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To Get More Female Conference Speakers

If women are part of the group that invites speakers to talk at a meeting, that lineup of people giving talks tends to include more female scientists, suggests a study from Albert Einstein College of Medicine's Arturo Casadevall and Yale University's Jo Handelsman appearing in mBio.

Men, notes Ivan Oransky at MedPage Today, make up the vast number of speakers at quite a few biomedical conferences. For instance, Rock Health and XX in Health reports that the 2013 Medicine X conference had a 38 to 62 female to male speaker split while 26 percent of the speakers at the Digital Health Summit were female and 13 percent were at the ForbesRx meeting.

Jonathan Eisen has noted at his blog Phylogenomics that the effect extends to genomics meetings. He's pointed out a number of conferences in his field that are also dominated by men.

In mBioCasadevall and Handelsman examine 460 symposia including some 1,845 speakers at two meetings put on by the American Society for Microbiology between 2011 and 2013.

For the ASM General Meeting, Casadevall and Handelsman report that sessions convened by all men included an average 25 percent female speakers while sessions organized by a team that included at least one woman had an average 43 percent female speakers. Having a woman on the convener team decreased the likelihood of an all-male session by some 70 percent for the ASM General Meeting, they added.

A similar decline was noted for the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy meetings.

"The results suggest that an experiment in which at least one woman is included in every team of conveners might increase the proportional representation of women among the speakers at ASM meetings," the authors say. "An alternative might be to explicitly charge conveners with finding speakers who reflect the diversity of microbiologists."

Philosopher Janet Stemwedel cautions, though, that fixing the problem may not be so easy because the mechanism behind the effect of more female conveners leading to more female speakers is unclear, as she tells MedPage Today. Still, " I think it's at least plausible that a diversity criterion might be a useful workaround for the blind spot implicit gender bias imposes when people think on people in their field doing good and important work," she tells Oransky.