Gender Gap Among Scientists Could Be Fixed By Having More Women Organize Conferences

By Gabrielle Jonas on January 7, 2014 4:55 PM EST

By Invitation Only
Women have a better shot of being invited to a scientific conference if the conference organizer is a woman. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Women are currently underrepresented among speakers at scientific meetings, but a new study released Tuesday suggests one simple way to address this deficit. An analysis of 460 scientific symposia to be published in mBio, the online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology suggests that the inclusion of at least one woman on a convening committee increases the proportion of female speakers by as much as 74 percent and significantly reduces the likelihood that the session would have an all-male list of speakers. "Increasing the number of women who present their work at large meetings could translate into more women succeeding in science," Dr. Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said in a press release.

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As the chair of the planning committee for the American Society of Microbiology (ASM) annual meeting, Casadevall noticed a gender imbalance in guest speakers. When Casadevall and colleague Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Dr. Jo Handelsman of Yale University compared the number of female speakers in sessions organized by two men versus the number in sessions organized by a pair that included one woman, they encountered a gender gap.

If you're a scientist, speaking at scientific meetings can be an important feather in your cap — an achievement that can help you get ahead in your career, said Casadevall, who, along with Handelsman examined 460 symposia involving 1,845 speakers in two large meetings sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology. At these meetings, select groups of session conveners choose speakers for plenary sessions and individual symposia. 

Of the 104 sessions over three meetings between 2011 and 2013 convened by male-only teams, only about 25 percent had female speakers. Of sessions organized by teams with at least one woman, they had about 43 percent female speakers. About 30 percent of sessions organized by men had only male speakers, compared with nine percent of sessions with a female organizer.

An analysis of a second annual meeting run by ASM, the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, returned similar results — and not because female planners scheduled themselves to speak. Male and female conveners participated as speakers in roughly equal percentages. And at both meetings, the participation of women on a convening team also reduced the odds the session would have all male speakers.

"Meeting program committees could carefully consider the gender composition of those assigned to pull together scientific sessions and make efforts to involve women scientists as conveners for sessions and symposia," said Casadevall.

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