Gender balanced conferences – we all need to try harder!

gender equal opportunity or representation

Recently a conference on Phylogenetic Comparative Methods was advertised online, and quickly the Twitter community noted that all six of the plenary talks were being given by men. Normally my response to this kind of thing would be some grumpy tweeting and then I’d let it go. However, this time was different; I know one of the organisers, several of the plenary speakers are my collaborators and this is the field I’ve dedicated the last eight years of my career to. Therefore I didn’t think I could let this pass by unchallenged.

I emailed the organisers to complain and got a prompt response. Note that I’m not trying to vilify the organisers of this conference. They were really understanding and genuinely felt bad about the situation. They said they were aware of the problem and had tried really hard to get women to speak, but the women they asked said no. This problem was exacerbated by the fact the conference is linked to a new book they are publishing in which only around five out of 30 plus authors are female (many more women – including me – were asked to write chapters but declined). In the past when people have given me the “we tried but failed” response I’ve taken their word for it. However, this time I had first hand experience of the issue, because I co-organised a symposium with Rich FitzJohn at Evolution 2014 on Phylogenetic Comparative Methods at which we decided to have at least 50% female speakers. SPOILER ALERT – we succeeded, but it was hard. Really really hard.

For our symposium we decided to focus on the assumptions and biases inherent in the methods we use. As such the pool of speakers was quite specialised – we were looking not just for people who *use* phylogenetic comparative methods, but for people who try to understand them and think deeply about their interpretation and correct usage. Unfortunately it is difficult to work out if people do this as most people’s websites and publications tend to focus on empirical questions rather than methods questions, even for people I *know* think about this stuff all the time. We also decided to try and stray away from the “usual suspects”. There are a couple of female speakers (and even more male speakers!) who always seem to speak in conference symposia, so we wanted to give other people a chance (as it turns out I think virtually all the women we avoided asking for this reason are speaking in one of the other symposia…). However both myself and Rich felt we knew the field quite well so finding speakers wouldn’t be too hard.

At this point we encountered our first problem – this didn’t leave a lot of women on our invite list! I suppose in the back of my mind I always knew the field was male-dominated (excuses 1 & 2; see the end of the post for an explanation!), but it wasn’t until I actually started looking for female speakers that it really hit home. We checked through the references in Brian O’Meara’s and Matt Pennell & Luke Harmon’s recent reviews of phylogenetic comparative methods and were fairly horrified by the low number of female authors, and particularly the low numbers of papers with female first authors (excuse 6). This is worrying as if you don’t see female authors in the literature, especially in review papers, then they don’t get invited to speak at symposia or join working groups, so fewer people know about their work, so they don’t end up in literature reviews (excuse 6)! It’s a vicious circle. We also tried a slightly different tack, emailing all our more senior colleagues to ask for suggestions. They came up with some extra ideas, but mostly they overlapped with each other, and all mentioned the “usual suspects”.

After some time we came up with a list of women (and men) we thought would give good talks. The men said yes immediately. Many of the women turned us down (excuse 3), but always for perfectly valid reasons. However, after some effort we got a line up we were happy with and sent off our proposal. We were really excited when it got accepted and proud of our efforts to ensure gender balance. This is when we encountered our second problem – one of our female speakers dropped out (excuse 4). This was through no fault of the speaker, she just couldn’t travel to the USA in June. We then had to start the search process all over again! Luckily the conference organisers were very understanding and said we didn’t need to confirm speakers for a while anyway, so we ended up letting it slide while I did a big chunk of teaching. Eventually the organisers asked for confirmation of speakers and titles, so we emailed the remaining speakers to ask for titles. This is when we hit our next problem – another one of our female speakers dropped out (excuse 4) stating that part of the reason was she was over-committed and burnt out from speaking at lots of other conferences (excuse 5).

At this point we had a real panic! We had sold the idea of the symposium partly based on the line up of women, and now there were only two female speakers left (and one of them was me!). We went back through our lists from months ago, and came up against the same problems. Some people weren’t relevant for the symposium (excuse 1), and many of those we asked declined (and frustratingly would recommend male speakers to replace them; excuses 2 & 3). Eventually just before the deadline for confirmations I cajoled April Wright into speaking (and still feel a bit guilty about adding to her already huge workload!) and we added another male speaker to the line up. This meant we still managed 50% female speakers, but just barely.

I’m delighted with the speakers we ended up with, and I’m not annoyed with anyone that turned us down or dropped out. But I wanted to share this story to show that I *do* understand the difficulties involved with getting female speakers (note that I’ve also organised our local seminar series with a 50/50 gender split two years running). Yet my response to “we tried” is that “you need to try harder”! There were many points during this process that we could have just given up and asked one of many men working in the area. But that would have seemed like a betrayal of all the women working in the field. Only having male speakers makes it look like women can’t be methods-developers or advanced methods-users. It also encourages the impostor syndrome that I’m sure contributed to some of our suggested speakers declining our invitations (excuse 7). For the record, none of the speakers who declined invitations, or dropped out, did so due to childcare issues. This problem is *far* deeper than the biological reality that women are the ones who get pregnant and have babies.

Author: Natalie Cooper, @nhcooper123, ncooper[at]

The PCM conference has now, in response to some of this, added a female plenary. They are also trying to attract more female researchers to give “featured” talks. This is a step in the right direction, but really too little too late. Especially as their budget means the “featured” speakers get no financial assistance and also only 15 minutes to talk. Hardly a great achievement to put on your CV…

P.S. The excuses noted above come from the Female Conference Speaker Bingo card. I’ve laughed at this a number of times so was pretty horrified when I realised a lot of these appeared to be valid excuses for our symposium!

1. There aren’t enough qualified female speakers.
2. It’s a male-dominated field.
3. Both women we called were booked/all the women were busy.
4. Both women we booked bailed at the last minute.
5. Female speakers are always burnt out from speaking so much.
6. Who? I’ve never heard of her.
7. Women are shy/Women need to act more like men.

P.P.S. I wrote the above in June 2014 after our symposium. Since then there have been a couple of excellent blog posts detailing similar issues and suggesting solutions: here and here in particular. Come on everyone, let’s fix this!!!

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