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How scientists are fighting against gender bias in conference speaker lineups

In 2 weeks, 1000 neuroscientists will descend on Vancouver, Canada, for the Third International Brain Stimulation Conference. The first two iterations of the biennial conference were plagued by complaints that few of the featured speakers were women, but this year will be a step in the right direction: Female neuroscientists will deliver six out of 20 of the conference’s featured talks.

The gender ratio is definitely an improvement, says Kate Hoy, an associate professor of interventional neuropsychology at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Hoy was one of just two female featured speakers—out of 39 total—at the inaugural conference in 2015. “It was really disappointing,” she says. “You sat there and watched the same type of person get up [and speak] over and over again.” Other female attendees also lamented the lack of diversity among the top tier speakers, approaching Hoy because of her visibility as a speaker. “It feels really exclusionary,” they told her. “It feels like there isn’t a place for us here.”

After that meeting, she raised the issue with the conference organizers, telling them that “gender equity and diversity needed to be a focus for the next conference.” They assured her that they would be—which is why she was shocked when the 2017 speaker lineup was unveiled and it didn’t list any women at all. “At that point I just got really angry,” she says. “Invited conference presentations have so much impact on your ability to attract students, to gain a reputation, to get a promotion. It’s just one more thing that women have to fight for to be able to get any of those advantages.”

Hoy decided to boycott the 2017 meeting. She wrote an opinion piece that was published in Brain Stimulation—the journal that organized the conference—pointing out what she considered to be “egregious gender imbalances at the largest international conferences for our discipline.” And she created an online, searchable database that female brain stimulation researchers can add their names to; so far, 230 have done so. “If you have trouble finding women—I mean, we’re not hiding under rocks or anything—but I thought I’d make it as easy as possible for people to find us.”

Kate Hoy—speaking here at a 2015 awards ceremony—has been working to increase female representation on conference speaker lists.

National Health and Medical Research Council

Hoy doesn’t know why more women are slated to speak at this month’s conference. “I’d be really pleased if it had something to do with the [database],” she says. But at the very least, she thinks that her opinion piece started an important conversation.

“It made people think,” agrees Charlotte Stagg, a professor of neurophysiology at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and a featured speaker at this year’s conference. Hoy presented the problem “very clearly and very explicitly as something that the community needed to address.”

To mark today’s celebration of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we spoke with Hoy and other researchers who are working to improve gender balance among conference speakers. Their efforts help ensure that the many women who are doing groundbreaking research are given the opportunities they deserve.

A database deluge

Five years ago, most conference organizers didn’t have the option of turning to a database of female researchers in their discipline. For the most part, they relied on their knowledge of the field and on recommendations from colleagues, which leaves the process susceptible to bias. “The first names that pop into our minds are typically going to be men because there are unconscious biases at work,” says Greg Martin, a professor of mathematics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, who has written about the underrepresentation of female mathematicians at conferences. That’s why databases can be helpful, he says—they put names of people who might otherwise be overlooked directly in front of organizers.

Today, databases such as Hoy’s are available for microbiology, chemistry, ecology, soil science, machine learning, computational biology, and a host of other disciplines. Just last week, a group of plant scientists started a new database for women, members of underrepresented racial and ethnic minority groups, people who identify as LGBTQ, and people with disabilities; as of today, 124 plant scientists are already on the list. AcademiaNet, a multidisciplinary European database, lists only female academics who’ve been nominated and vetted to be leaders in their field. But for most of the databases, it’s up to scientists to register themselves, which means that they typically include a range of career stages and prominence.

One of the largest databases, “Request a Woman Scientist,” launched a year ago by the group 500 Women Scientists, contains the names of more than 8000 scientists from 133 countries. It’s open to anyone who self-identifies as a female scientist, says Elizabeth McCullagh, a postdoc at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora and a co-founder of the database. “If you feel like you fit into that mold—whether you’re an undergrad, a graduate student, a postdoc, a professor, an independent scientist, if you think you’re a high schooler who could actually be involved—everyone is welcome.”

The story behind the creation of the resource is itself a testament to the power of making exactly the types of connections that the database promotes. In 2017, McCullagh had been pondering the idea of a database and discussing it with one of the founders of 500 Women Scientists, Jane Zelikova. Separately, Katarzyna Nowak, a fellow at the Safina Center in Setauket, New York, started thinking along similar lines when she witnessed an all-male panel at an aquatic conservation event.

“That’s what set me off,” Nowak says. After the panel discussion, an attendee asked one of the organizers about the gender imbalance and was told that a female scientist had been invited but couldn’t attend. That explanation didn’t satisfy Nowak; she knew of plenty of women based nearby who had relevant expertise. She wondered, “Is there a database that we could set up that people can tap into so that this can’t be an excuse, that one woman wasn’t available so we have five men up there?” She contacted Zelikova because of her work with 500 Women Scientists, and Zelikova in turn put her in touch with McCullagh, who was happy to partner with Nowak to start a database.

The purpose of their database goes beyond planning by conference and meeting organizers—extending to journalists, educators, policy makers, and anyone needing scientific expertise, according to the website. “It can fit any need,” McCullagh says. Last year, for example, she searched the database ahead of a summer-long work trip to France so that she could ask local female scientists for advice about child care. “If you sign up to be in the resource, you basically acknowledge that you are willing to be contacted for this kind of thing,” she says. “It’s like our own little club.”

In a quest to get a better handle on how their resource was being used, McCullagh and Nowak sent out a survey in November, asking scientists in the database whether they’d been contacted as a result of the website; 150 respondents said yes. Roughly half (72) reported that they’d heard from journalists who wanted to interview them for a story, and 21 reported being contacted for conferences, meetings, or panels.

Gabrielle Gutierrez was one of those women. A postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington in Seattle, she added her name to the “Request a Woman Scientist” database soon after the resource launched. “At the time—and even still, right now—I’m thinking about my job prospects and moving onto a full faculty position, so it seemed like a great way to get out there,” she says. It has worked: She has been asked to speak at two local events.

Data-driven decisions

Ann-Maree Vallence, a research fellow at Murdoch University in Australia, was inspired by Hoy’s efforts to raise the issue of gender balance at conferences—and decided to take a data-driven approach to help conference organizers who are looking for top senior scientists. The idea was to broaden the number of potential speakers that come to mind in the nomination process—using cold, hard data, Vallence says. Her team compiled a list of the world’s top 100 senior neuroscientists, based on metrics such as citation rates, author placement, and total publications for authors who had published in the top 10 neuroscience journals between 2012 and 2016—a list they posted to bioRxiv last September.

The study is “really cool to see,” Nowak says. She likes the idea that conference speaker invitations should be backed up by data. “That’s the power of this paper; it is trying to overcome our biases with evidence.”

The metrics aren’t perfect, Vallence acknowledges. For instance, they don’t capture the full range of a scientist’s productivity and are subject to bias in and of themselves. But “they are widely used,” she notes, “so anyone sitting on a committee would understand those metrics and would be able to then identify potential speakers.”

The list is 21% female, which is comparable to the percentage of invited speakers who were female—27%—at 387 neuroscience conferences from 2014 to 2019, according to data compiled by BiasWatchNeuro, a community-run project to track demographics of neuroscience conference speakers. But the list isn’t meant to suggest a ceiling or a target. Vallence and her colleagues argue that the discipline should aim for a percentage of female invited speakers closer to 45%, the overall percentage of female neuroscientists.

Regardless of the target percentage, Vallence’s data make clear that, if qualified men and women have an equal chance of being invited, all-male speaker lineups should be rare. If you assume (conservatively) that 21% of qualified potential speakers are women, then there’d only be a 2% chance of getting the 17-member, all-male speaker lineup that appeared at the 2017 brain stimulation conference, according to this conference diversity distribution calculator. The probability of the 2015 speaker lineup—consisting of two women and 37 men—is even smaller.

Everyone’s job

One way to increase the likelihood of speaker lists reflecting the community’s demographic makeup is to ensure that members of the speaker selection committee are themselves a diverse group. As evidence of that: An analysis of 460 symposia sessions at microbiology conferences held from 2011 to 2013 found that, when one of the symposium organizers was a woman, more women served as invited speakers.

That doesn’t mean that male committee members are off the hook if there’s a woman present, though—a point that Martin emphasizes. “I want women on committees to the extent that it doesn’t hurt their career, but it shouldn’t take having a woman on a committee for that committee to care about diversity,” he says, noting that he knows female mathematicians whose research is hampered because they are so overwhelmed by service requests. “It needs to be a priority for us [men] too, because they can’t do all the work for us.”

Martin is a signatory on a petition that asks researchers to pledge to only participate in conferences that invite female and male speakers “in a fair and balanced manner”—a pledge that he displays prominently on his university website. “I have a limited amount of time,” he says. “I would much rather spend my time on conferences that show commitment to the quality that diversity brings rather than those that don’t.” (Martin applies that pledge to other aspects of his work life too: He only agreed to an interview for this story once Science Careers confirmed that women were being interviewed as well.)

There’s still some resistance within the scientific community to the idea of thinking about gender and other aspects of diversity during the speaker selection process, according to multiple scientists interviewed for this story. One recalled a conference organizer saying, “I don’t want to invite people because of their gender; I want to invite them because they’re the best scientist.”

But the issue of gender balance has gained more visibility in recent years, and more and more scientists are realizing that bias can creep into the speaker selection process, and efforts are needed to actively fight against that bias. “There’s a lot of initiatives that have started in the last 2 or 3 years,” Hoy says. “So I’m hopeful, but we’re just going to have to wait and see.”

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