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.