Calling attention to poor speaker gender ratio – even when it hurts

So I saw this Tweet earlier today

And that sounded very interesting. So I clicked on the link to check out the Plant Breeding for Food Security: The Global Impact of Plant Genetics in Rice Production A symposium honoring Dr. Gurdev Khush symposium.  And, then I went to the program.  And sadly I saw something there that was not to my liking.  The speakers were almost all male (men labelled in yellow, women in green)

  • Welcome to the Khush Symposium (Alan Bennett)
  • The Plant Breeding Center (Charles Brummer)
  • The Confucius Institute (Glenn Young)
  • Global food production – challenges and opportunities (Ken Cassman) Food production, technology and climate (David Lobell)
  • Panel – Impact of Gurdev Khush on plant genetics and food security Tomato genetics
    • (Dani Zamir)
    • (Pam Ronald)
    •  (Gary Toenniessen)
    •  (Gurdev Khush)
  • Lunch; The California Rice Industry (Kent McKenzie)
  • The rice theory of culture (Thomas Talhelm)
  • Recent advances in rice productivity and the future (David MacKill)
  • Hybrid rice technology contributions to global food security (Sant Virmani)
  • Super green rice (Qifa Zhang)
  • Tackling the wheat yield barrier (Matthew Reynolds)
  • African Orphan Crops – inspiration and execution (Howard Shapiro/Allen Van Deynze)

If this was a symposium outside UC Davis the first thing I would do would be to post about it.  To Twitter or my blog or both.  And to critique them.  Why?  Because there is a bad history in STEM fields of having meetings and conferences have under-representation of women as speakers.  And this has become a passion of mine and I write about it a lot.  But I hesitated.  Why?  Because this was from UC Davis and many of the people involved are friends / colleagues.  I did not want to anger them, or embarrass them.  And I don’t think there is any intentional bias here by any means.  But, if I am going to critique people outside UC Davis, it seems like I should also apply the same standards to people inside UC Davis and to colleagues and friends.

So I posted to Twitter a response:

But that did not seem sufficient.  So I wrote up this post.  Underrepresentation of women as speakers is a serious issue in STEM fields.  And it is solvable (e.g., see Some suggestions for having diverse speakers at meetings by myself and the wonderful Ten Simple Rules to Achieve Conference Speaker Gender Balance by Jennifer Martin).

Now – do I know who the possible speakers were for this symposium?  No – I don’t really know the field.  Is it possible that there just are no women in the field?  Sure.  But I would bet anything that is not the case here.  Having a meeting where the ratio of speakers is 16:1 male: female sets a bad example.  UC Davis and the organizers of this meeting can do better.  And though this will possibly hurt me in various ways (I already got grief from one person who I will not name for the Tweet), I think it is critical that we call out examples such as this.

And finally I note – I have taken on the issue of women at STEM conferences and meetings because, well, it is easy to identify cases where the numbers are anomalous and it is relatively easy to solve.  But it is also important that we consider other aspects of diversity of speakers (age, ethnicity, career stage, etc).  It is important to have diversity of speakers at meetings for many many reasons.  Speaking is a career building opportunity.  Speakers serve as role models for others.  Diverse points of view are important to have represented.  Bias – whether simplicity or explicit damages the whole practice of science.  And more.  Yes, we need to work on many aspects of diversity in STEM fields.  Improving the diversity of speakers at meetings is but one part of this.  But it is an important part and it is relatively easy to do.  So just do it.  And call attention to it.  Even if it hurts.

UPDATE 3/25 11:29 AM

The meeting organizers have responded on Twitter

Storify of some responses here


5 thoughts on “Calling attention to poor speaker gender ratio – even when it hurts

  1. From one UCD faculty member to another, thank you for continuing to do this. I think that by calling out such events, you are asking us to do better. In other words, the point is not to criticize but to encourage improvement.


  2. Use recognition not recollection to find excellent women. Look at lists of people in the relevant fields, societies etc. There are tons of great women out there, but our terrible brains are wired to recollect only a few, so those get asked all the time. But we can circumvent this by looking at lists and recognizing great women. In this particular case, though, I'm guessing they did not care at all.


  3. My comment may have seemed strange, so let me try to explain a bit better. When you call someone out for something like this, often the response is to explain that they had good intentions, that they tried to do X, Y, Z, etc. That then becomes a distraction from the real issue, which is that, time and time again, mostly male conferences are going forward. So, rather getting distracted suggesting that people did wrong and getting into discussions about what they did, I say — let's just do better, because clearly whatever we're doing now isn't sufficient. Hope that makes sense.


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