When University Of California (Davis) Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Professor Jonathan Eisen, was scheduled to speak at a meeting on Metagenomics in the Era of Big Data, he found himself in a bit of a pickle – or more to the point, a YAMMM. This stands for: yet another mostly male meeting. The male speakers outnumbered women 21:6. He considered his options. In the past, he has submitted a conference abstract in protest, A quantitative analysis of gender bias in quantitative biology meetings. He has also written to organisers and publicly called them out on their gender exclusion. This time, he considered not going, but then came up with a clever approach to tackling YAMMM.

YAMMM - Yet Another Mostly Male Meeting
Tackling YAMMM

Jonathan changed his talk “to feature the work of women and to highlight those women.” A summary of Jonathan’s simple but thoughtful strategy are described in our graphic above. Jonathan’s blog details how he changed examples within his talk to showcase women’s contribution in the field. You can also listen to Jonathan’s talk or read his slides – it’s a truly fascinating talk!

Jonathan was featured in the The Story Exchange, where he talks about how to welcome women at conferences. He says:

“Studies have shown that the probability of having a woman speaker at a conference is correlated to the fraction of conference organizers that are women. We should try to get women to be organizers — it helps one’s career, and it spreads diversity.  I mean, do we really want our conferences to be just a few famous men presenting? Is that really going to help science and society? When I organize a conference, I try to have a balance — not just in gender, but also people from different countries and different types of institutions, who are in different stages of their careers. We’ll have undergraduates and post-doctorates, not just Nobel Prize winners.”

One study of 21 past annual meetings of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists found that the proportion of women featured in male organized symposia was roughly half of that in symposia organized by women or co-organized by both men and women.  The authors note that “The bias is surprising given that women are the numerical majority in primatology and have achieved substantial peer recognition in this discipline.” Similarly, analysis of 460 symposia featuring 1,845 speakers sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology revealed that only about a third of the speakers were women even though women made up half of the society membership. Again, study authors Arturo Casadevall and Jo Handelsman found that all male panels were predominantly organized by men.

Yet, the usual excuses for YAMMM are that men outnumber women in STEM fields. While this may make intuitive sense, it does not make mathematical sense. As Dr. Aanand Prasad puts it, human beings are notoriously bad with probabilities. In fact, if the selection were unbiased, the likelihood of over-representing women is actually greater than the probability of an all male panel! Check it out yourself, using the Conference Diversity Distribution Calculator.

Organisers have full power to address speaker discrepancy with some planning and forethought about how to include women speakers and participants. An important factor to consider is the gender difference in acceptance rates for conference invitations: Schroeder et al. found that the underrepresentation of women in the 2011 European Society for Evolutionary Biology Congress was due, in part, to a larger proportion of women (50%), relative to men (26%), declining invitations. The underlying reasons are unclear, and lack of child care or carer facilities at conferences may be a factor. Jonathan Eisen has some choice advice for conference organizers: “If you’re going to spend money on an open bar instead of childcare for graduate students, you should rethink what you’re doing.”  Jonathan previously spoke with us at length about gender equality at conferences.

“If you’re going to spend money on an open bar instead of childcare for graduate students, you should rethink what you’re doing.” – Jonathan Eisen

Of course, the elephant in the room is implicit (or ‘unconscious’) bias against women in science: a large body of evidence points to differences in the way both men and women perceive and treat women scientists, even if they are equally qualified. We have previously discussed the Matilda effect that describes the systematic undervaluation of work done by women. Here, professional societies can play an invaluable role in formulating clear equity guidelines. This includes oversight of diversity and specific inclusion criteria in the selection of symposia speakers, and curating a vetted list of diverse speakers in their specialty fields. Professors Gabriela Popescu and Rajini Rao have previously highlighted the steps taken by the Biophysical Society to improve diversity at their annual society conference.  They warn about potential pushback on the grounds that the primary criterion should be quality. But Rajini found no dearth of highly qualified women to invite to a Gordon Research Conference (GRC) that she chaired recently: not only did women make up about 40% of speakers and session chairs, the keynote address was given by a woman who was one of only 4 speakers to win a prestigious prize awarded by the GRC organization.  Simply by being more aware of women colleagues and more willing to reach out to them, Rajini found it easier to identify and recruit stellar scientists to attend and speak at her conference.

hosting panel discussions on how to better address unconscious gender bias in science ; supporting career sessions ; funding travel scholarships enabling women with caring responsibilities to attend academic conferences; providing onsite job recruitment service for postdocs during national conferences ; curating a “women speaker” list for conferences and workshops maintaining oversight on selection of symposia speakers and awards
How Professional Societies Can Improve Gender Equity


Meanwhile, women (and men) are fed up of YAMMMing and have taken to naming and shaming. The satirical Tumblr site “Congrats, you have an all male panel!” keeps a running count of “manels” which earn their stamp of disapproval –  a thumbs up from masculine icon David Hasselhoff. BiasWatchNeuro keeps track of gender bias in neuroscience conferences. By bringing attention to skewed speaker ratios, these sites alert organizers of their unconscious bias and help make conferences more representative of their fields. They also inform our choice: with so many conferences to attend, or send our trainees to, why not choose one that combines the excellence of scientific exchange with the diversity of full representation? As persuasively stated in the BiasWatchNeuro website, “This will help eliminate biases in the next generation, and your field will retain more promising female and minority researchers as they ascend the notorious “leaky pipeline” of academic rank.” Finally, there is a growing move to boycott all male panels. One such effort, led by economist Owen Barder, asks for a pledge: “At a public conference I won’t serve on a panel of two people or more unless there is at least one woman on the panel, not including the Chair.”

Finally, keep intersectionality in mind: conferences need to be inclusive so they don’t become all-White panels, or otherwise excluding women and femmes from underrepresented groups. There are steps to take to ensure diversity:
  • Make equity & diversity central to event planning & coordination, so it’s welcoming to women & femmes from minority groups
  • Collect and report on conference data to increase accountability
  • Calling out YAMMMS does work. Microbiologist Carly Rosewarne’s post actually led to changes in Nature conferences

Are YOU tired of YAMMMing? How have you addressed YAMMM in your field? What other approaches can we use collectively in STEM to more effectively tackle YAMMM?

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