show me the policy (part 2)

A couple of years ago I wrote a post (show me the policy) on the gender inequity of invited speakers at conferences I’d attended, and provided ideas on how to address this insidious problem. The post was well received (as of 8 Dec 2016, >2,500 views). And after some prompting from twitter buddies (thank you) the post was developed as a manuscript, and reviewed and published in PLoS Comp Biol (ten simple rules to achieve conference speaker gender balance). That paper has been viewed nearly 25,000 times. I’ve since been contacted by many people to thank me for providing practical suggestions that can be sent to decision-makers on conference and seminar series panels.

Since I wrote that post, I’ve been program chair on a couple of conferences and have relatively easily achieved 35-50% invited women speakers. I have also attempted, reasonably successfully, to give speaking opportunities to minorities and ECRs/MCRs. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive on the quality of the programs.

Quality. Check.

Diversity. Check.

Problem solved? Nope.

I sit here at the end of 2016, wondering how it is that every week I am contacted by someone around the world asking for help on this issue. People point me to conference websites with long lists of invited vanilla men. Or even more annoyingly very long lists of invited speakers from all parts of the world, young and old. But no women. Women, it seems, always come last. There is also an apparent correlation between the number of women in the speaker list and the number of women on the organising committee (ie usually 0-1 women on program committee and 0-1 invited women in speaker lists).

Over the past three weeks, I have used variations of the following email to contact three symposia/conference organisers about imbalance in their meetings (a biology symposium with 4 white men invited speakers, a biophysics conference with 20 invited men, and a chemistry conference with 29 invited men and 1 invited woman).

Dear program committee,

I am emailing on a delicate subject, relating to gender balance in the invited speaker list of the upcoming xxxxx conference. It seems from the information available on-line that all of the program committee, and all of the invited speakers are male. I am writing to ask you (1) to consider addressing this inequity and (2) to consider for future conferences adopting a public policy of inclusivity for invited speakers that is representative of the field generally.

In case you are wondering, I found out about this imbalance through several people – men and women – who contacted me independently to express their concern. My paper in PLOS Comp Biol has become a manifesto of sorts to address this endemic issue – Perhaps there might be some useful ideas there that could be adopted.

I have pledged not to sponsor or support conferences (and don’t accept invitations to speak) unless there is a gender policy and evidence of good faith attempts at gender balance. Many other women and men have done the same. I wonder then, how the men invited to speak at this meeting will feel when they become aware that this seems to be a men-only invitation list. I wonder also, looking at the list, whether women will feel welcome to attend or participate in what looks to be a men-only event.

This imbalance is particularly concerning at a time when academia is attempting to address gender inequity in STEMM.

Thank you for taking the time to read this email. This is a tricky topic, and I trust you will take my comments in the manner in which they are offered – as an attempt to highlight and remove one of the structural barriers to women’s participation and progression in science. Removing barriers such as this will improve science for everyone not just for women.

For the most part, the responses have been rapid and positive. I am thanked for my email, for raising the issues, for suggesting fixes. I am informed that committees are sorry for the dismay they have caused, that they too are concerned about the situation, and that they are doing everything they can to address the imbalance for this meeting and will adopt new policies in the future.

Committees continue to get themselves into a pickle over this issue, raising the ire of their community, because they haven’t planned for balance and they haven’t implemented measures for unconscious bias.

So while I still stand by my 10 original rules (1. collect the data, 2. develop a policy, 3. make the policy visible, 4. establish a balanced and informed program committee, 5. report the data, 6. build and use databases, 7. respond to resistance, 8. support women at meetings, 9. be family-friendly, 10. take the pledge) it’s now time to add a few more.

11. Draw up a long list of women speakers and invite them first

Women more often than men – and for many reasons – will say no to an invitation to speak. If we don’t actively and deliberately plan to include women we will end up with imbalance. So, what to do? Actively and deliberately include women.

Don’t invite women last. Invite them first.

Draw up a long list of women speakers. Ask the relevant scientific community to suggest women speakers, use databases. Search granting agency awardee lists.

Expect women to say no (and encourage them to attend the next year’s meeting if they can’t accept this time round).

Move on down the list of women until the target number is reached. Then invite a few more. Only after that start inviting men. You won’t have any trouble reaching your target of men speakers. And even if you don’t, will it matter if once in a while there are more women than men invited speakers? It might be a small way to redress historic and recent imbalance.

12. When women speakers pull out, replace them with women or not at all.

This is a no-brainer, yet time and time again last-minute speaker gaps are filled with men. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

13. Appoint a gender equity champion

Gender balance won’t happen if no-one is accountable. Appoint a senior person on the program committee whose role it is to ensure (1) policies are in place, (2) everyone on the committee is aware of the policies, (3) data are reported publicly, and (4) the community is updated on the gender balance and how it is tracking. Give that person authority and accountability. Ask them to provide reports at every program committee meeting.

14. For major congresses, ask sub-committees for balance

In some cases, international program committees of major congresses are limited to selecting speakers from hundreds of suggestions they receive from their community or from dozens of sub-committees.The cognitive bias “science is male” is held by a majority of people, so we need everyone in the process to be thoughtful and considerate – to actively and intentionally consider women in the list of nominees. The over-arching program committee may have the goal of balance in mind, but they need their sub-committees to support that goal. The solution here is to require sub-committees to provide a balanced list of suggestions. For example, ask sub-committees to provide 6 suggestions – 3 women, 3 men. Ask individuals to provide 2 suggestions – 1 woman, 1 man. In this way a long list of potential speakers can be built up that is balanced from the beginning, and that gives the overarching committee the wriggle room to achieve gender balance overall.

15. Run regular workshops on the fifteen simple rules 

Educate people. Inform the community as to why we need change. And explain how to make change happen, using conscious and deliberate processes such as these rules.


After all, we could all do with better balance in our world in 2017.