A mini rant about diversity at meetings #STEMDiversity #YAMMM #manel

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 (https://twitter.com/profvrr). 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 https://twitter.com/jkpfeiff). 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.

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


Some suggestions for having diverse speakers at meetings

Been having a lot of discussions online in response to my post (Apparently, the National Academy of Sciences thinks only one sex is qualified to talk about alternatives to sex #YAMMM) tracking the awful gender ratio for speakers and session chairs at meetings run by the National Academy of Sciences in their Sackler series.  Some people were asking what one can do to improve gender diversity at meetings so I thought I would post this which I was meaning to do anyway …


I wrote this in an email to a meeting organizer after I had turned down their invitation due to the imbalance in gender of the speakers (more about this another time — this is not the same case as the one I wrote about here: Turning down an endowed lectureship because their gender ratio is too skewed towards males #WomenInSTEM). 

Anyway, my colleague wrote a long and very helpful email to me after I withdrew from the meeting when I saw the speaker list.  In the email she detailed things that her organization was trying to do to increase diversity of speakers at meetings.  She ended it with this:

Thus, I take your comment to heart and wanted you to know that I care about this issues as well.  I would love to hear how you balance these inequities at your meetings and learn as much as I can.  Thank you for taking the time to bring this up I know how busy you are and appreciate your candor. Truly looking forward to more scientific exchanges and perhaps some education around gender issues.

And I wrote back, quickly, without digging into the literature or all the posts in the world about this some quick suggestions which I think others might find useful. So here is my response – again – was not meant to cover all the things one can do – just examples:

Thanks so much for the response and I am really glad to see all you are trying to do in this area. 

In terms of how we try to balance inequities at meetings I organize I would note a few simple things

  1. Do not try to invite only the famous people or the people doing the “top” work.  This usually biases one towards more established researchers (as in, older) and this alas also usually is accompanied by distortion of diversity.
  2. DO try to invite people across the breadth of career stages.  Meetings to me should not be only about getting the PIs whose labs are doing the best work to talk.  It should also be about giving opportunities to junior researchers – PhD students, post docs and junior faculty who are doing exciting work – perhaps more focused or smaller scale – but nevertheless exciting.  If one opens up a invited speaker list to people at diverse career stages one generally greatly increases the gender and ethnic diversity. 
  3. DO try to invite people from diverse institutions – research universities, research institutes, companies, non profits, NGOs, the press, non research universities, and more.
  4. DO try to be flexible about times and dates for talks – I have found that women more than men have other commitments (e.g. kids) for which they cannot change dates of activities. 
  5. DO try to provide child care assistance (as you are doing).
  6. DO try to make sure women are on the organizing committee See http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/01/the-easiest-possible-way-to-increase-female-speakers-at-conferences/282858/
  7. DO make sure to provide travel funds.
  8. DO try to include some talks on related areas that may not be the main theme of the conference.  For example history of science and ELSI related topics increase the pool of women and speakers with diverse backgrounds which can be invited.
  9. DO ask the women who turn down invitations if they care to say why.
  10. DO commit to spending a decent amount of time searching for qualified female speakers.  Sometimes there are people who fit ALL the goals of a meeting and they are just missed because women on average have lower public profiles than men doing the same type of work.

Just some ideas off the top of my head.


see also 




Don’t forget to positively highlight meetings w/ "good" gender ratio of presenters

As many know, I spend a decent amount of effort critiquing conferences that have poor speaker diversity (mostly focus on gender ratio).  Well I am also trying to start calling out in a positive way those meetings that do a good job with speaker diversity. And here is one: 2014 Xenopus Genetics meeting in Pacific Grove.  I was pointed to it in an email that was in response to a Tweet I posted (not sure if I have permission to say who this was from – will post if they say it is OK). (UPDATE 9/20 – it was Ian Quigley).

From what I compute – the ratio was 30:22 male: female.  I do not know what the ratio of the “pool” of speakers is but regardless, having 42% female speakers is a more even ratio than I have seen for most life sciences meetings.  So they deserve some props for this.

Female speakers highlighted in yellow.  Male in green.  

Keynote Lecture: Rebecca Heald

Special Lectures from John Gurdon and Marc Kirschner

Invited Speakers

Enrique Amaya, University of Manchester

Ruchi Bajpai, University of Southern California

Bill Bement, University of Wisconsin

Mike Blower, Harvard Medical School

Cliff Brangwynne, Princeton University

Josh Brickman, The Danish Stem Cell Center DanStem

Ken Cho, University of California, Irvine

Hollis Cline, The Scripps Research Institute

Frank Conlon, University of North Carolina

Lance Davidson, University of Pittsburgh

Eddy DeRobertis, University of California, Los Angeles

Amanda Dickinson, Virginia Commonwealth University

Carmen Domingo, San Francisco State University

Karel Dorey, University of Manchester

Jim Ferrell, Stanford University

Jenny Gallop, University of Cambridge

Jay Gatlin, University of Wyoming

Jean Gautier, Columbia University

Xi He, Harvard University

Ralf Hofmann, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

Jubin Kashef, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

Mustafa Khokha, Yale University

Mary Lou King, University of Miami

Laurent Kodjabachian, Developmental Biology Institute of Marseille (IBDM)

Branko Lantic, Cardiff University

Dan Levy, University of Wyoming

Soeren Lienkamp, University of Freiburg

Karen Liu, King’s College

Laura Ann Lowery, Boston College

Ann Miller, University of Michigan

Brian Mitchell, Northwestern University

Anne-Helene Monsoro-Burq, Institute Curie

Kim Mowry, Brown University

Shuyi Nie, University of Georgia

Christof Niehrs, German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ)

Nancy Papolopulu, University of Manchester

Sabine Petry, Princeton University

Susannah Rankin, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation

Bruno Reversade, Institute of Medical Biology, A* Singapore

Dan Rokhsar, University of California, Berkeley

Hazel Sive, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Elena Silva Casey, Georgetown University

Francesca Spagnoli, Max-Delbrück-Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC)

Elly Tanaka, Center for Regenerative Therapies Dresden

Gert Veenstra, Radboud University Nijmegen

Monica Vetter, University of Utah

Sara Woolner, University of Manchester

Phil Zegerman, University of Cambridge

Aaron Zorn, Cincinatti Children’s

A distasteful & disgraceful "Are there limits to evolution?" meeting at the University of Cambridge #YAMMM

Well, I saw this Tweet the other day

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js And though there was a bit of a discussion on Twitter I felt I had to follow up with a blog post. When I saw the post I was at a conference (Lake Arrowhead Microbial Genomes) where I could get Twitter access but for some reason very little web access. So I could not dig around until now (I am home). 

This meeting is a complete disgrace and an embarassment for the field of evolutionary biology, for the University of Cambridge which is hosting the meeting, and for the Templeton Foundation which is sponsoring it.

Why do I say this? Well, pretty simple actually. The meeting site lists the Invited Keynote speakers for the meeting.  Notice anything?  How about I help you by bringing all the pictures together.

Notice anything now?  How about I help you some more by masking out the men and not the women.

Impressive no?  25 speakers – 23 of them male.  I guess that means there are no qualified female speakers who coudl discuss something about evolution right?  It would be worth reading “Fewer invited talks bu women in evolutionary biology symposia” to get some context.  What an incredible, disgusting, distasteful and disgraceful meeting.  
I recommend to everyone who was considering going to this meeting – skip it.  Also consider writing to the University of Cambirdge and the Templeton Foundation to express your thoughts about the meeting.  This certainly is a fine example of Yet Another Mostly Male Meeting (YAMMM).  Well, maybe I should word that differently – this is a disgusting example of a YAMMM.  

For more on this and related issues

  • Posts on Women in STEM

  • Also see


    International Symposium on Subsurface Microbiology – where men tell us about deep things

    Just saw this Tweet:

    //platform.twitter.com/widgets.js This refers to this meeting: Call for Abstracts for 2014 Ninth International Symposium on Subsurface Microbiology, Pacific Grove California

    The plenary speakers for this meeting are all men

    • Peter Girguis
    • Terry Hazen
    • Rainer Meckenstock
    • Lars Nielsen
    • Aaron Packman
    • Karsten Pedersen
    • Timothy Scheibe
    • Jack Schijven

    The last meeting was in 2011 and it was not much better – with one female keynote speaker.

    • Andreas Kappler
    • Karsten Pedersen
    • Christian Griebler
    • Ian Head
    • Frank Löffler
    • Babara Sherwood-Lollar
    • Bo Barker Jørgensen
    • Ken Takai
    • Kai-Uwe Hinrichs
    • Tori Hoehler

    Apparently, only men can talk about deep things.  Fun times.

    A tale of salt and gender: participation of women in halophile research

    Interesting paper on women in science of direct relevance to my work: Frontiers | Salty sisters: The women of halophiles | Extreme Microbiology.  I have been working on halophilic archaea for many years (since introduced to them in graduate school) and published papers on this topic (e.g., see The Complete Genome Sequence of Haloferax volcanii DS2, a Model Archaeon and Sequencing of seven haloarchaeal genomes reveals patterns of genomic flux and more coming).  However, I have never been to a meeting dedicated to the topic and confess I have not thought specifically about the gender of scientists in this field and at meetings in the field and such.  Thus I was pleasantly surprised to see this analysis from Bonnie Baxter, Nina Gunde-Cimerman and Ahoren Oren.  Their abstract is below:

    A history of halophile research reveals the commitment of scientists to uncovering the secrets of the limits of life, in particular life in high salt concentration and under extreme osmotic pressure. During the last 40 years, halophile scientists have indeed made important contributions to extremophile research, and prior international halophiles congresses have documented both the historical and the current work. During this period of salty discoveries, female scientists, in general, have grown in number worldwide. But those who worked in the field when there were small numbers of women sometimes saw their important contributions overshadowed by their male counterparts. Recent studies suggest that modern female scientists experience gender bias in matters such as conference invitations and even representation among full professors. In the field of halophilic microbiology, what is the impact of gender bias? How has the participation of women changed over time? What do women uniquely contribute to this field? What are factors that impact current female scientists to a greater degree? This essay emphasizes the “her story” (not “history”) of halophile discovery.

    As part of their paper they analyze participation of women at conference on halophiles:

    This is a useful analysis and compendium and it would be great to see this done for as many fields as possible. 

    No Ovaries? Well this Ovarian Club Conference is For You (YAMMMs for everyone)

    Well, I just got an email invitation to attend CME – OVARIAN CLUB 4.  And alas, rather than just dumping it into SPAM (which I did do) I clicked on one of the links.  I had to know – what was the gender balance at this meeting.  Was there any chance that the organizers would see that it would be ironic to not have a decent number of female speakers?  Alas, nope.

    The organizing committee is 17:1 males to females.

    And the speaker balance is not much better something like 25:6.

    I guess maybe they should rename this “Meeting brought to you by people who mostly do not have ovaries.”  Sad.  Another YAMMM (Yet another mostly male meeting).

    Related posts and pages

    Turning down an endowed lectureship because their gender ratio is too skewed towards males #WomenInSTEM

    Just got this invitation.  I have edited it to remove some of the identifying factors since I think the specific details do not matter.

    Dear Dr. Eisen: 

    I am writing to invite you to present a lecture in the endowed XXXX Lecture Series at XXXX Univsersity.  The XXXX Lecture is a platform to allow leaders in the areas of XXXX to communicate research advances to a general audience.  Recent speakers include XXXX and XXXX and XXXX.  For your talk, we were hoping you could discuss advances in understanding human microbiomes and their significance to health.  I think this is an enormously important area that the general public is still largely unaware of, and also an area with incredible promise that will see exponential progress going forward.  I know this is relatively short notice, but we are hoping that the lecture would be sometime in October or November of 2014. 

    The lectureship includes an honorarium of $2,000 in addition to covering your travel, lodging, and meal expenses.  Because XXXX we generally hold duplicate lectures XXXX on consecutive evenings (typical Tues-Wed or Wed-Thurs).  Speakers generally arrive early in the afternoon of the day of the first lecture, and depart after the second lecture the following day. Between the two lectures there will be a dinner and meetings with research or medical groups and an outreach activity in which, if you are willing, you would XXXX. 

    We would be honored to have you speak in the XXXX series  and hope you will be able to fit us into your busy schedule. 



    Well, wow.  That would be really nice.  I do not think I have ever given a named lecture before.  Then I made one fateful decision – I decided to look up who had spoken at the lecture series previously.  And, well, it was not what I wanted to see.  And another lecture series from the same institute had the same problem.  Bad gender ratio of speakers.  So, after some thought and a brief discussion with a post doc in my lab Sarah Hird whose opinions I trust on such issues.  I wrote this to the people who invited me:


    Thank you so much for the invitation and the respect it shows to me that I would be considered for this.  However, when I looked into past lectures in this series I saw something that was disappointing.  From the site XXXX where past lectures are listed I see that the ratio of male to female speakers is 14:3.  I note – the XXXX lecture series – also from XXXX – also has a skewed ratio (11:2).  As someone who is working actively on multiple issues relating to gender bias in science, I find this very disappointing.  I realize there are many issues that contribute to who comes to give a talk in a meeting or seminar series or such. But I simply cannot personally contribute to a series which has such an imbalance and I would suggest that you consider whether anything in your process is biased in some way. 


    Jonathan Eisen

    UPDATE 7/22/2014

    The person who invited me responded to my email.  Here is what this person wrote:


    Thanks for response and your concern.  I noted this uneven representation also when I took over the series a couple years ago and have worked (not as successfully as I would have liked) to get more balance.  For example, in trying to book the XXXX lecture this year I have been turned down by XXXX, but did manage to book XXXX.  For the XXXX lecture series, a related but separate series aimed at professional rather than the lay public audiences that I also run, I was turned down by XXXX, but I’ve booked XXXX.  You have been the sole male invite to either series this year.   But I will agree that in previous years the ratio has not been as good as I would like.  In part this is because it seems even harder to book top female speakers than males speakers – presumably because they are in such demand and are always asked to be representative on a million committees etc, but in past XXXX I did bring in XXXX and XXXX.  For the XXXX lecture I brought in XXXX last year.  So numbers are getting better, and this year the ratio will be at least 2:1 (max) in favor of females. 

    But you point is well taken, and perhaps I can even things out a little with your help.  Although I think microbiomes are an incredibly important and under appreciated area, this is not my area of research, so I don’t know the players.  If you can recommend female researchers in this area who are dynamic speakers that would be able to give a very publicly accessible talks (TED talk level) on the topic, and ideally are also doing great research too, I would be happy to invite them.  



    So then I wrote back

    Ruth Ley at Cornell is great – works on evolution of microbiomes and
    has done some fantastic stuff in humans and plants. See
    https://micro.cornell.edu/people/ruth-ley. And gives very good talks. 

    Katie Pollard at UCSF is completely brilliant and awesome and gives
    amazing talks
    http://www.docpollard.com. She works on many things including microbiomes 

    Jessica Green http://pages.uoregon.edu/green/ at Oregon does not work
    on human microbimes per se but does work on microbiomes in buildings
    and connects that to human microbiomes.  She is also a TED fellow and
    has given two great TED talks and is one of the best speakers I know. 

    Julie Segre at NHGRI is great too.  Hard core medical microbiome work:

    UPDATE 2: Storify of responses

    //storify.com/phylogenomics/giving-up-endowed-lectureship-due-to-gender-ratio/embed?border=false//storify.com/phylogenomics/giving-up-endowed-lectureship-due-to-gender-ratio.js?border=false[View the story “Giving Up Endowed Lectureship Due To Gender Ratio of Speakers ” on Storify]

    UPDATE 3: Some links writing about this

    For related posts by me see my collection on Diversity in STEM.  Some key posts of possible interest include:

    Other diversity related posts