Gender inequality discussions are hard to avoid in science. The problem with gender discrimination is that it’s rarely a blatant attempt to keep women out of science – bias is often couched as an ‘ironic comment,’ poorly worded advice, or in the form of an inappropriate journal cover. These incidents may not overtly tell women that they aren’t welcome as equals, but the underlying message can be interpreted as such. Dr. Aradhna Tripati, a geologist at UCLA and coauthor of a widely-circulating letter denouncing underlying sexism at AAAS, told BuzzFeed News, “I appreciate how damaging the unintentional reinforcement of stereotypes can be”.
Indeed. Few scientists would claim to be sexist, but that didn’t stop Yale faculty (men and women) from preferring male scientists to equally qualified female scientists in a 2013 study. Yipes.
How to combat this unintentional bias? One way is to promote women in more visible positions, such as speakers at scientific conferences. mBio had previously published an article correlating the presence of female session conveners (those who select the conference presenters) with more female speakers at the ASM General Meeting in 2013. Increasing female scientist visibility is an important step toward gender parity in expertise, leadership, and role model positions. Rather than feel satisfaction with the relative jump in women speakers, 2014-2015 ASM GM Chair, Dr. Arturo Casadevall, has made further efforts toward equal representation.
Casadevall charged the GM Organizing Committee to strive for even greater gender diversity. Using the previous data as support, he encouraged incorporating women into the conveners of each session for the 2014 meeting. This led to a modest increase over 2013 ratios. For the 2015 meeting, he instructed the committee to directly intervene in the case of all-male speaking rosters and demand rationale for the exclusion of women speakers.
The results, now published in mBio, are striking. The 2014 meeting, consisting of more female conveners, increased female representation over the 2013 numbers. With the addition of direct committee oversight, the 2015 speaker roster consisted of 48.5% women scientists. In raw numbers, this mean a total of 100 women presented who otherwise may not have had the chance to highlight their scientific results. Only all-male convening panels selected all-male speaking sessions, and these were drastically decreased – indicating that the majority of all-male convening panels included at least one woman speaker.
“The rapid achievement of gender equity at the general meeting shows that these imbalances can be corrected rapidly,” says Casadevall, ‘The experience with the ASM general meeting provides a roadmap for other meetings that need to address gender balance.’ The article closes with a three-point action plan to enact a similar result with other conferences:
- Present data on gender disparity to increase awareness
- Increase women among convening panel members
- Directly instruct the committee to focus on gender balance in speaker representation
The impact of increased visibility is not trivial: these speakership positions can be a measure of productivity to promotion committees and are also an excellent opportunity to network. Broader leadership representation in turn recruits more broadly, as students can more easily envision themselves in leadership positions. Incorporating equal numbers of female speakers may be one way to help address both of these concerns.
This research represents a trend of scientists countering gender bias at conferences through various means. Here’s hoping that future conference organizers will follow suit to continue forwarding gender parity in conference presentation and bring us one step closer to gender parity in scientific leadership.
-- Julie Wolf