Gender balance in scientific conferences (Australia)

This site was inspired by Jenny Martin's letter to Nature, in which she suggests that conference organisers should track (and publish on their websites) the percentage of women amongst the conference's different categories of speakers, as well as their organising committee and registrants. This would help conference organisers to assess their event and determine how well they are serving their audience. She also suggested that conferences publish their gender policy on their website too. 

This has now been done by the organisers of the Lorne Proteins meeting, who have posted their gender policy and a breakdown of their invited speakers, abstract submissions, selected abstracts, committee and delegates on their websiteHowever, I've not yet spotted a gender policy or any gender representation figures on any of the conferences I regularly attend. 

So I thought - information on conference speakers and organising committees is public, so why not crowdsource the numbers for ourselves? 

This is not intended to criticise conferences or their organisers, but to raise awareness amongst conference attendees and organisers. I'm involved with organising a couple of conferences, and I freely admit that an event I organised recently ended up being decidedly male dominated, which is far from ideal (my personal perspective on why this is important is at the bottom of the page).

So please, consider taking a moment to submit data on the Aussie conferences you go to.

*Contributing talks not yet announced OR Contributing talks listed by first initial only, so gender hard to determine. So the number is NOT zero, just unknown at this point.

Want to do more? While putting this together I contacted Jenny Martin, who was in the middle of writing a blog post on this very topic, which includes some practical advice on what committees, speakers and delegates can do to make a difference.

Why do this?
I've recently become involved in a couple of organising committees for local scientific conferences, where I have a hand in deciding who to invite from overseas and will soon be involved in selecting speakers from abstracts. 

I've been to a few conference where I was the only female speaker in a session, and the next conference I'm going to has an invited speaker lineup with 10% females. Now, this doesn't seem right to me. Women make up about 50% of graduate students and postdocs in biological sciences, so they should at least be equally represented amongst contributed speakers (those selected from abstracts). Invited speakers are usually drawn from those further up the career ladder, where women are present at lower rates, but how will this ever change if young women are not given opportunities to present, or to see senior female scientist role models present?

Diversity is important for science
There are lots of different ways of doing science, different perspectives on what the most important questions are and how best to answer them. Science is a creative endeavour and diversity is important for advancing science. Also, there are a million different ways to present and communicate science, and a diversity of style at conferences is important.

Giving conference talks is an important part of career development for scientists
I gave my first talk at a proper scientific conference as a PhD student in 2009, at the Genetics and Genomics of Infectious Diseases conference in Singapore. It was a contributing talk, selected from abstracts. I had to do the talk in a ball room at the Ritz Carlton in front of a few hundred people, which was terrifying, and with a two-screen setup that I hadn't seen before, which made the whole thing even more unfamiliar and strange. But I had some friendly faces in the audience, and I got through the talk and answered some questions from the audience at the end. I also met some new people after the talk, and my confidence was boosted for the next time.

When I got home I started writing my PhD thesis, and applied for a research fellowship to move back home to Australia. It felt good to be able to list a conference talk in my application, along with the conference posters that I'd presented, and I'm certain that this played at least a small part in the deliberations of the fellowship committee (I ended up getting the fellowship). Back in Australia, as a postdoc research fellow, I have been lucky enough to get to speak at several Australian and international conferences, sometimes selected from abstracts and occasionally as an invited speaker.

I think these conference speaking experiences have helped me to get established in these early years of my science career. Why?

• These things matter in our funding system
Last year, weeks after starting my new role as a junior lab head, I had to apply for the next research fellowship (four years rolled around fast!). The major selection criteria (60%) was that elusive beast known in grant-speak as 'track record' - which includes "publications, grants, prizes, and peer recognition" - and along with a research proposal and full list of papers, I also had to supply a complete list of conference presentations I'd given. I don't  think the precise number of talks matters much, but when a fellowship committee are asked to choose between two young scientists with equally good publication records, the one with lots of talks at good conferences is going to get a bit of a boost.

• Conference presentations open doors
The conference talks I've done have sparked conversations with people I hadn't met before, and even led to new collaborations. They've meant that a few more scientists now know my name, including some who liked what I had to say and ended up asking me to give seminars or more conference presentations, which opens more doors.

• Communicating is key for scientists
Communicating your research is an important part of being a scientist. No one starts out as a great presenter, but the more chances we get to practise, the better we get. I'm by no means the world's greatest presenter, but I'm much more comfortable giving talks (and taking questions at the end) now that I've had some practice... which means that I'm more likely to accept speaker invites when they are offered, or to tick the 'oral presentation' box on a conference abstract submission form rather than opting for the less confronting 'poster presentation'.

So, I'd like to see all Aussie scientists - including women and young researchers - get the same opportunities to stand up and present their work, in front of their scientific heroes as well as their peers. 

Of course speakers should be selected on merit. But we have plenty of evidence that humans are simply no good at eliminating the effects of unconscious bias from their thinking. So please let's admit that 'merit' is highly subjective and is influenced by all sorts of biases including gender, and bring some of these biases out into the open so they can be discussed and managed a bit better.

Kat Holt