Organizing a Gender Balanced Conference

There is a lot of discussion on the internet about highly skewed speaker lists at symposia and conferences. For the past year, I’ve been co-organizing a small conference (~110 people) with Michael Angilletta where we’ve been practicing some of the approaches I developed and blogged about earlier for organizing a seminar series. However, in ecology we know that what works at small scales may not apply to larger scales. So, do I still think organizing a conference that is both strong on research and gender diversity is very doable? Read and find out.

But before I give you my thoughts, first, some stats and background. For this conference, we had a lot of moving pieces: Discussion Leaders who helped organize their sessions, Invited Speakers – both for long and short talks, a Mentoring Program for Young Scientists which involved selecting both mentors and mentees. In the end (I hope, I’m writing this about a week before the conference, so hopefully things don’t change drastically), we ended up with the following numbers for each of these parts.

Discussion Leaders: 5 men, 4 women

Invited Long-Talk Speakers (40 min talks): 9 men, 9 women

Invited Short Talk Speakers (12 min talks):9 men, 7 women

Students/Postdocs in Mentoring Program: 10 men, 10 women

Professors (all ranks) in Mentoring Program: 11 men, 9 women

So over all the slots that we invited people to fill, we have 53% men.

What did we do? Just like I talked about in my post about the seminar series, we generated a large pool of names. We started by making a big list of people to lead the various sessions at the conference and developed an invite list that was balanced. We then used our balanced group of Discussion Leaders to brainstorm potential speakers. Each Discussion Leader provided a list of people they thought would be excellent for their session. They were given detailed instructions about how to generate their list – diverse perspectives on their topic, diversity of taxa/ecosystems, including domestic and international scientists, and a reminder to be aware of the gender ratios of their list.

From those lists, Mike and I sat down and constructed our dream team speaker list – balancing research areas, topics and taxa/ecosystems, career stages, making sure we had some international representation, and keeping an eye on gender balance in the process. Then we set out to convince these people to come speak at the conference.

For the Mentoring Program, we ran an application process. We advertised on every social media outlet and listserv we could think of. Our pool of applicants was very gender balanced (23 women, 21 men). We selected 20 young scientists, equally split among male and female, again balancing across various dimensions of research & people diversity.

The Mentors and Short Talk Speakers were harder. Most of our Short Talk Speakers are students from the mentoring program but we had some slots leftover to fill. Both the mentor and short talk speakers needed to fill specific topic requirements either for the program or to overlap with already chosen mentees.

So what lessons did I learn?

Gender balancing a conference is hard, but not in the ways I generally heard about before I started. It is not harder to find female speakers – as long as you don’t restrict yourself to only senior female professors. There are lots of kickass women out there, but you need to embrace the fact that they are scattered across career stages. Women were not more likely to say no. I don’t know why we didn’t experience this commonly reported problem. Maybe it was because I was sending the invites. Are women more likely to say yes to another women asking? I also spent a lot of time sending personalized emails communicating why we thought they in particular would be a good fit for the conference and why we wanted them there (I did this for the men too). What was hard about it was spending the extra time sending personalized emails to communicate clearly why I was inviting them. Did those efforts make a difference? I really don’t know. You’ll have to ask the amazing scientists who said yes to our invites.

Developing at the get-go a diverse pool of people you would like involved is critical. This is another time intensive step. Crowd-sourcing this to our Discussion Leaders helped a lot. Many of them knew speakers (men and women) we hadn’t thought of. When we pooled all those suggestions, we had 123 suggestions for 16 speaking slots. That gave us a ton of flexibility when thinking about the program we wanted to create. It was also really handy when someone said no because all the brainstorming work had already been done. We could sit down with our list and come to consensus quickly on the next invite to send. We often saved up rejections to fill as a group, thus allowing us to manage the diversity better.

The more restricted the slot you’re trying to fill, the harder it is to get gender balance. If your need is 2 kickass people who work in general area X, then gender balance is easy. The more criteria you place or the fewer the number of slots (or both) the harder it gets. Need a senior researcher studying organism X on specific subtopic Y and need another senior researcher studying organisms Z on specific subtopic A in ecosystem Q? Yeah, both those slots are probably going to end up being men, just because of the numbers game. View your program creatively. Be willing to think about different ways people can fit into the program given the diversity of research you’re trying to cover and the multiple facets that everyone has in their research programs.

So my final thoughts on the matter? Making a gender balanced conference is not easy and because of the strong gender skew at the senior levels, it doesn’t just magically happen. It takes work, planning, creativity, and a great team of people helping you brainstorm names. But a 80:20 split in invited speakers is far from the grim ‘reality’ that some might think.

7 Comments on “Organizing a Gender Balanced Conference

  1. This is an interesting post which I think highlights some important issues in achieving gender balance and I applaud the efforts that have been made. However, one thing that is not made so clear is what is meant by ‘gender balance’? Is the objective to get as close to a 50:50 sex ratio as possible or is it about ensuring a speakers gender does not tip the balance? A more general debate could be had over this I guess…

    Anyway, if the objective is the former –to get as close as possible to a 50:50 sex ratio – then I would think that is not too difficult to achieve. There are many recent examples of all male/male biased events as well as all female/female biased events (e.g. Soapbox Science) – so I would think that arranging any event with a predetermined gender ratio in mind should not be too difficult.

    However, the real challenge would be the latter – organising an event to ensure a speaker’s gender does not tip the balance – an event where selection is based entirely on merit and steps are taken by organisers to ensure that gender, or any other extraneous trait, does not come into it. A particular passage that struck me is where you say:

    “It is not harder to find female speakers – as long as you don’t restrict yourself to only senior female professors. There are lots of kickass women out there, but you need to embrace the fact that they are scattered across career stages.”

    Key here is whether it was equally considered that kickass men might be scattered across career stages and was the same effort invested in identifying male speakers, as female speakers, from a range of career stages. Otherwise early career stage women will be more likely to be invited than early career stage men – which would clearly discriminate and undermine having a gender balanced conference.

    This aside, I do agree with looking at a wider range of career stages as it would be a good way to get better representation and demonstrate diversity in science. To rephrase, perhaps you would agree that:

    “It is not hard to find good speakers – as long as you don’t restrict yourself to only senior professors. There are lots of kickass scientists out there, but you need to embrace the fact that they are scattered across career stages.”

  2. Hi Dominic,
    Your point that the ultimate goal is a diverse conference full of kickass speakers is a point we both agree whole heartedly on. While this post is exclusively focused on gender diversity in the context of some big debates on this specific issue, much of what I discussed in the post are approaches that would work when trying to meet a variety of diversity axes depending on your diversity goals. In fact, I’ve discussed exactly this in a prior post that I encourage you to read

    Where I think we disagree is whether the approaches I laid out result in unfairness towards men. Since there is a large literature of research on the fact that we all have subconscious biases that lead us to think of men are more impressive than women, then a level playing field requires us to have a set of approaches that force us to think critically about the merits of two people of different genders. That’s what the approach I highlighted above did for us. It moved the decisions of who would be awesome from the subconscious where the biases lurk to the conscious where we had a chance of counteracting them.

    I’m sympathetic to the argument that conscious looking across ranks for great women could lead to biases against junior men because we weren’t doing the same for them. For us, it didn’t work that way. We had men across the career stages from postdocs to senior full professors, just like we had for women. I suspect there were two mechanisms involved in that. First, young men are often seen as ‘rising rock stars’, whereas young women are often seen as ‘unproven’. I’ve seen this in action and it also fits with the messages coming out of the implicit bias studies. Thus they are more likely to get invites, even at early career stages. Secondly, by consciously looking for junior women it breaks the barrier for junior men. That probably sounds a little funny, but if we were trying to fill the ranks with senior luminaries, then the argument against junior men is the same as women: not senior enough. However, once we consciously opened the door for junior women there was no logical argument against including kickass junior males. Thus, the drive for gender balance also drove a lot of career stage diversity.

    Hopefully one day we can put together conferences by focusing solely on the awesome science people do – regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity. But that day won’t come until our implicit biases go away. Until that day comes, making sure we aren’t shutting out groups simply because we aren’t thinking about them is the best way to make the conference a better experience for everyone. At least, that’s what the attendees at mine seemed to think (junior & senior, male & female) 🙂

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