I grew up in a large family. I’m the eldest of 4 girls, but 3 of my 5 brothers were born before me. So, from my earliest days I had to compete with much more established male players for my fair share of a limited pool of resources. You could say that this background set me up admirably for a career in academia.
According to my mum, there were only 2 instances when, as a child, I got upset to the point of tantrum (disclaimer: my mum might be a little biased). One of these was when she forbade me wearing my favourite dress to play outside: it was only to be worn on “good” occasions. The other time, I was playing with my brothers when one of them took a toy from me and held it above my head. I was about 14 months old at the time, and when mum looked up to see what all the commotion was about she found me dancing angrily around my 3 older brothers who were gleefully goading me to get that toy. Apparently, I then stomped out of the room, with red face and furrowed brow, muttering “them boys!!!” over and over again.
It’s probably fair to say that I am reasonably even-tempered (why would I disagree with that assessment?), but one thing that is guaranteed to get my goat nowadays is seeing a conference program with poor gender balance.
I’ve become an activist for speaker diversity ever since a public symposium celebrating crystallography, my field of science and one that has a rich history of women pioneers. To my dismay I found that I was the only woman scientist speaking at the symposium (there was one other woman in the program of 13 – and she was a great speaker – but she was not a crystallographer/scientist). The symposium was excellent, the speaker quality was terrific but I was very upset that this public showcase of crystallography was so unrepresentative of its community.
I was a token woman. It reminded me of this ad from the 1980s.
I don’t want tokenism to be the message we send the community about women and science. Consequently, I decided to look more carefully at conference programs and seminar series, to be more vocal about diversity and balance and to change the way I participate in conferences.
Why is conference program diversity important?
First, if we are going to encourage women into careers in science we need to provide role models. We need to show women and men that it is normal to be both a successful scientist and a woman. One way of doing that is to give women scientists a platform to present their research. If we don’t address gender balance in speaker programs we will continue to normalise a gendered stereotype of scientific leadership. Then when crunch time comes – usually 10-15 years post-PhD – women will continue to leave in far greater numbers than men in part because they see no path ahead for themselves.
Second, a speaking invitation contributes enormously to the profile of a researcher. By making more invitations to women, and other under-represented sections of the academic community, we provide a boost to their visibility and their track record. This will help them to progress by raising their national and international profile and help support their applications for grants, academic positions and fellowships.
Third, conferences and symposia are great ways of generating new collaborations, new ideas and new directions in science. If we keep inviting the same people, and the same types of people, over and over again, we limit the diversity of thought and potentially the opportunities for innovation.
How to change
There is no reason not to have gender balance on speaker programs. So why does it still remain a problem? Laziness on the part of the organisers? Unconscious bias? Whatever the reason, it needs to change. For me personally, I want change because I don’t want to be a token woman again and I don’t want this issue to be passed on to the next generation of scientists. As academics, we are experienced at analysing data, so let’s collect the data and use it.
My approach is to implement conference policies that outline what the committee is trying to achieve in putting together the program. The policy should be transparent, visible and the outcomes measurable. So how to implement this?
1. If you, male or female, are invited to speak at a conference, or to join a conference organising committee, ask for the conference policy before you accept. If they don’t have one, which is usually the case, offer to help draft one. As an example, the following text is from an email I sent recently in response to a request to co-chair a symposium at a national conference next year:
“I’m happy to support the meeting, and am available on those dates. However, before I accept I need to see the conference speaker policy.
I’m trying to ensure that all conferences and meetings I’m associated with have a reasonable gender balance. For a number of reasons, conference speaker lists sometimes don’t reflect the diversity of the community/delegates. It’s critical for the future of science that young women and men can see real evidence that scientists can succeed regardless of gender. One way of doing this is to make sure that diversity is explicitly addressed in conference policies and programs and that these policies are made visible. It may be that this is already sorted for this meeting and you can point me to the weblink. On the other hand, if you’re not sure what a conference policy should look like, you could consider the examples here and here.”
The first time I did this, I thought it would be the last time I would get an invitation. But I’ve been doing this for a year now and so far, so good. Although there is still work to be done. 🙂
2. If you are a relatively junior researcher, male or female, count the number of male and female invited speakers at the conference or seminar series you are attending. How well does it reflect the audience? If the invited speaker gender balance doesn’t approach the gender balance of the audience, raise this with the organisers. If you are too timid to do this by yourself, get a group together and make a submission. Establish an ECR committee and lobby for change. Let the organising committee know that you expect the program to represent you and your community. Ask to see the conference speaker policy and the gender statistics for delegates and speakers. If they don’t have a policy, or the numbers, offer to help; develop the policy with the committee, and make it visible on the website. At the very least this will have them thinking about gender balance and diversity. And it will certainly help raise your profile!
3. If you, male or female, are responsible for organising a departmental seminar series, develop a policy, and make it publicly available. Report statistics.
4. If you, male or female, are a conference organiser, ensure the program committee you establish is balanced by gender, geography, and science to reflect the community it serves.
My take is that speaker diversity should reflect the diversity of the delegates/scientific community. Too often it reflects the diversity of the conference committee and if that isn’t balanced then neither will be the program.
Resistance to change
As you might expect, I have experienced some resistance to these proposed changes, but most are easily addressed.
1. Some will say there aren’t enough senior or mid-career women in the field to get a balanced program. This is usually easily refuted, by collecting the data (eg by working with the organisers to generate a list of women speakers that could be invited). When I did this last year, surprise surprise, we collected enough names in one afternoon to fill 2-3 years of a seminar series.
2. Some will say that a policy isn’t needed because they have gender balance already. Do the analysis. What is the proportion of women in the audience/community and in the speaker list? Maybe it is OK, but sometimes invisible inequities prevail. Check the data.
3. Some will say we have a policy, but making it public may make it look as if we’ve had a problem in the past and are apologising for it. When this was brought up, a male colleague chimed in “what is the point of having a policy if no-one knows about it…put it online”. Thank you male champions of change.
4. Some will say the most important thing is having a high quality program. Ummm. Why would you think addressing gender balance would be inconsistent with a high quality program?
5. Similarly, some will say the most important thing is diversity of thought not speaker diversity. Diversity in life experience = diversity of thought. Again, how is having a gender-balanced program not addressing diversity of thought?
Change is up to us
We have the opportunity to change the way things are. My one voice alone will make very little difference overall. But there is strength in numbers. If we all take the same line on conference policy, transparency, visibility and reporting then we can change the status quo. As I was writing this post, I was contacted by Kat Holt who has come to the same conclusion as me and is establishing a website to “crowdsource and collate the gender breakdown of Australian conferences“. Brilliant. This is exactly what we need. Collect great examples of conference policy for everyone to use. Report examples where conference policy is clearly needed. Identify how we need to change. Make change happen. Kat’s website also points to the American Astronomical Society Status of Women in Science webpage that I hadn’t seen previously. Wow. A treasure trove of data and ideas on how to address gender imbalance at conferences. Check that out too.
And you can sign on to the online petition set up by Virginia Valian and Dan Sperber where “signatories commit to accepting talk invitations only from conferences that have made good-faith efforts to include women“. I would suggest asking the conference to “show me the policy”.
In an ever-increasing competition for the conference dollar, perhaps we can have an even bigger impact on improving gender balance in academia by voting with our credit card. Specifically, don’t support conferences that have speaker programs that don’t reflect their community. And when you do boycott, let the organisers know why.