Is the All-Male Panel on the Endangered Species List?

Amid new reports of gender inequity at scientific conferences, there are signs that change is in the air.

A report that men give more than twice as many talks than women at scientific conferences was widely circulated this week — women accounted for only 29 percent of the invited speakers at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) main conference between 2014 and 2016, according to the study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications.

The ratio was more equitable when researchers looked at scientists who asked to speak or display a poster at the conferences, but still favored males: Forty-one percent of the females made successful requests, compared with 45 percent of the men.

The study may have made headlines, but it is hardly news — critics have been calling out the under-representation of female speakers and conference chairs for many years. What is new, however, is the  increased attention on the issue of diversity and inclusion at conferences, including scientific conferences.

“A lot of women have been motivated to speak out about gender inequality in the past year,” Heather Ford, the author of the study told Science Daily. “People are much more vocal about how they’ve been treated,” added Ford, a post-doctoral associate at the University of Cambridge. Ford said she and her male co-author were motivated to undertake the research by their experience of attending conference sessions where only males or a a lone female scientist spoke.

Where Change Occurs

 Just three years ago, in 2015, when Convene asked meeting professionals about how they selected speakers, a majority (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,  most explained that speakers were selected solely on the basis of their expertise. “Our industry is still male-dominated,” one planner said at the time. “[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 [all-male panels].”

Meanwhile, there are signs that female-to-male ratios are improving at some conferences. A study looking back at four major virology conferences over four decades showed that male speakers made up more than 70 percent of the invited speaker lineup over the years. But it also noted significant shifts at some conferences in the number of women speakers: At the American Society for Virology (ASV), for example, women have made 41 percent of ASV plenary and keynote talks since 2010, compared with only six percent in the 1980s. 

As conveners of scientific conferences grapple with the issue — AGU Executive Director Christine McEntee told The Guardian that the association is aware of the issue and is committed to improving gender diversity — successful strategies for balancing gender ratios are emerging.

One of the most effective, according to a case study based on the American Society for Microbiology’s (ASM) successful efforts to improve gender equity, is to include women as part of the team that selects speakers. When ASM encouraged female participation on its annual meeting organizing committee, the percentage of women presenters rose dramatically over the course of a few years. (You can read a scientific abstract on how it was achieved here.)

Here are three additional strategies, from “Countering Gender Bias at Conferences,” in Science magazine and previously published by Convene

  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.” 

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.