Monday, October 27, 2014

Some suggestions for having diverse speakers at meetings

Been having a lot of discussions online in response to my post (Apparently, the National Academy of Sciences thinks only one sex is qualified to talk about alternatives to sex #YAMMM) tracking the awful gender ratio for speakers and session chairs at meetings run by the National Academy of Sciences in their Sackler series.  Some people were asking what one can do to improve gender diversity at meetings so I thought I would post this which I was meaning to do anyway ...


I wrote this in an email to a meeting organizer after I had turned down their invitation due to the imbalance in gender of the speakers (more about this another time --- this is not the same case as the one I wrote about here: Turning down an endowed lectureship because their gender ratio is too skewed towards males #WomenInSTEM). 

Anyway, my colleague wrote a long and very helpful email to me after I withdrew from the meeting when I saw the speaker list.  In the email she detailed things that her organization was trying to do to increase diversity of speakers at meetings.  She ended it with this:
Thus, I take your comment to heart and wanted you to know that I care about this issues as well.  I would love to hear how you balance these inequities at your meetings and learn as much as I can.  Thank you for taking the time to bring this up I know how busy you are and appreciate your candor. Truly looking forward to more scientific exchanges and perhaps some education around gender issues.
And I wrote back, quickly, without digging into the literature or all the posts in the world about this some quick suggestions which I think others might find useful. So here is my response - again - was not meant to cover all the things one can do - just examples:

Thanks so much for the response and I am really glad to see all you are trying to do in this area. 
In terms of how we try to balance inequities at meetings I organize I would note a few simple things
  1. Do not try to invite only the famous people or the people doing the "top" work.  This usually biases one towards more established researchers (as in, older) and this alas also usually is accompanied by distortion of diversity.
  2. DO try to invite people across the breadth of career stages.  Meetings to me should not be only about getting the PIs whose labs are doing the best work to talk.  It should also be about giving opportunities to junior researchers - PhD students, post docs and junior faculty who are doing exciting work - perhaps more focused or smaller scale - but nevertheless exciting.  If one opens up a invited speaker list to people at diverse career stages one generally greatly increases the gender and ethnic diversity. 
  3. DO try to invite people from diverse institutions - research universities, research institutes, companies, non profits, NGOs, the press, non research universities, and more.
  4. DO try to be flexible about times and dates for talks - I have found that women more than men have other commitments (e.g. kids) for which they cannot change dates of activities. 
  5. DO try to provide child care assistance (as you are doing).
  6. DO try to make sure women are on the organizing committee See
  7. DO make sure to provide travel funds.
  8. DO try to include some talks on related areas that may not be the main theme of the conference.  For example history of science and ELSI related topics increase the pool of women and speakers with diverse backgrounds which can be invited.
  9. DO ask the women who turn down invitations if they care to say why.
  10. DO commit to spending a decent amount of time searching for qualified female speakers.  Sometimes there are people who fit ALL the goals of a meeting and they are just missed because women on average have lower public profiles than men doing the same type of work.
Just some ideas off the top of my head.
see also 


  1. Thanks for this, and for continuing to track and reveal all the YAMMMs. I've been following your posts in part because I am a philosopher of science who cares about diversity in science and in part because philosophy has the same problem. Over in philosophy-world we call it the Gendered Conference Campaign (, but it amounts to the same thing: calling out conferences that are mostly men for their ill effects on the discipline. You might be interested in a similar posting about what organizers can do to avoid putting on such events:

    It gives much the same advice as you do, but maybe there is a nugget or two in addition. It seems to me that starting early, perhaps even before dates are firmly set, might be an important one, since so often the complaint is that women were asked but declined.

    Again, thanks again for your leadership on this.

    -Roberta Millstein

  2. Some people were asking what one can do to improve gender diversity at meetings so I thought I would post this which I was meaning to do anyway . Stereo