Four simple tools to promote gender balance at conferences – guest post from Julie Pfeiffer @jkpfeiff

Guest post from Julie Pfeiffer.

Julie Pfeiffer
Associate Professor of Microbiology
University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

Four simple tools to promote gender balance at conferences 

1. Know that you are biased. Identify your biases.

We all have biases and many of them are unconscious. You can discover your own biases using online social attitude tests developed by Project Implicit, a non-profit organization affiliated with Harvard University. The Gender-Science Implicit Association Test is particularly relevant here. It turns out that I have moderate bias linking science with males, as well as other biases. Knowing this fact has been extremely important. It is very difficult to alter unconscious bias, but it is easy to understand that you are biased and edit your actions accordingly. For example, if I need to make a list of potential speakers or authors quickly, the list will be of senior men from the United States. The key is to spend time EDITING the list to ensure diversity.

2. Keep track of numbers.

Most individuals in leadership positions are not seeking to exclude women or other groups from plenary talks, career opportunities, etc. Instead, they simply forget to count. They forget to keep track of gender ratio and other types of diversity. They forget to edit. When leaders/organizers have diversity in mind, diversity is relatively easy to achieve. Two examples illustrate this point:

1) Vincent Racaniello is President of the American Society for Virology and his goal was to put together an outstanding and diverse group of plenary speakers for the annual meeting in 2015. He asked for speaker suggestions via emails and Twitter ( He made a list and he edited it. The result? The best representation of female scientists at a conference I have ever seen— 50% of the plenary speakers at ASV this year are female.

2) The Associate Editors at the Journal of Virology choose topics and authors for short reviews called “Gems”. The goal was to have high diversity in several areas including author gender, author career stage, author location, and topic. To keep ourselves on track to achieve this goal, we included several extra columns in our author/topic spreadsheet: Female? Non-USA location? Junior PI? This simple reminder in the spreadsheet has helped us select relatively diverse authors and topics: ~30% are female, ~30% are Assistant Professors, and ~20% are at institutions outside the United States.

3. Create lists and ask people for suggestions. 

Trying to come up with names of female scientists de novo can be a challenge. A few months ago, Carolyn Coyne, Erica Ollmann-Saphire, and Clodagh O’Shea made a list of as many female virologists as they could. Over wine, they devised a list of 70 names. We have circulated this list to many of our colleagues and tweeted a request to send missing names. The list is now at 349 and is publicly available (please tweet missing names to It is much easier to think of diverse options for speakers and authors by using a pre-existing list. Virologists with this list can no longer claim that they “couldn’t think of a female speaker”. Each field could benefit from a list like this, which could also include other underrepresented groups. Several of these lists exist, as has been highlighted on this and other blogs.

4. Speak up and enlist the help of supportive senior faculty.

Expressing concern to conference organizers about low speaker diversity can go a long way. While it may be difficult to change the speaker list close to the conference date, mentioning the lack of diversity could change the future landscape of the conference. I have an example from my own experience: I created an international shitstorm that had a great outcome. In year three of my faculty position I was considering whether to attend a major conference, so I checked the speaker list to help make my decision. Zero of 18 plenary speakers were female. I decided not to attend. Instead, I emailed the conference organizer to express my disappointment with the complete lack of female plenary speakers. His response, over several emails, was less than supportive:

“…. Finally, the gender, race, religion has never been, to my opinion, valuable ways to select presenters of scientific works. The selection of the Plenary Lectures has been made by the Organizing Committee, that comprises a woman, based on the topic, then the best possible speaker on the topic…. I am aware of the current debate in our societies about “minimum numbers”. I do not think they would help the cause of women in science.”

While this organizer was not supportive or responsive to my speaker suggestions, five senior (famous) faculty members in the field were hyper-supportive. Upon hearing this story, they each contacted the organizer and expressed their concern about the lack of diversity. It was too late to change the program for the conference that year. However, in every subsequent year, the plenary speakers at this conference have included women and other underrepresented groups. So, it’s possible that a simple email from a young scientist can make a difference, particularly with the help of senior faculty.

About Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis
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