It’s (Still) a Man’s World

Women speakers continue to be underrepresented at scientific and medical conferences. Why is that?


Global Summit of Women, 2014; photo Financial Times

In one of Convene‘s surveys last year, more than half of the event organizer participants told us that they do not intentionally choose a lineup of presenters from a diversity perspective, nor is it important to their organization and/or their audience that male and female speakers are equally represented on their conference stage.

We didn’t ask respondents to identify the industries they work in, but it wouldn’t come as a surprise if many of them are medical and scientific conference organizers. That sector continues to get press about its underrepresentation of women speakers. When we published the results of the survey in November 2015, we also wrote about a Science magazine article that spotlighted the issue. Microbiologist Jonathan Eisen told Science that if organizers “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, then attracting a diverse crowd of both speakers and attendees is the best way to achieve those goals.” 

By his standards, Precision Medicine World Conference 2017 falls quite short of the mark. Recently, Eisen highlighted— literally — how men dominated the program, and tweeted out his work.Screen Shot 2016-12-20 at 4.20.11 PM (Hat tip to Bill Reed, FASAE, CMP, senior director of meetings and community engagement for the American Society of Hematology [ASH] and chairman of the PCMA Board of Directors, who shared the STAT article about this conference — “Overwhelming white male lineup at a medical conference sparks ‘public shaming'”— with me.)

Precision Medicine World Conference organizers told STAT that it was a challenge to attract a diverse conference lineup, partly because they rely heavily on local speakers for budgetary reasons. The inference is that there are fewer women physicians to choose from, and according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, that’s not untrue: Women make up one-third of all physicians in the U.S. today. But the percentage of women speakers on many medical and scientific conference programs is well under 33 percent — or so it would seem from Science and STAT — so the numbers don’t match up.

Another recent article that Bill also brought to my attention, written by Miriam Knoll, M.D., in The Huffington Post, pointed out that fewer women on stage and in the audience at life-science conferences can also be attributed to another reality: Many of them do not offer any childcare options. 

Not so at ASH’s 58th Annual Meeting & Exposition held in San Diego earlier this month. Attendees could avail themselves of subsidized child-care services ($5.00 per hour) and a lactation room was earmarked for nursing mothers. That inclusive thinking was also evident in the speaker lineup. “I am so pleased (and relieved) that ASH does consider gender mix when selecting our speakers,” Bill said. “We track our percentage by gender and other categories to ensure diversity.”

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.