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.