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.

merit and demerit

When I graduated many years ago, the hall was filled with people from around the world: different colours, different races, different religions, as many women as men. Now some 30 years later, I’m often the only woman in a room full of white men. When I ask my peers where all the diversity has gone, they shrug their shoulders and say “We appoint on merit”.

Actually, they’re wrong. We don’t appoint on merit. We appoint on metrics.

rethinking merit and metrics

The accepted norms of the higher education workplace are an obsessive focus on a very narrow set of metrics as a proxy for merit, a high attrition of women, a lack of diversity in leadership, and sometimes the development of toxic unwelcoming workplaces.

We need to rethink how we measure merit and we need to consider demerit too so that we can be confident that the people we invest with power, leadership and decision-making are not sexist, racist, homophobic or bullies.

To start, we need to look at what we mean by merit. The dictionary defines merit as the “quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward”. I don’t think anyone would argue that we shouldn’t appoint leaders on merit using that meaning. In a society that is diverse, like ours – 50% women, multicultural – you would expect that merit and the power and leadership earned as a result, would be evenly distributed across diverse demographics. But it’s not.

For some reason, promotion on merit does not give everyone a fair go. Leadership, power and decision making are concentrated almost uniformly in a narrow demographic: old white men.

Yet the data show that leadership teams with greater diversity and differing life experience generate better outcomes. More diversity provides a competitive edge. If we focus on gender, for example, companies with more women on their boards make larger profits. Really, investors should only support companies with women CEOs. They’d make a lot more money. What about research? Well, teams of mixed gender produce higher quality research and a higher proportion of women increases team collective intelligence. What’s more, when organisations improve things for women they make things better for everyone by increasing access to parental leave, flexible work practise, better work life balance.

The attrition of diversity impacts negatively on productivity and innovation in academia. Yet when the dominant group are challenged about the lack of diversity in senior academic positions, their defense often focuses on the word “merit”. When we probe further, we find that merit here actually means metrics. Most importantly, we don’t measure demerit at all. Let me explain.

easy to measure metrics

To assess merit in academia, we measure a few specific things. The number of publications, the number of grants, the number of PhD students. These numbers focus on a very narrow selection of things that people and universities do. And it is no coincidence that these metrics are also easy to measure. The problem comes when we use these “easy to measure” metrics as a proxy for merit. We have now evolved ever more cryptic numbers (H index, IF, etc) that mean nothing to those outside the sector but which are avidly pursued within the sector, almost to the exclusion of everything else. The higher the numbers, the better and more valued you are. We chase after these metrics – but do they really measure what we should be measuring?

personal qualities we value

creativity     critical thinking   resilience   motivation   persistence   curiosity   endurance   reliability    enthusiasm   empathy   self-awareness   self-discipline leadership   courage     civic-mindedness    compassion    integrity   resourcefulness    honesty   sense of beauty   sense of wonder    generosity  humour   humility  kindness   consideration authenticity care

(Collated by US education policy researcher, Gerald Bracey with a few extra that I threw in)

In my opinion, it is the above list of personal qualities that should be considered when rewarding merit and choosing leaders. Yet none of these are measured directly and most are not measured at all when we assess the merit of people and higher ed institutions using current metrics. That means there is a disconnect between the metrics we use and the actual merit of a person or an institution based on these qualities.

We need new metrics. Metrics that value personal qualities. We should not measure how many PhD students an institution produces, we should measure how well an institution supports their PhD students. Universities should be assessed on how inclusive they are, how diverse their senior executive is, and how well they support the work-life balance of their staff. After all, university rankings are meant to help students and staff identify the best places in the world to study, work and do research. That should mean measuring which universities provide the safest and most supportive workplaces where everyone – not just those who fit into a very narrow demographic – can succeed. Professors should be assessed, for example, on how well they sponsor and mentor others to achieve research, teaching and service goals (with more weighting given to supporting diversity), not how many people are in their group or how much money they have received in grants.

And then we also need to look at the other side of the coin.


The dictionary defines demerit as a “fault or disadvantage”, or “a mark awarded against someone for a fault or offence”. When we measure the worth and value of someone or some institution we ought to consider demerit alongside merit. When a professor tells a sexist, racist or homophobic joke, that should count as demerit. When a university supports or organizes a conference with an all white male list of speakers, that must count as demerit.

Our current focus on a very narrow set of metrics as a proxy for merit sometimes leads to or supports selfish, unprofessional or even unethical behaviours that can generate toxic workplaces. Harassment is one such toxic behaviour that pushes women out. In a recent study, 64% of scientists surveyed about their experience on field trips reported sexual harassment; 22% reported sexual assault. The majority of those reporting harassment and assault were young (undergrads, postgrads, postdocs) and female. The perpetrators were predominantly male and senior. The power differential makes it very difficult for the victim to report the bad behaviour; the perpetrator may be a highly respected person with huge metrics. They are “too valuable” to lose, too powerful to challenge. The power differential silences and shames the victim. Even when unethical behaviour is reported it may not be dealt with appropriately.

Sometimes I wish there were a Demerit App – one that silences and shames the bully, harasser, or predator. So that when a married male professor won’t stop looking down the shirt of a female postdoc, she can press the thumbs down button against the professor’s name. The professor would be denied access to his laptop and portable electronic devices for an hour. If two or more people activate the app, the professor would be locked out for an even longer time and a message sent to the supervisor who would need to take action or they too would earn demerit points. Demerit points would accumulate for each individual and for each institution and would be deducted from the metrics used to calculate a person’s merit and a university’s international ranking.

it’s time for change

We are now well into a new millennium. But we are stuck in the stereotypes of the past. This roadblock is limiting our decision-making, our progress, our innovation. To move forward, we need to challenge the current norms; define merit much more broadly; measure qualities we value in people but which are hard to measure; and we must value ethical behaviour. Most importantly, we need to assess demerit alongside merit to gauge the true worth of a person or an institute. This way we can bequeath new models of success and leadership to the next generation to help fix the problems we have inherited from the past.

In this revolutionised workplace, academics with integrity, empathy, respect and compassion – as well as critical thinking and creativity – will be rated highest and valued most of all.


This post is based on a TedX talk I gave at the University of Queensland on 23 May 2015. The video is here. (updated with new link on 10 Jan 2016)