to travel or not to travel – that is the question

a Korean crystallography journal

Last week I was in South Korea. Beautiful Jeju island in the Korea strait, to be exact. The touristy branding of Jeju as the “Hawaii of South Korea” may be a bit over the top. Having never been to Hawaii, I can’t really comment on the comparison. On the other hand, with gorgeous crystal-clear waters, sandy beaches and truly exceptional volcanic nature reserves that are UNESCO World Natural Heritage sites, Jeju is certainly a gorgeous place to visit.

The timing of my arrival overlapped with tragic news in South Korea, although I wasn’t to find out till quite late in the day. I was already on the 11-hour flight from Sydney to Seoul when the story broke of the heart-breaking loss of 156 lives in the Itaewan Halloween disaster. South Korea observed a week of mourning for those who died. In the same week, North Korea launched more than 80 missiles making for a somewhat tense atmosphere in the South. However, day to day life seemed to continue as normal and everything appeared to run like clockwork – at least to this visitor’s eyes.

View from the window seat, incoming flight to Incheon Oct 30 2022, showing a glowing red sun setting amongst clouds above a calm sea with small islands in the mid-ground

My flight from Sydney to Incheon was uneventful, if a little late arriving (silver lining, I got to witness a lovely sunset from the window seat during landing).

Customs and quarantine queues were orderly and extremely efficient (unlike Sydney airport on return 😞). South Korea had only just relaxed the requirement for incoming passengers to provide a negative COVID-PCR test within 24 hours of arrival. So Incheon airport was still replete with messaging about now-unnecessary COVID quarantine requirements – including rapid PCR-testing facilities at every turn.

To get to Jeju, you need to first make your way from Incheon airport to Seoul-Gimpo airport. The two airports are not particularly close – about 30 km apart. Think Heathrow and London-City airports, or Melbourne and Avalon airports. No problem, there are plenty of options to get between Incheon and Gimpo. I chose to use the AREX, a train journey of about 35 minutes. The trains are modern and spacious and the carriages have a high information content: on-board displays track which station you’re at, show which other stops are on the journey, provide flight arrival and departure data, and even tell the story of the disputed Dokdo islands.

To board the AREX train you must first acquire a ticket. And to get the single-use ticket that I needed required cold hard cash – 4450 Korean Won plus a deposit of 500 Won to be precise. Credit card not accepted. Wait. What??!! Why??? Fortunately, I had a little South Korean money from a previous trip [I *knew* those 13,000 won (~$13 AUD) hoarded in 2010 would come in handy one day]. Seriously, it was so long ago, I wondered if the money was still legal tender. In any event, my squirrelled-away money proved to be legit, the ticket-machine was super easy to use, and – as a bonus – the issued ticket somehow remembered the language I had selected when I bought it, so that when I swiped on and off the display reported information in English (including a reminder to collect my 500 Won deposit at the end of the journey). How clever is that!

Great! Next stop Gimpo. Now. Gimpo airport has two terminals – International and Domestic. Both are served by the same AREX station. Why then, when I alighted from the train, did I automatically follow the directions to the International terminal, when my next flight was domestic? I don’t know. Maybe I was discombobulated. Maybe subconsciously I wanted to be back home. Maybe I simply needed to boost my step count. In any case I soon found out that I couldn’t get a boarding pass to Jeju at Gimpo International Terminal, so I legged it to the Domestic terminal. There, I did get a boarding pass, made my way through security, and arrived at the boarding gate in the nick of time…phew!…only to find that the Jeju flight was delayed by an hour due to the late arrival of the incoming flight…😞

Eventually I did arrive at Jeju airport, which was only a 5-10 min cab-ride to the conference hotel (both cab and hotel accepted credit card, yay!). It was midnight South Korean time (2am in Sydney) when I finally put head to pillow. Total travel time door to door, 21 hours…

Needless to say, I slept like a log 😴

As implied above, re stockpiled South Korean Won, this was my second visit to Korea. The last trip was 12 years ago. The reason for both visits was my participation in an Asian Crystallographic Association (AsCA) Conference. At the 2010 AsCA conference in Busan, Korea, I was Chair of the International Program Committee. Then in 2013 (at an AsCA meeting in Hong Kong) I was elected Vice-President of the AsCA Executive Committee. Subsequently I became President (2016-2019) and then Past President (2019-2022). At this year’s 2022 Jeju AsCA council meeting, my 9-year term on the Executive Committee came to an end. After so many years on the committee there was definitely a feeling of sadness, but the act of stepping aside also provided me with an opportunity to reflect on AsCA and its achievements during those years.

Equity and Diversity: First and foremost for me has been gender balance of speakers at AsCA conferences. Since 2018, AsCA has reported gender balance statistics. AsCA conferences regularly attract 400-600 attendees from 20-30 countries and we now know that ~35% of registrants who report their gender, identify as women. The most recent three AsCA conferences have been held in Auckland (2018), Singapore (2019), and Jeju (2022). [AsCA conferences were not held in 2020 or 2021 due to COVID]. In 2018, at the Auckland AsCA conference, the speaker gender balance was 33% women:67% men. In Singapore 2019, the speaker gender balance was 39% women:61% men, and in Jeju last week the speaker gender balance was 35% women:65% men. Of course, we would like to get to 50% women/non-binary attendees and speakers, but the current stats suggest we have a solid starting point in a traditionally male-dominated region. Further, equity and diversity is now squarely on the AsCA Council’s radar, and data are being captured and reported. That means we are counting what counts, and aiming to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities to succeed.

NextGen: For many years, AsCA has prioritised the development and support of our early career crystallographers. This is done through the provision of travel awards to attend AsCA conferences, as well as poster prizes and Rising Star awards at the conference. Importantly, a Rising Star award includes the opportunity to present a talk at an AsCA plenary session.

At Jeju, the AsCA conference organisers provided 10 travel awards, 20 poster prizes and 8 Rising Star awards. Alas, I don’t have the gender stats for the travel and Rising Star awards (note to self, recommend to new Executive Committee to collect and report that info). However, 2/3rd – yes ~67% – of the Jeju AsCA poster prizes were awarded to women. Wonderful! Now we need to ensure we don’t lose that talent, by supporting pathways that allow our best and brightest to progress.

N94 masks provided to on-site AsCA 2022 registrants

COVID: It would be remiss of me not to mention COVID safety at the Jeju AsCA conference. I was really pleased that the on-site registration packs included N94 masks, and hand sanitiser. Excellent! South Korea retains a mask mandate and everyone abides by it. On flights. On public transport. Indoors. Furthermore, the quality of masks and of mask-wearing was exceptional. The only people I saw wearing fabric masks or chin masks were westerners. Perhaps it’s not surprising that during 2020 and 2021 South Korea had one of the lowest per capita COVID case rates globally and that this was achieved without lockdowns.

Korean dinner at AsCA 2022, with Aranet4 monitor showing carbon dioxide levels of 595 ppm

The COVID Achilles heel of conferences can often be the social events. That risk can be reduced by ensuring good ventilation. My handy Aranet-4 CO2 monitor showed that the meeting rooms and dining rooms at the AsCA conference were very well-ventilated. Well done to the AsCA Local Organising Committee and the venue!!!

Virtual or no?: Attending face-to-face international conferences can bring many benefits including: the opportunity to discuss deep science questions with leading researchers outside of sessions; discovering new techniques/hardware at industry booths; networking and developing new collaborations; unexpectedly meeting far-flung former colleagues; and visiting – perhaps for the first time – a beautiful and interesting part of the world. Virtual attendance at meetings also has many benefits: reduced costs for travel/accommodation/food; no time spent/lost on long-haul travel; significantly reduced carbon footprint; increased opportunity to participate for those unable to travel; and decreased risk of contracting a dangerous infectious disease.

AsCA Jeju was a hybrid conference. Speakers and participants chose whether to be on-line or attend in person. I have no official data on the relative ratio of in person versus on-line speakers and participants at the conference. However, all Chinese participants were on-line due to the ongoing COVID restrictions in that country. From the number of people present in the conference halls and meeting rooms, I estimated that ~80% of registrants were there in real life. For the AsCA Council meeting, 43 people attended from 18 countries and about 50% of those were on-line. Everything ran very smoothly in this hybrid format.

Sustainability: My participation in the AsCA conference after almost three years of no travel raised a difficult question for me, one that I continue to struggle with. For some time now, I have been contemplating my contribution to global climate change. Over my career, I have been fortunate to explore many different parts of the world through international conference travel. On this occasion, I travelled to Korea by plane on a Sunday and departed for Sydney the following Thursday – a five day trip. Of the total time I was away from home – 120 hours – I was travelling for 40 hours or 33% of the time. And for 23 hours or 19% of those 120 hours, I was on a plane. I justified the trip because I pay to offset greenhouse gases, and because I had a key role on the AsCA Executive Committee. Now that I am no longer on the AsCA committee, and that I am edging ever closer to the end of my research career, how do I defend my travel to international conferences? How can we make conferences more sustainable?

We all need to make urgent and impactful changes to ensure a liveable world for future generations.

Perhaps it’s time for me to put the passport down, and pick up my online participation.

I would really like to hear what other researchers are doing about this. How do you address the mutually exclusive requirements of action on climate change and international conference participation?

does this conference have no shame? asking for a friend

Op-Ed for HealthCare IT News published on IWD 8 March 2018

I’m a woman. And I was raised a Catholic. So I know a bit about guilt and shame. One of the earliest and most confusing lessons I learned was, it doesn’t do to show how clever you are. That would be shameful. Boys don’t like girls who are smarter than them.

This old “girls are not (meant to be) smarter than boys” cliché may contribute to the bias many of us hold that science is male. It may explain why, for example, when I’ve received a prestigious speaking invitation, a leadership role, fellowship, award, whatever – I’ve often also received a comment or two implying that I’d only got that gig because I’m a woman. You know quotas. Affirmative action. The subtle message is that I couldn’t have earned it on merit alone – consequently there must be more deserving men who missed out. Presumably, I should be ashamed.

Speaking of affirmative action, people of all persuasions have told me they don’t support quotas or targets to address entrenched gender imbalance. That wouldn’t be fair to men. Women will feel uncomfortable. No, we must consider merit only. We can’t let this issue affect quality. Hmm, I think…but increasing diversity will affect quality; it is bound to improve.

Anyway, who made up the rules so that merit means pale, male, and stale?

Look around. Look at every sphere of influence, every sector, every decision-making body. There is already a quota system in place. It’s a quota for men. Men are supported by societal constructs, by systems, structures and policies devised by men for men. Systems and constructs that we all adhere to, unconsciously or otherwise.

I am reminded of an infamous conference in 2015 in a field of science replete with high profile women. A conference with 21 invited speakers. Three of those invited speakers were men named Mark from NSW. Yet none of the 21 invited speakers were women. Not one. The conference website proudly displayed the headshots of the invited speakers. It was magnificent in its uniformity. How could the organisers not see this enormous carbuncle of a problem? Did this conference have no shame? Did they expect that no one would comment?

Did anyone tell those invited men that they only got that gig cos they were men (named Mark from NSW)? Do you think it entered their heads that because of an insidious unconscious quota system for old white men, they had benefited from invisible privilege? Did they consider that in accepting that quota, I mean invitation, they had taken the place of a meritorious woman?

Some men are horrified when they find out – and are quick to respond. Others. Well, clearly they must be the best speakers because they wouldn’t have been invited otherwise. That’s how they got that gig. They earned it. What’s more, I should be ashamed for asking such questions and making them feel uncomfortable.

It’s an awkward truth, but this is what entitlement looks like.

Guess what? It’s not that difficult to get quality and equality in speaker lists for conferences or panels. I’ve done it many times. The trick is to be aware that implicit bias exists, to consciously address it, to plan ahead and, you know, maybe count the number of women and men you invite. I wrote a post – a how-to guide if you will – to help others achieve conference speaker gender balance. I published it in PLOS Comp Biol in Nov 2014 with the title “Ten simple rules to achieve conference speaker gender balance”. It’s been viewed over 35,000 times.

Ten simple rules. 35,000 views. And yet conference organisers still mess up. So, more than a year ago I wrote another 5 rules, to provide remedial help. You can see what I’m doing here, I am trying to be polite. I am trying to help. That’s what is expected of women.

It’s more than four years since I wrote that original post. Over three years since the open-access paper was published. And yet we still end up with conferences like this and this and this (scroll down to see the list of speakers) and this. Some of the men who accepted to speak have signed a #panelpledge. They should be ashamed.

Women I’ve never met contact me on a regular basis, women who are ashamed of their professional society, their organising committee, their field, which has – without any apparent shred of shame or guilt or self-awareness – approved and happily advertised a panel, or conference speaker list with no (or very few) women. How is this acceptable?

It’s not acceptable. I’ve had enough. Now, I have no shame.

Our world can’t wait another 200 years or more for equality. So on this International Women’s Day 2018 I will #pressforprogress by pledging to out conferences, panels, societies that have no obvious regard for equality, and to shame men I know that accept speaking invitations without considering diversity and who thereby contribute to normalising this persistent abnormality.

This is really important. Not just for conferences. For our future. If we are to solve the many challenging problems our world faces, we need to make sure that everyone has the same opportunities to succeed, that there is a level playing field, so that we really do end up with the most meritorious people in positions of power, making the big decisions.

Join me to #pressforprogress. Post those #allmalepanels you see advertised, here. And ask questions, like: before I join, what is this society’s speaker policy? why aren’t there any women on the invited speaker list? Inclusiveness and diversity are key to future success, so why should I pay to listen to a panel that isn’t inclusive or diverse?

You never know, we might just change the world one shame at a time.

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.


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.


show me the policy

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.