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Conference attendees gather at a poster session at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, Germany.

Tobias Schwerdt/DKTK

Tired of male-dominated meetings, leading cancer conference makes nearly all of its speakers women

Calling out “manels”—all male panels at meetings—has been one way researchers concerned about gender equity have called attention to the frequent imbalance of men and women on scientific conference programs. Now, organizers of a meeting at a leading cancer institute in Germany have gone a step further. At the Frontiers in Cancer Research meeting early next month, 23 of the 28 invited speakers—or 82%—are women.

“We invited women who are driving the field. … The ratio is the opposite of what it usually is,” says Ursula Klingmüller, a systems biologist at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg and chair of the center’s Executive Women’s Initiative, which is organizing the meeting, which will run from 9 to 11 October.

The aim of the meeting, hosted by DKFZ, is to “show that we have really outstanding researchers around the world doing excellent work.” Organizers briefly considered inviting only women as speakers, Klingmüller says, but decided that wasn’t the approach they wanted to take. Instead, the organizers invited a man to speak at each session. “No one is excluded,” she says.

Indeed, she says, the organizers will be pleased if, at first glance, no one notices anything unusual about the names on the program. So far, she says, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, with nearly 250 participants registered so far. “People are impressed with the speakers we were able to invite,” she says.

Efforts to consider gender equity at meetings can be eye-opening for both organizers and attendees, says Yael Niv, a computational neuroscientist at Princeton University and a member of Biaswatchneuro, a consortium of neuroscientists that works to point out gender imbalanced meetings and journal authorships. In 2016, she and a colleague organized a conference on the neuroscience of addiction. “As usual, we made up a list of invitees and then said, ‘Oh. We don’t have enough women [speakers],’” she says. Her co-organizer came up with a list of potential female candidates, “and they all were completely relevant to the topic … I felt like doing the opposite for once—inviting a whole bunch of women and then padding it out with men.” So the researchers invited all the women on their list, ending up with 12 women and nine men.

Another surprise came when she looked back at the original list of invitees, she says. “I did an experiment, asking myself, ‘If this person was a woman, would I have invited them?’” She realized that several of the men on the list were well known, but their research wasn’t as relevant to the topic as many of the women they ultimately invited. “This was fun [to realize] because it’s science that I should have known about, but I didn’t before the meeting. They were all studying exactly this topic.”

Niv believes questioning gender balance is “the right thing to do,” not only because it forces meeting organizers to consider issues of equity and representation, but also because being more inclusive, she says, also “allows us to better our own scholarship.”