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.