In 2015, an international conference on quantum chemistry drew a fierce backlash from scientists when it featured only male speakers and chairs. About 1,700 scientists signed a petition on Change.org to change the makeup of the speakers. The result? Conference organizers added 6 female speakers to the agenda (read the coverage).
This was not an isolated case. The lack of gender equity at scientific conferences persists across the board. There have been several papers written about the imbalance; there is even a website, BiasWatchNeuro, that tracks the speaker composition at neuroscience conferences.
Inviting women to speak at conferences matters for many reasons – it’s a matter of fairness; it gives eminently qualified women a level playing field; it is just the right thing to do.
And it is important to have diversity across many dimensions, including representation of individuals from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, from a variety of regions and institutions, career stages, and with disabilities.
In essence, it’s about changing the fundamental culture of the biomedical research enterprise to allow full participation from people of all backgrounds.
In that vein, I’d like to remind you that if you are applying for an R13 conference grant from NIH, please be sure to read the requirements in the Funding Opportunity Announcement. Should you receive a conference grant award, you will be required to comply with the Conference Plan you submit in the grant application, along with the other terms and conditions of the award. Meeting diversity is a long-standing expectation of the R13 Funding Opportunity Announcement. Here is the pertinent information:
Describe plans to seek appropriate representation during selection of organizing committee members, speakers, and other invited participants, such as session chairs and panel discussants. Describe plans to encourage participation and attendance by women, individuals from nationally underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and persons with disabilities. Organizers of scientific conferences must document compliance with Federal civil rights laws, NOT-OD-15-152, Civil Rights Protections in NIH-Supported Research, Programs, Conferences and Other Activities, and the Guidelines for Inclusion of Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in NIH-Supported Conference Grants policy.
Furthermore, expectations about diversity are also part of the review criteria and are assessed by the study sections.
If a recipient fails to comply with the terms and conditions of grant award, NIH may take one or more enforcement actions which include, for example, disallowing costs, withholding further awards, or terminating the award.
At NIH, we have been tackling gender equity from a number of angles. You may have seen Dr. Collins’ forceful statement in June that he will no longer participate in all-male speaking panels (so called ‘manels’). Dr. Jon Lorsch of NIGMS has issued a similar statement that covers all NIGMS staff. They will only attend meetings and conferences where the organizers have shown a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion in their selection of chairs, speakers, and panelists. And I am using this opportunity to say that I too will take the same approach when asked to participate in meetings and conferences.
At NIH, we have been similarly vocal in addressing sexual harassment (see the Open Mike blog highlighting NIH leaders’ statement on sexual harassment). Note that if harassment takes place at an NIH-funded meeting, please inform us so we can take corrective action.
Different approaches have been touted to ensure more diversity at scientific conferences. Ten Simple Rules to Achieve Conference Speaker Gender Balance suggests developing a speaker policy, collecting data to inform gender balance, responding to resistance (expect to meet resistance), being family friendly and more. Ten Strategies to Reduce Gender Inequality at Scientific Conferences suggests offering a mentorship program, pairing senior women scientists with first-time attendees; giving incentives for participating in diversity programs; offering travel grants, and more.
Clearly, there are ways to ensure more diverse representation at conferences. The time has come to invite women and underrepresented folks to be part of the agenda from the get-go. We must fairly consider scientists of all backgrounds so that conferences benefit from the diversity of many voices. And our science is the richer for it.