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Achieving Gender Equity at Conferences

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.

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16 thoughts on “Achieving Gender Equity at Conferences

  1. I wish the lecture invites were focused on topics importance versus gender. It’s time focus on real science and integrity.

  2. I would like to see some retrospective analysis of gender equity (or lack thereof) for past NIH-funded conferences, to see whether this policy has any impact. I’ve been to quite a few conferences where women senior scientists are in the audience but disproportionately few are invited to speak (commonly a 4:1 M:F ratio) despite equal numbers of M:F attendees.
    And what can NIH do to help address gender disparities on editorial boards and reviewers for scientific journals? Seems to me that since NIH $$ pay for journal subscriptions and publication fees that NIH has a legitimate interest in ensuring gender equity in the publication world. Currently I do not see a way to measure gender discrimination in the manuscript review process, much less to prevent it.

  3. The right thing to do is to invite the most qualified people, otherwise you cheat everyone. Political correctness is the enemy of science. Facts do not care about politics. When politics dictates science, then you no longer have science. This attitude of equality of outcomes is destroying science.

    • The statement included the qualifier “eminently qualified”. Women often are more qualified than the invited male speakers, but they get ignored because men (organizing the program) preferentially choose other men. Not out of malice against women or because the women are any less qualified, but simply because human nature causes us to select people who are like us. Read about intrinsic bias, rather than ranting about political correctness and how including eminently qualified women will destroy science. And NEVER make the prejudicial assumption that because a woman or minority speaker is on the program that they are not absolutely qualified to be there. That attitude is exceedingly harmful to the talented scientists who happen to be women or persons of color.

      • Excuse me, but this is an absolute falsehood, and an excellent example of what the previous poster said is destroying science. Discrimination in science currently does not exist. Implicit bias is not actually a science (which has been proven times and again).

        • Excuse me, but this is an absolute falsehood, and an excellent example of what the previous poster said is destroying science. Discrimination in science currently does not exist. Implicit bias is not actually a science (which has been proven times and again).

          Reply ↓What are you calling a false statement? As a man, how would you know if there is discrimination, since you’ve never been the victim of it? I can enumerate countless personal instances as well as many decribed by my female colleagues. Are you saying the space and pay inequities at MIT, Salk, and elsewhere are “FAKE NEWS”? Try talking with your female colleagues and acutally LISTEN to what they share about their experiences.

    • So sure, let’s invite the most qualified people! So what do you do when all the most qualified people in a field include women who are excluded because of implicit or explicit bias?

      That’s the entire point. The most qualified people are NOT being invited. Because they’re female.

  4. The most qualified people on a given subject may be women or ethnic minorities, so being more inclusive is an important step the NIH is taking. Thank you for that. Excluding people based on sex, race, ethnicity, disability, etc., even if inadvertent, is never the answer. I disagree that this stance has anything to do with politics. Diversity improves science and dissemination. Unconscious bias surrounds surrounds all of us and being exposed to diversity helps combat it.

    • If you read it closely, the NIH policy is equality of outcomes, regardless of ability. That is political. One should always choose the best people available, based solely on ability. To choose based on sex or race or any other factor is political and detrimental to science, as I am sure you would agree.

      • What if a demographic of people were not being properly funded? Would you still choose against them if they appeared at the table looking worse than better funded people? And if this means trying to do better jobs at funding them, where would you start with that To illuminate unconscious bias? Wouldn’t that include exposing more researchers
        /reviewers to other people with more diverse backgrounds in, say, conferences? 🙂

        • What does funding have to do with it? If people publish high quality articles and execute high quality presentations, that is all that is important. Invite those people. Get the best. Funding? What does that have to do with anything, in terms of what you bring to the table? Anyone in the business today knows that CSR has degraded to the point to which funding is almost random. That is common knowledge. Collins and the new head of CSR are destroying the health sciences in the US. I went into the private sector and became independent of NIH funding, so I can say this stuff without fear of repercussions. The health sciences community needs to get its act together and get things back on track.

          • You can’t see the connection? Come on, you have to be serious about this topic.

            The point is that there is bias across the table, from funding to publishing to invitations to conferences. If a woman scientist is under-funded, her ability to publish and present at conferences is diminished. Conferences are only one side of the issue, but an important one. Others are funding, collegial collaborations, internal funding, office and lab space and publications.

  5. Will the gender equity will work both ways, not just in favor of women? For example, will conferences attracting mostly women (e.g. nursing and social workers) also invite men speakers? And women are contacted to be speaker but they refuse the invitation, will the organizers be sanctioned despite their efforts to invite women to their conferences?
    Regulating conference speakers just by gender is an unfair process. The most important is that quality of science is at the highest level possible so that it makes it worth it to attend meetings. In some sciences, women are stronger and should make up the majority of speakers at conferences. In other sciences, men are stronger. We need to use logics and common sense before imposing sanctions on event organizers and penalizing attendees with below par science.

  6. This is virtue signaling by NIH staff. Choosing speakers based upon gender and color over better qualified individuals is nothing other than discrimination. Of course exclusion is wrong. While it is admirable to encourage participation by all, ultimately, the attendees who pay the considerable costs for registration and the travel expenses will decide the quality of the program using their feet. Besides the networking and the opportunity to present our work and see the work of others, we come to scientific meeting panels and lectures to hear topics and speakers that we WANT to hear. If less qualified speakers are chosen for whatever perceived noble reason, that potentially weakens the program and attendees are less likely to attend. The best that any of the links in this discussion can do to justify the practice of gender and race balance is to cite very scientifically weak studies on how diversity improves education, as well as the implicit bias site at Harvard. Implicit bias measures are poorly reproducible within subjects, and few scientists would accept such results in their own labs.

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