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At scientific meetings: More female conveners, more female speakers

Microbiologists study, quantify, and extrapolate from a sociology-of-science correlation.

Only a smattering of press attention has focused so far on a new study from the microbiology journal mBio, “The presence of female conveners correlates with a higher proportion of female speakers at scientific symposia.” But the study’s abstract shows why scientists in other fields might want to take note:

We investigated the hypothesis that the gender of conveners at scientific meetings influenced the gender distribution of invited speakers. Analysis of 460 symposia involving 1,845 speakers in two large meetings sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology revealed that having at least one woman member of the convening team correlated with a significantly higher proportion of invited female speakers and reduced the likelihood of an all-male symposium roster. Our results suggest that inclusion of more women as conveners may increase the proportion of women among invited speakers at scientific meetings.

The authors are Arturo Casadevall, from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, and Jo Handelsman of Yale. A press release quotes Casadevall: “It’s a cascade effect—once you're a speaker, your work is recognized, and you are more likely to make connections, have your work funded, and to be invited to speak again. And when you speak at a meeting, your reputation at your home institution also improves, and that helps your chances of promotion. So being an invited speaker at these meetings can definitely help advance your scientific career.”

Handelsman is well known, including in the media, as a scholar of the issue of women in science. As reported here last October, the long New York Times Sunday magazine essay “Why are there still so few women in science?” focused extensively on her views as one of the authors of the 2012 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students.”

Discussion of Casadevall and Handelsman’s paper has appeared in only a few places around the web, including Inside Higher Ed and Science 2.0. At the Atlantic, Olga Khazan not only discusses it but points to a similar recent paper from Europe, “Fewer invited talks by women in evolutionary biology symposia.” That study’s authors examined the program of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology Congress 2011 and found women “under-represented among invited speakers at symposia (15% women) compared to all presenters (46%), regular oral presenters (41%) and plenary speakers (25%).” They also found that at “the ESEB congresses in 2001–2011, 9–23% of invited speakers were women,” and that this underrepresentation is “partly attributable to a larger proportion of women, than men, declining invitations.” The EurekAlert! public release that Khazan mentions quotes comments about the European study from three women representing scientific organizations.


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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