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A practical approach to women at the podium

By Pamela Silver, Synberc Diversity Director

The underrepresentation of women in science careers remains a recurring dilemma at all levels in both academia and industry.  As such, it is important to have tangible metrics to understand and improve the situation.  One longstanding metric is the number of women speakers at scientific conferences.    Traditionally women have been underrepresented as speakers although things continue to improve as awareness of this issue rises via social media and within the STEM community.

Why is good representation of women on the speaking platform important?  Here are just a few fairly obvious reasons.  1) An opportunity to present and be identified with your work.  In this era of instant communication – yet slow publication – it is critical for all scientists to have a forum to convey their ideas and results.  2) An opportunity to present oneself as a thought leader.  This is important for upward mobility in any profession especially in academics.  Despite the high number of women trainees, few are in more senior leadership roles.  3) An opportunity to promote the careers of women.  Women, and often men, attending a talk will either consciously or unconsciously recognize when all the speakers are male vs when there are women represented.  This will have both a positive impact on the attendees as well as the organizers.  In sum, there are no bad reasons to include more women speakers.

I recently co-organized the SEED 2015 meeting with Dan Gibson.  Here I will informally document our attempts to have a gender-balanced speaker program.  First, both Dan and the organizing committee were all on board from the start that we should have as diverse a set of speakers as possible.  We began with suggestions for keynote speakers and in the end – half of the keynotes (2/4) were women – all the first choice invitees accepted (for transparency – I was one of them – but I did not invite myself!).  Next we set out to populate the sessions with speakers.  We sought suggestions from the organizing committee and the co-organizers made every effort to ensure that each session was balanced.  In some cases, we drew from the submitted abstracts to fill open slots.  All sessions had at least one woman and some had almost all – it was not 50% but it was enough that people noticed.  

So in sum, with a little care and feeding a balanced meeting can be achieved.  The main problem we had was actually finding enough women to fill the speaker slots!  The number of abstracts from women was not as high as one might have liked.  And we did reach out to as many women as possible – most of whom accepted.  In the case of SEED 2015, I feel that things worked well but look forward to next years meeting being even better!

A response from Shaila Kotadia, Synberc Education and Outreach Manager, and Kevin Costa, Synberc Managing Director:

Thanks for sharing your experience, Pam! This is a good opportunity to point readers to our list of suggested women speakers in synthetic biology. Often times, it is hard to find enough women speakers to have a balanced conference. This list is a useful resource for organizers of synthetic biology-related events.

This piece also brings up a larger issue about gender identity. We ought to recognize that there are people who do not categorize themselves as either male or female in the traditional sense of those labels. We do not wish to call unwanted attention to individuals who identify themselves as transgender, gender-neutral, or other gender identities, but we do believe that conference organizers need to be sensitive to and welcoming towards all gender identities.