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Achieving gender equity at conferences

Increasing the representation of women speakers at scientific conferences is an important step toward gender equity in science, and in July we reported on efforts in that direction. Such efforts included looking into the statistics and presenting them to the program committees of the 2014 and 2015 annual meetings of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). Now, a paper published on 4 August in the ASM journal mBio gives more detail on how this year’s ASM national conference “essentially achieved gender equity among speakers, with 48.5% being women” and only 5% of sessions lacking a female speaker.

Accomplishing gender equity at the 2015 annual meeting of the ASM wasn’t exactly, well, rocket science and took “a relatively short time,” notes the article by microbiologist Arturo Casadevall of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. It took three steps: “[f]irst, obtaining gender data from prior meetings and presenting them to the Program Committee [to] increase awareness of inequities in gender balance. Second, … increas[ing] representation of women among those who select speakers [to] increas[e] female speaker participation. Third, [giving] direct instruction to the committee [to] focus the group on reducing inequities in gender balance.”

[I]t is possible to effect change.

—Arturo Casadevall

Data gathered about the 2011, 2012, and 2013 ASM meetings indicated “that female speakers were underrepresented relative to the participation of females in the meeting, with too many all-male sessions, and … that the presence of at least one female convener was associated with a 72% increase in female participation in those sessions and a 70% reduction in the likelihood of an all-male session,” Casadevall writes. Simply presenting this information to those charged to organize the 2014 meeting “was associated with an increase in convener teams comprising at least one woman and an increase in female speaker participation at the 2014 meeting to 43% from an average of 29.6% for the prior 3 years.” It had, however, “no effect on the number of all-male sessions.”

In preparation for the 2015 conference, therefore, the organizers again presented to the program committee statistics on the gender breakdown of speakers at the preceding meetings. This time, though, the committee also got instructions “to ‘do better’ with regard to gender balance and to avoid all-male sessions, except under extraordinary circumstances,” Casadevall adds. These steps resulted in “[t]he near eradication of all-male sessions at the 2015 ASM [general meeting,] show[ing] that it is possible to effect change in this type of session format and thus avoid any subtle negative messages to female scientists in training and younger faculty members.”

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