferences with an unfair gender balance, and he uses his blog and Twitter accounts to urge other scientists to do the same. If people stop attending conferences that have failed to address sexism, he says, organizers will be forced to deal with the issue.

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