Presentations without representation

I just returned from a major conference in my field, where 15% of the speakers (invited and contributed abstracts) were female. The plenary speakers were only slightly better, 3 women across 12 talks (25% representation). Neither of these statistics is representative of the field, although I was not privy to the sex ratio of abstract submitters. And consider this: the trainee award competition, which involves plenary presentations and is very prestigious, had 5 female speakers out of 8 total (62.5% female). Following this plenary session, the comments on Twitter were unanimous: The talks were excellent and the judges were going to have a tough time picking a clear winner. 50% of the travel awards to trainees were given to females.

It would be conservative to say that my field is 30% female (probably an accurate representation of faculty members, but not of graduate students and/or postdocs). The 16th talk I attended was the first talk I saw by a woman. In total I attended 38 talks, and seven were by women.

I also spoke at this conference, in a session with two other female speakers (out of nine total speakers). I was the only female speaker in a symposium last summer with six speakers. What disturbs me is the number of women in the audience at these meetings who are graduate students, postdocs, and newly hired faculty who, conditional on their being women, are unlikely to be presenting at the podium.

How can we change this and have speaker lists that better represent the field’s, and the audience’s, sex ratio? (Note: the lack of representation of minorities at these meetings, in the audience and at the podium, is a deeper problem, for a future post.)

Give preference to symposia with a diverse set of organizers. This very interesting paper shows that, even in a female-biased field, male-organized symposia have half the number of female first authors (29%) than symposia organized by women (64%) or men and women (58%).

Give preference to symposia that have a diverse speaker list. A colleague of mine in the humanities says it is explicitly stated in his field that proposed conference panels with gender diversity are given preferential treatment. Scientific conferences should adopt this model and state it explicitly in conference materials and on the conference website. After all, symposium organizers should strive for speakers representing a variety of types of diversity: different sexes, different ethnicities, different stages of career, different institutions/institution types, different approaches to science, different model organisms — a set of speakers that together will present on new ways of thinking about interesting topics in the field. This is not easy when a symposium has 4 speakers. It should not be hard to cover many of these types of diversity when a symposium has 12 speakers.

Reveal lists of invitees to potential speakers. This might be controversial because speaker lists change, even at the last minute, and we might not want to reveal nearly finalized lists to “later round” invitees. However, I once accepted an invitation to speak in a remote location soon after Christmas after realizing there would be no other female speakers at the meeting. I wonder if other women would do the same, and if male colleagues would decline invitations if the speaker list were significantly male-biased. (More on women declining invitations here.)

Professors, give your trainees the chance to give the invited talk. Professors speaking at conferences are almost exclusively talking about work their students and postdocs have done. The faculty member can of course offer a broad perspective on the topic in question and synthesize multiple projects with the wisdom that experience brings. But, as mentors, it is vital that we seek opportunities for our trainees to present. Especially for tenured faculty, this would be a great opportunity to increase the diversity in speaker lists and give those at an earlier stage in the pipeline a chance to shine. Symposium organizers could write, “We would like to invite you or someone in your lab/research group to give a presentation in this symposium.” I recently spoke at a conference where a senior invited professor gave his 30-minute talk slot over to his graduate student; it was a great synthetic talk that also showcased the student’s work and the work of his peers in the lab.

Another option, that takes more effort, is to turn 30-minute invited talks into two 15-minute talks — one by a trainee (focusing on details of a specific project, or methods developed), and one by the principal investigator (the more synthetic talk, or a talk on applications of the method). When thought is put into talk order, this is a great way to help students (men and women) get experience presenting.

Consider all applicants for both posters and presentations. There may be a number of poster abstracts (especially submitted by graduate students and postdocs) that would be quite good as talks. There might be individuals self-selecting out of presenting who would give exciting presentations that would really advertise their skills to their future colleagues and advisors. Symposium organization is work, and it would be an added task to comb through more abstracts, but why don’t we stop allowing individuals to self-select out of the presentation pool?

Offer childcare/babysitter references at conferences and on conference websites, and encourage attendees to try out backup care options if offered by home institutions. I am lucky to teach at an institution that has a backup care benefit I can use during work-related travel; babysitters can come to my hotel room through this program and watch my child while I attend talks. Even if childcare is not subsidized by the conference, talking about childcare and offering suggestions on the conference website can make a difference for anyone who has children. I have been at meetings that offered childcare and it is often used by a small number of families; some children don’t do well with unfamiliar caregivers, and some parents prefer to find alternative solutions or travel with partners/grandparents. I urge conference organizers that have offered childcare and are assessing whether to do so in future years to not judge the need for childcare based on its use. If anyone used it, it was helpful. I hope one day it is routine to build childcare costs into registration; maybe the banquet at the meeting becomes less fancy, but more people are able to attend overall.

One controversial idea is a Lilith-Fair-style science conference, showcasing female scientists. This would not solve the true problem underlying male-biased speaker lists. However, I agree with @phylogenomics and others that it would be interesting to do this. I would be pleased to speak about my science at such a conference, and would hope the audience would contain men and women. Some say this would be sexist or pure affirmative action; how do you see it? Are there examples of successful conferences where speakers are limited to a particular gender or race (and the meeting topic is not gender- or race-focused)?

Presentations without representation desensitize us, and have enormous conscious and subconscious influence on trainees, male and female.My hope is that underrepresentation of women in symposia will stop being a tragedy of the commons, where individual organizers think “our symposium has no female speakers, but surely others will” and move forward with a speaker list that does not represent their field. We need to give more women the chance to speak, and give men and women the chance to learn from each other’s work.

Further reading:

Stag Parties Linger: continued gender bias in a female-rich scientific discipline (Isbell et al., 2012, PLoS ONE).

Don’t bring two X chromosomes to the q-bio conference in Hawaii.

Fewer invited talks by women in evolutionary biology symposia (Schroeder et al., 2013, Journal of Evolutionary Biology).

16 thoughts on “Presentations without representation

  1. Having used conference childcare a few times, I ultimately decided it’s actually better for me to just stay home. It is abysmal. It’s depressing to leave your kid(s) in windowless rooms with crap for toys and books, bored out of their minds because these childcare agencies can’t be creative enough to engage kids. I would LOVE to have the option to hire a babysitter to come to hotel room or whatever in the city a conference is offered in. and BTW i would also LOVE to be able to convince my husband — who otherwise supports me, my career, and our kids — that he is also responsible for childcare when we are both at the same conference.

    • Childcare is a very personal thing, and what is offered at conferences doesn’t work for every family but does work for some. I think open discussion about multiple childcare options is the best solution: a list of childcare centers that offer background-checked caregivers for hire in the meeting’s location, or a list of babysitters from colleagues in the city where the conference will be held (this might work well for University-hosted smaller meetings), would be great. Petitioning home institutions to offer backup care as a benefit, or funding for dependent care for conference travel would also offer more options (i.e., some institutions have a small pot of funding that would cover a family member or babysitter traveling along for one conference a year). I hope you find ways to attend more meetings, maybe with some other childcare options that work for your family.

  2. Regarding your point on “Lilith Fair”-type conferences: Computer Science has the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (, which has been extremely successful. It’s not purely a research conference in the traditional sense, although there are technical talks.

    • Interesting! The Anita Borg Scholarships at Google are also a neat program. I have attended some institution-specific professional development meetings like this for women faculty/postdocs, which are a nice way to connect, learn about others’ research, and a forum talk about personal issues around gender dynamics in academia. I’m wondering if a scientific conference had an all-female symposium purely about each speaker’s research, what would attendees think of that?

  3. This is always problematic, and you have done well to highlight several of the many dimensions. I wonder (always) if all abstract submitted should have initials only, or surnames only, or even be de-identified with a registration number only so that those selecting the posters and presentations do not know the gender of the applicant.

    The childcare issue is also a major concern, and I agree that just discussing the fact that it is a problem can help some people to find their own solutions. Nothing is worse than sitting alone at home, not going to a conference because of kids, and thinking you are the only person in the world who understands the problem. Just being open about it can maybe help some people to get to the next conference, if not this one. Or even after-hours meetings (many of which I have missed, over the years).

    Your comments about lack of diversity of cultural backgrounds is also insightful. An anonymous registration might help this a little, but can’t offer any comments except to say, again, that the more it is discussed, the more ideas will flow.

    Thanks for this very interesting post.


  4. Re-reading above, I don’t think I made it clear that what I think is interesting is that you younger scientists are discussing the issues without malice, hysterics or instant-answers. The discussion itself, among intelligent people, will hopefully help people to find solutions. I have been observing these things and doing my little bit to fight against them in a long career, but now I’m out of the activities and it is over to you. I am just trying to be supportive.


    • Thank you for both of your comments! I do think that double-blind reviewing, of papers and abstracts, would be a step forwarding in building diversity with respect to gender, race, institution, and scientists outside the US/Northern Europe. I am slowly figuring out, in my particular situation, when I feel comfortable talking about family life in a professional context and when I don’t; for me, the issue of childcare and discussing it openly means putting aside my nervousness of being seen as a mom first and a scientist second. I think more open discussion is a possibility, and this is an issue that affects many young fathers as well, who are very involved with their children and perhaps more likely now than in previous times to be in a two-career marriage.

  5. For what it is worth, over the past 20 yrs I have been very pleased to note that fathers in Academe seem to have more freedom to be involved in family life … and many take joy in doing so. By contrast, sometimes in business and industry, even if they have the wish to do so, there are professional, cultural and other constraints on men being able to adjust their work hours to make these things possible.

    • Agreed – in the Women in Science meeting I attend on campus, many female colleagues have (to my delight) brought up that their partners and other male colleagues with children would like to participate in meetings regarding work-family balance while on the tenure track. We should open up the discussion more. I have had male colleagues feel uncomfortable taking parental leave off teaching or tenure clock extensions, especially worrying about “teaching holes” as they get closer to tenure.

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