Scientific Conferences: Gender Imbalance in Invited Speakers

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

Gender diversity at scientific conferences—especially as it relates to invited speakers—continues to generate attention and debate.  Why?  Despite the increasing number of reports and public discussions pointing out to the paucity of women scientists invited as speakers, gender imbalance persists.  A newly published study (April 18, 2017) shows that this imbalance is conspicuous in the field of neuroimmunology.

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The study (Speaking out about gender imbalance in invited speakers improves diversity) was carried out by examining the scientific programs for six neuroimmunology conferences.  The results reveal substantial gender imbalance, with most conferences (66%) posting preliminary programs of less than 50% invited women speakers.  For one conference, only 13 out of 85 speakers were women (15%).  Other conferences included 20%, 29% and 42 % of women speakers.  In only two conferences there was a balance of female and male presenters. 

Conferences promote the exchange of data and ideas, and this exchange advances the field.  At the same time, speakers are provided with opportunities for advancement—they not only gain national and international recognition, but also increase their potential of recruiting young scientists to work in their laboratories.  Thus, accomplished women scientists that are not invited as speakers may miss important advancement opportunities.

The study also found that female scientists were rarely invited because they were overlooked by the conference organizing committees, contrary to claims that male scientists accounted for most of the speakers because they were producing higher quality work when compared to female scientists.  Indeed, the study found that women neuroimmunologists of requisite scientific productivity do exist and that their inclusion would achieve gender balance in speakers invited at the conferences analyzed in the study.

An additional finding is that the composition of the organizing committee matters.  When the organizing committee was composed of about 50% women, the conference included about 50% female invited speakers, suggesting that to achieve gender parity it is necessary to include more women in organizing and planning committees.

Furthermore, the study suggests that speaking out about gender balance makes a difference.  In other words, it is important to notice whether or not women scientists are being overlooked because of unconscious bias.  Unconscious bias could be present not only in terms of gender, but also in terms of race, ethnicity, and other.  The solution to this problem involves bringing such biases to lightthis helps reduce their impact.  As Robyn Klein, lead author of the study said in a press release:  “Naming the problem is the first step in solving it.”  Organizers of a conference with gender balance in invited speakers were able to reach it through direct efforts to avoid unconscious bias.  These efforts included recruitment of women to the conference organizing committee.

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  1. There are many intelligent women that should be invited to these types of events that are unfortunately not. Imagine what great advancements could be achieved if women were invited to participate with the wealth of knowledge they already have. Conferences are such a crucial aspect of any advancing field because it allows others to know what kind of work is being conducted. Only then can new ideas and advancements begin. It’s disappointing to see that studies show such a gap in the number of speakers invited.

    While a major component is speaking out, it is still difficult to self invite yourself. My questions to you guys are what do you think can be done about these issues? How do you guys think that women can get invited to these types of events without an invitation?

    • Krishna,
      I completely agree with your input on the issue; that there are more than enough intelligent and willing women in the science field to attend and speak at such conferences, yet they are not being invited. As the article states, these conferences are a place where exchanges of ideas take place and are an opportunity for advancements to made in the science field; so it is crucial that a gender balance exists at these conferences in order for the conference to reach its full potential. I believe that the answer to getting more women invited to speak at such events begins with the committee who is sending out the invitations in the first place. According to the study provided in this post, having a a balanced gender board committee resulted in about 50/50 women and men speakers being invited. I would really like to see this kind of gender (and demographic) balance be applied to other places as well, specifically in government (congress, supreme court, etc.) Women make up 51% of the population, yet are extremely underrepresented when it comes to committees and boards that make important decisions.
      So to answer your question: I believe and agree with this post that having a balance organization committee will result in a more equal gender distribution of speakers at these conferences. But I also think that women and anyone who wants to participate in these science conferences should not have to wait on getting an invitation from some board committee, and instead seek out such opportunities to take part of and take a more “rebellious” initiative to sign up to speak at these conferences and have them accept your invitation. I think that if more female scientists reached out to those responsible of organizing these conferences and let them know they would be willing to share their time and knowledge, or recommend other female colleagues to the conference it would turn the tables and these conferences would then be faced with a task of having to choose from all of these bright women rather than sending out invitations to whom they see fit as speakers. I am not implying that women should be the ones having to “prove their worth” to these organization committees, but rather turn the tables on them by encouraging other women in the field of science to reach out to those conference committees and have them be made aware that they have a much more varied list of speakers they can choose from, rather than waiting on their invitation.

    • Hi Krishna!

      My answer to your questions:
      “What do you think can be done about these issues. How do you guys think that women can get invited to these types of events without an invitation?”

      One thing that was discussed in the post was how the composition of the organizing committee has a great effect on the composition of the invited speakers. This has been a big trend in the discussion of women rights in careers. Making sure we have more diversity in higher places. But how do we get more women in these committees? We first have to encourage more women to join the career. Although we have some women, the chances that some of them will want to present, want to be a speaker or want to join a committee will not be 100 percent. The more women we encourage to join these careers, the higher our chances of getting women who will desire to be involved.

    • @Krishna
      It is quite disappointing that women are underrepresented at these conferences. There are many great female minds out there. I feel as a woman going to these conferences, we would want to see someone like us speaking. It goes hand and hand with the women role model topic. Young women do not have many people in the science field to look up to. So by excluding the women that are in this field, you are potentially driving away an aspiring scientist.

  2. I see a lot of discussion in this article about the disparity in women invited to be speakers at scientific conferences, but I do not see anything about the female percentage of conference attendees. I wonder if it mirrors that of the predominantly male organizing committees and predominantly male pool of invited conference speakers. If so, then it seems the road to equality will mostly involve getting more women into that realm as Kenya suggested. However, if the percentage of women attendees at these conferences is similar to the situation on many college campuses across the nation (in which women vastly outnumber men), then conversation about this nonsensical inequality is needed. Conversations about WHY these inequalities persist may needed beyond simply opening peoples eyes to the fact THAT they exist if change is to be had in these situations.

    • I agree that more conversations about why the disparities exist rather than the fact of the simply existing should be started. I’m sure most people are aware of gender roles and gender gaps but understanding why we have these biases and presenting ideas on how to solve them is the next step.

  3. After reading this post, my first thought is “Why?” Why are there less female speakers being invited to conferences and how can we change that. The post stated that women speakers are rarely invited to conferences as speakers because they overlooked, but I would like to know why they are overlooked. In Lean In, we learned that women are usually seen as being fragile and unable to be as confident as males, which makes me wonder if the reason women are being overlooked has more to do with the way they are perceived and not because the planing committee thought that they were not as successful as men.

    I believe that it is not only important for women to be more involved in planning committee, but it also important for women to be bold and lean in. Women as more than able of success and having as many accomplishments as males, if not more, but what do they have to show for it if the public sees them as timid and unable to project their strong voices to the masses.

  4. I was surprised when the article mentioned that when the organizing committee was composed of 50% of women, the conference consisted of 50% female speakers. This reinforces what I already know that is more women in high-level positions are necessary to bring essential changes in the workforce. Gender equality in top areas can help bring reforms and awareness. So more women in organizational committee positions can delegate for including women speakers who will help women get grants for research, recruit more researchers and help them take advantage if essential advancement opportunities.
    We need to be working at elevating other women around us. I feel like this is how we will be able to challenge gender inequality.

  5. Aside from being overlooked as a invitee to conferences, I sometimes feel overlooked in general because I am a woman. Can anybody agree? This is one of the reasons I really appreciate the womenslead course being offered. It has equipped us with knowledge specific topics that we may not have known about otherwise. To further illustrate my point, I can now talk about the extreme disparity that exist between men and women speakers at conferences. Perhaps, as Kenya touched on above, part of the issue could be the fact that because there are less women going into STEM fields resulting in a smaller pool. We the students of this corse are now aware of this and are better suited to go forward and make change. Someone who may have been debating between two fields one of which being a mathematics field me now feel more inclined to pursue it.

  6. I found it shocking that women were being overlooked as speakers at these conferences. Women in the field of science will only continue to grow and women are a great attribute to many fields. Most women are so articulate in the way they speak that I personally would rather here a woman give these speeches as opposed to men sometimes. Also having a woman speak on an intellectual topic such as this would really inspire other young women. It is much like how growing up there was only blonde hair, blue eyed Barbies. Young girls felt left out and when the creators started make dolls in all kinds of ethnicity, it was a win for everyone. Seeing another woman giving a speech like this would allow younger women to see something in her that she can relate to, and possibly aspire them to push a little harder for their goals as well. It is of course an equal representation issue as well. Being overlooked simply because you are a woman and the organizers thinking your work couldn’t stack up to those of a man is troubling. I see a shift in our community so there is hope for future generations and ours, but there is still a lot of work for us to and I plan to be a part of it.

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