Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Diversity (of speakers, participants) at meetings: do something about it

Some unformed thoughts here but here goes.

Every so often I see a conference announcement and am annoyed by the XY/XX excess for the speakers.  Some recent examples
And more.

Now - I complain about this here and there on Twitter and the like

But I felt that this needed a blog post to not get lost in the Twitter stream.  So here it is.

I note - I have posted about this issue previously: A conference where the speakers are all women? | The Tree of Life and for conference for which I am involved I have been trying very hard to work on the speaker diversity (not just XX vs XY, but age, career status, ethnicity, etc).  And it certainly can be difficult to make sure that diversity is there.  But the meetings I list above are pretty egregious.  The Genome Canada one features seven major speakers - all white males.  Yes, they are all big names.  But in biology, where women are reasonably well represented, it suggests a bias to me if a meeting can somehow only manage to invite and/or attract all senior, white, XYs to be major speakers.  Not sure what that bias is and it could be different in each case -  could be who is invited - could be the field itself - could be timing/nature of the meeting - could be something to do with families (e.g., perhaps women are invited but are more likely to feel like limiting travel due to roles in child care).

Also I note - biases are not necessarily affecting any one gender or ethnic group.  For example, I have generally stopped going to meetings/conferences that are on weekends and I have also stopped going to meetings/dinners after 6 PM because I do not want to skip out on time with my family.

So here is a plea.  Next time you are involved in organizing a meeting - make some effort to have a strong representation of diversity of speakers and participants.  For example, if you invite lots of women for example and all say no - try to figure out why and see if you can fix the issue.  Offer travel fellowships for students.  Offer child care or child activity options (even if you cannot pay for it - at least make it easy for people).  Make sure to advertise/promote the meeting to groups/institutions with a high representation of underrepresented groups.  Don't give up if your first efforts don't work.  Sometimes it can be difficult to make sure diversity levels are high.  But keep trying ... it will help make the conference better and also will help the field in general ...

For other posts on this topic see


  1. PZ Myers discussed this in his Pharyngula blog today .. see here

  2. Mind you, it's not all grim. GCC this year featured a fairly diverse population on both sides of the podium, if memory serves.

  3. this whole notion of diversity quotas only makes sense if you are NOT a libertarian.


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