How to Add More Women Speakers to Your Meetings

Four strategies for expanding gender diversity.

woman_speakerIn a recent survey, we asked meeting professionals to let us know the process behind their speaker selections. We’ll be publishing data from the full study in an upcoming issue of Convene, but here’s one of the most interesting results: A majority of meeting planners (53 percent) said they do not intentionally choose a lineup of presenters at their events from a diversity — gender and ethnicity — perspective. When asked why they do not, most explained that speakers were selected solely on the basis of their expertise.

Not everyone was pleased about that, and a number of respondents commented on gender inequity. One wrote: “Our industry is still male dominated. [Even] with input from my program manager, diversity always seems to be shut out. I’m trying to convince them to stop putting on ‘Manels.'” (It’s a fixture at a number of conferences, as documented by the “Congrats, you have an all-male panel!” Tumblr page.)

The comments were insightful, and I got an even deeper perspective on the problem of underrepresentation of women on the conference stage when Kirsten Olean, CAE, CMP, director of meetings for the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), sent me a link to “Countering Gender Bias at Conferences,” an article published last month in Science magazine. Speaker gender inequity, it seems, is an issue that scientific conferences are beginning to actively address.

According to the article, last year more than 1,500 scientists signed a petition at change.org after the organizers of the 15th International Congress of Quantum Chemistry unveiled a list of the 29 conference speakers, chairs, and honorary chairs — which were all males. “The petition urged a boycott; in response, the conference committee came up with a new list of speakers that included six women,” the article reported.

Including women as part of the team that selects speakers is a key strategy that has successfully led to an increase the number of females invited to present at scientific conferences. By encouraging female participation on ASM’s annual meeting organizing committee, for example, the percentage of women presenters rose dramatically over the course of a few years. (This ASM mBio journal abstract details the process.) 

The Science article provides three more strategies:

1. Understand why people say no. Some scientific conferences have experienced a higher proportion of women who declined to speak compared to men. Find out what the obstacles are.

2. Put guidelines in place to ensure gender equality and diversity. “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,” suggested Jennifer Martin, a structural biologist at the University of Queensland, St. Lucia, in Australia.

3. Prepare for pushback. To counter the argument that paying attention to gender diversity hurts the quality of conferences,  University of California, Davis, microbiologist Jonathan 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.” 


Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.