geography trumps gender?

Recently I posted on the topic of conference speaker policy. I suggested that maybe we can change the unconscious-bias driven lack of invited women speakers at conferences. My suggestion was for conference and symposium organisers to state upfront what they’re trying to achieve in terms of speaker diversity and then report against that for everyone to see.

I’ve had a lot of feedback on that post, including emails and phone calls and face-to-face meetings with others on the actions they are taking to adopt policies for conferences they are organising or attending. This is fantastic!

Having said that, this past week two things happened to make me think we still have a long way to go.

First, I was sent an invitation to attend a research symposium in Brisbane, the city where my lab is based. The speaker list for this symposium was sent around with the invitation: only 2 of the 22 speakers/chairs (<10%) were women. When I questioned this, the organiser indicated that he was aware of the situation, and had aimed for 20% of women speakers but two of the women on the invited list had not been able to accept. He also indicated that he had to “balance” the invited speakers from different research units – presumably because those units contribute to the centre he runs. Geographic balance apparently rates higher than gender balance.

As so often happens when there is poor gender diversity in speakers, there was only one person selecting the speakers, and he wasn’t a woman. I wondered too late to ask, why the organiser did not replace the women speakers who did not accept, with other women speakers. There are certainly more than 4 women to choose from in the pool that was available. Of course, there is no speaker policy for this symposium. The organiser did express a desire to do better next time, if there is a next time, and suggested I might help in the organisation in the future. So, as it turns out, I may have to break my policy of not attending poor gender balance symposia for long enough to determine the audience gender balance at this one to set the baseline for any future symposium.

The second thing that happened was that I was asked to co-chair a session at an upcoming national conference. Normally at this particular conference, which has a large proportion of women delegates and generally has a good gender balance of speakers, the two co-chairs of a session decide on three invited speakers (who give longer talks) and then select two more speakers from abstracts (who give shorter talks). However, in this case the organising committee invited only one chair initially and he was not informed until it was too late that he needed to identify a co-chair before inviting speakers. What’s more there was a very short timeline (1 or 2 weeks) and no budget to support invited speakers. When he did find out that he needed to work with a co-chair, he contacted me by email to ask if I would act in this capacity. He explained the situation and noted that he had already invited three speakers, “most of the hard work is done”. All three of the invited speakers were men.

I rang him up and explained that I had made a public statement that I did not support conferences or symposia that did not have a policy or good faith attempts at gender balance. In this particular field, I would have expected 1 or 2 of the 3 invited speakers would be women. Since they were not, and since I had not been involved in the invitations, I could not accept the kind offer to co-chair the session. When I asked why no women speakers had been invited, he said that he did understand the need for gender balance and had in fact thought of one woman (!) to invite but that would have meant that all three speakers were from the same city. There it is again. Geographic diversity trumps gender diversity. And once again I thought too late to ask, why wasn’t one of the men from this single city dropped off the invitation list rather than the woman? That way there would be gender balance and geographic balance.

Now this conference, I know, does have a speaker policy although it is not yet online. The conference promotes gender, age and geographical equity in all aspects of the organisation, including organising committees, chairs and speakers. In this case though the policy does not seem to have filtered through strongly enough to those deciding on the invitations. Another reason to make policies visible, to measure performance against the policy and improve it next time.

Saddened and frustrated by these two incidents, I have mulled over why it is that in both these cases the organisers expressed their desire to get good gender balance but then explained the lack of gender balance because geographical balance got in the way. As if that is reason enough. It’s not. Women researchers don’t congregate in one city; they are dispersed across the land in this field. All the women scientists of merit in Brisbane are not holed up in one research unit. They are distributed across them all. So why is it that geography is higher on the priority list than gender diversity? And why can’t we have both? It’s not that difficult. See

If I didn’t know any better, I might be tempted to think that for these two people, inviting women speakers doesn’t rate highly. It seems to be an afterthought which can be dismissed easily in favour of some other spurious factor. Spurious, because when it comes down to it geographic balance and gender balance are not mutually exclusive. It is actually possible to get a good balance of both. You just need to think about it a bit to overcome any possible unconscious bias.

As I said above, much work still needs to be done.


3 thoughts on “geography trumps gender?

  1. At least the men who used to groan have now stopped when I suggest a woman speaker: they now quote h-indices and number of Nature/Science papers instead.

  2. Pingback: Grassroots initiatives are trying to improve gender balance at conferences -

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