Creating a diverse speaking series: an anecdote

If you have been to a conference recently where speakers are invited, the odds are that you (or someone with you) noticed that the speaker list didn’t really reflect the demographics of the field.

There have been various conversations about a number of recent conferences.  For an example, check out this hilarious post by Jonathan Eisen. The bottom of the post also contains numerous updates containing links to studies and other comments on this issue.

So, with this background in mind, I agreed to organize a small seminar series for the Ecology Center at Utah State University this past year. The seminar series was a monthly lunch meant to bring together the diverse group of people on our campus with scholarly activities related to the environment (which spans multiple departments and colleges).  With the increasing importance of interdisciplinary research, the thought was to create a venue to help us understand the diversity of activities here and to eventually foster activities across disciplines.  It’s one of many things I probably should have said no to*, but I have a special interest in fostering interdisciplinary communication*** so I decided to give it a try. For each lunch I invited 3-5 people to come and each give a 5 minute talk about their research. My mission: to create a speaking list for each lunch that was close to 50:50 gender ratio, at minimum reflected the background ethnic diversity here, and represented multiple departments. Over the academic year, a total of 28 people gave talks, representing 10 departments and 6 colleges. The gender ratio ended up being 50:50. My ethnic diversity was lower than I wanted: 11% from underrepresented groups. It’s hard to figure out what the ethnic diversity of USU’s faculty really is, but this site suggests that perhaps I wasn’t too far off the background****

So that’s the stats of what I did. Given all the scuttlebutt around the internet about people attending conferences/symposia where the invited speakers are highly white male biased, and the recent study that suggests part of the problem is that women say ‘no’ more frequently than men to invites, how did my seminar series end up the way it did?

Short answer: It wasn’t easy.

In reflecting over my past year, here are what I think the important steps were.

Start with a big pool: I generated a pool of possible invitees by going through every department remotely affiliated with the Ecology Center and making a list of names of people who fit the broad theme of the lunch series. Then I talked to colleagues who interacted a lot with other units to get even more names from units that we don’t normally interact with. In the end my list was 54 people. But with that big pool to start with, I had a lot of flexibility as I tried to balance the multiple axes of speaker diversity.

Invitee Categories: When I would set out to organize a lunch, I would start by deciding what departments I wanted. Then I would use my list to pick out a gender balanced list w/ representation from an underrepresented group if that was an option. By being clear upfront about the different diversity axes I was managing, there were clear decisions to make about invitations. Because I had already vetted my list to be all people suitable to speak at the event.

Managing the rejections: This is where the time investment and the big pool really become important. Let’s face it: most of us are in reactionary crisis management mode and when our carefully crafted balanced speaker list gets disrupted by a ‘no’ we just go to the next name that pops in our head. I don’t care what gender/ethnic/other group you belong to, the studies suggest that your knee jerk response won’t add diversity to your list. Given the low diversity in our field, the truth is that even if you were strategic, there may not be another woman/underrepresented minority available that fits a specific type of slot. So what do you do? I waited. I waited for all the rejections to come in and then crafted a second invite list organized around who said yes. Did the man from Biology and the woman from Engineering decline? Not another woman on my list from engineering? Invite a woman from biology and a man from engineering. If the original pool of invitees is big enough, this kind of rearrangement on the second round of invites can be accomplished fairly easily.

Persistence: The advantage of a seminar series over a conference is that if a specific date didn’t work, I could send them other possible dates and see if one of those did work. These people would then be the starting point that I crafted the rest of the speaker list around for some other month.

How do I know these rules worked? Because like you, I’m really busy and sometimes I didn’t follow them. For two months in particular, I let chaos reign. What did I get? One month was all men and 75% were from one department. Interestingly, the other month was all women – though from different departments.  The lesson that I learned from that? Diversity on multiple axes doesn’t just ‘happen’.

My story is frankly, just that. Maybe I got lucky that my seminar series ended up as diverse as it did. But I have to agree with Edna’s (from the Incredibles) paraphrasing of a famous Louis Pasteur quote:


Luck favors the prepared.






*I think there’s a law of academia where the number of requests you get to do stuff can be fit by the following equation**: Sum(number of times your name has been mentioned recently, weighted by whether your name was used in a positive or negative context) + [social aptitude]^(whether you represent an underrepresented group in your field and how underrepresented is that group)

**And to the quantitative folk out there, no I have no idea what that equation would actually look like. My guess: absolute garbage.

*** Getting familiar with another discipline’s vocabulary can be extremely important for communication. For example, when my ecoinformatics husband says “Sudo, review that manuscript for me” I have learned that he is actually attempting to use Jedi-like computer programming mind tricks to make me do what he wants. Fortunately, I am not (yet) a computer.

**** It depends on what one thinks the ‘ethnicity unknown’ and ‘non-resident alien’ groups represent. I like to think the non-resident aliens are from other planets. That would seriously help the diversity problem on our campus.

8 Comments on “Creating a diverse speaking series: an anecdote

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