Too often one hears of — or attends in person — conferences where all (or nearly all) of the invited and keynote speakers are male. It is dispiriting every time one comes across such an occasion. It isn’t as if people have not had their attention drawn to this form of unconscious bias when a programme is drawn up, since it is so often highlighted, and yet it still occurs. A recent study has demonstrated, in one particular scientific community, how having more women on the organising committee systematically increases the number of high level female speakers. In one sense this is excellent news — it looks like an easy solution to the problem; all you need to do is find willing female volunteers to take on this role. In another sense it is very bad news. Here is my opinion as to why.
Firstly it dumps the onus of improving the situation on the women. I have noticed an encouraging trend in committees I’ve attended in the last year or two – say a promotions panel – where it is the men who speak up about unacceptable behaviour. Specifically in these contexts I have seen men call out inappropriately gendered letters of reference and demand they are ignored, or spot when different standards are implicitly being applied to male and female candidates. In my view, perhaps sadly, it is much more powerful when men make such interventions. It is saying ‘This is a problem’ not ‘This is a woman’s problem’. If it is assumed the ‘problem’, in whatever context, is solved by roping women in then it would appear to absolve men of taking any responsibility for correcting bias and righting wrongs. As I understand it this is what the He for She Campaign is calling for in very different spheres. Problems of a non-inclusive, non-representative slate of speakers are problems for everyone.
It is also of course the case that not all women are mindful of these issues anyhow. The title of the published paper demonstrating the effects of involving more women explicitly highlights this potential issue in its title: Not “Pulling up the Ladder”. Undoubtedly there is a (I hope increasingly rare) breed of women who feel no urge to support those rising through the ranks behind them. We should be very wary of parsing gender behaviour by ‘men bad, women good’. It does a disservice to both sexes. Further, gender is not the only brand of inclusivity we should be fostering. We need all conference organisers to be mindful of minorities of all sorts. Minorities of course can also include men. When I participated in a discussion at ESOF16 on gender issues recently, I was pleased to see that out of the 6 speakers, 2 were male. It is not helpful if all participants in discussions of issues around women in science are women – for exactly the same reasons as above. Inclusion and diversity mean exactly that: being inclusive and diverse.
Another downside of expecting women to ‘fix’ the conference platform is it has the potential to dump yet another burden on the women concerned. The amount of work involved as a conference organiser can vary from little more than replying to a few emails to sifting 100s of submitted abstracts and attending multiple meetings at the other end of the country. It is work that may not get you many Brownie points, although it may give you influence. However, if you are a woman already buried by committee work (since your host institution desires to stick you on every committee, big or small, due to the absence of others to provide gender balance) it may not seem an attractive option to accept an invitation to sit on a conference organisation committee as well. Then, added to all the other burdens is that of guilt that you are letting the side down by declining. Reading a paper such as the one cited at the top of this post will then only add to the guilt.
Earlier work has shown that one of the reasons conference platforms are frequently devoid of women is that women are much more likely to say no than men. They decline for all kinds of reasons, perfectly good reasons (for them) as I have written about before. So an absence of women may not equate to a lack of enthusiasm for such speakers from the organisers, whatever their gender make-up. Nevertheless I’d hypothesise that on average women are more conscious of other women’s work and hence have a larger pool of names to put forward and pursue. It may also be that an invitation personally written by a woman to another woman has a greater chance of success in getting an acceptance to speak: I haven’t seen any evidence regarding that particular idea.
However, it is hard not to believe that, for a female researcher attending their first or second conference, if the speaker line-up is overwhelmingly male the message received will be that they don’t belong. That message is pernicious if accidental. (I will leave out of the equation all considerations of whether an alcohol-fuelled lack of inhibition also conveys that message at the conference bar, or indeed any other form of harassment which might also occur.) Role models probably matter more in this context than in most others because that part of the audience not already jaded by attending too many conferences will be trying to imagine themselves standing there in front of a sea of unknown faces delivering their super-exciting-hot-off-the-press results. For the health of the discipline we need all potential talent able to picture themselves doing just that, not deciding that their PhD was a dreadful mistake.
So, let us collectively make sure that this study in PLOSone becomes almost instantly out of date; that its findings act as a wake-up call to men in the community and not just place another load on those women whose shoulders are already buckling under the expectation of commitments.