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icrobiologist Jonathan Eisen took one look at the speaker lineup for a prestigious conference on precision medicine in Silicon Valley and decided he wouldn’t attend. Yes, top scientists in the field will be speaking. But the vast majority of them happen to be white men.

And for Eisen, that’s reason enough to stay home. His protest tweet, noting that just 17 percent of the featured speakers were women, reverberated on social media on Wednesday, with scientists and entrepreneurs chiming in to complain — yet again — about the lack of diversity in speaking slots at biomedical conferences.

“For me, this type of public shaming is important,” said Alberto Roca, a bioinformatician by training who now spends the bulk of his time running a nonprofit website called MinorityPostDoc.org, which aims to provide resources to minority scientists.

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But conference organizer Tal Behar, the president of the Precision Medicine World Conference, pushed back against the complaints. Behar noted that most of the people running the conference are women, and told STAT that other precision medicine meetings have a similar ratio of male to female speakers.

“Either they are all biased, or this reflects a lower percentage of women leaders in the field,” she wrote.

An organizer who helped run a past Precision Medicine World Conference told STAT that it was tough to attract a diverse conference lineup, in part because the group relies heavily on local speakers to keep within budget limits.

“I can tell you, it’s really hard,” said the organizer, who asked to remain anonymous because the issue is so fraught.

That argument didn’t placate everyone:

For Hilda Bastian, an academic editor and blogger at the journal PLOS Medicine, the debate hit close to home. She said she was once offered a job after an employer heard her speaking at a conference.

Her point: The speaking roles can be major career boosters.

Yet too often, she said, women either aren’t invited or aren’t interested in trekking to conferences and participating in panels. Bastian said she often felt like she was the “token woman” at such events, invited because the organizers were casting about for some diversity.

“If I wasn’t a woman, I don’t think I would be the person who was asked to be on panels all the time,” she said.

She urged conference organizers to look beyond gender and aim for racial and ethic diversity, too.  At the precision medicine conference, fewer than 15 percent of speakers appeared to be people of color. That, too, sparked protests on Twitter.

Roca, who runs the site for minority scientists, said he sees a systemic problem in attracting women and people of color to scientific professions and then ensuring they get the training and resources they need to advance their careers — and come to the notice of conference organizers.

“The bottom line is, we need better interventions and solutions,” he said.

The biotech business community is taking some tentative steps in that direction: The professional networking group Women in Bio just launched a course to train women for seats on corporate boards.

In academia, meanwhile, Eisen is working with the University of California at Davis on a program called Advance, which aims to boost the number of women entering science and engineering fields. And he hopes to look at the issue with an even wider lens, too.

“I want to have a big picture of diversity,” he said. “And that would include diversity in background, gender, institution, career stage, and also ethnicity.”

In the meantime, he’s keeping his highlighter handy:

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  • The fact that women still make less money than men, the fact that women are underrepresented at the tops of their companies and governments. The fact that half of all PH.D’s in academic science are awarded to women and the fact women are asked to add a male author for manuscript acceptance BLOWS.

  • I suppose the bosses of those under represented could just force them to go, or fire them. I’m sure that will make the virtue signalers happy. Forcing the under represented to go against their will is a terrific way to get diversity…
    Virtue signalers, the Ben Afflecks of the scientific world.

  • The end result is the wrong place to start. What should be discussed is the merit of papers submitted and the method for choosing speakers. The best Science is the goal, not balance among all groups. The ability to speak and be understood in English is also important….etc…etc…etc.

  • One of the problems that UC Davis has had in moving to the front ranks of science is the presence of people like Eisen who are more focused on politics than significant new work.

  • Just thought I would point out – it took me less than five minutes of Googling to find a 2016 meeting on precision medicine with a good gender balance of speakers.

    GTCBio in Boston July 2016:
    https://www.gtcbio.com/conferences/precision-medicine-speaker

    Yes, it can sometimes be difficult to have a diverse line up of speakers. So because it is difficult we should just bail on it and throw up our hands and say “well, other people did not have diversity so I guess we shouldn’t worry about it?” That is just not acceptable in my mind. Instead how about committing to diversity. And working towards it. Develop a diversity policy. Try to figure out if you need to change your meeting in any way (e.g., timing, provide child care, etc) to attract a more diverse collection of speakers. Search out people who focus on diversity and ask them for advice. And more.

    Yes, it can be hard sometimes. But it is important.

    • What is the comparison for an appropriate amount of gender/racial/etc. diversity? What’s the goal? In my opinion, diversity just for the sake of diversity is a meaningless goal that achieves little more than protection from people calling you out for not having diversity. Take Hilda Bastian who felt like a “token woman” selected in the name of diversity–would that perception be made better or worse by finding more “token women”?

      There are gender and racial imbalances in science, and those imbalances will surface at conferences even if the conference itself is not acting in a biased way simply due to the arrangement of the pool it is drawing from. So I would ask you, are you making an assumption about the structure of the field when you called out this conference? Do you have data to back it up? Is one conference with what you deem an appropriate balance sufficient to demonstrate that it should be taken as the standard?

      How much does racial/gender/etc. diversity matter compared with diversity of ideas?

      You make an excellent point however about how conference amenities may create added imbalances, and that’s a great thing to address.

      In my opinion, public shaming based on a very facile analysis is highly counterproductive. Gets a lot of attention though.

    • Regarding one of Nick Bauer’s points

      I posted the Boston Precision Biology meeting information directly in response to a claim of the organizers of the meeting discussed in this story in which they claimed that

      “other precision medicine meetings have a similar ratio of male to female speakers. “Either they are all biased, or this reflects a lower percentage of women leaders in the field,” she wrote.”

      So this was not to say that all meeting should be like the Boston meeting but to show that the statement that all Precision Medicine meetings were so skewed was simply incorrect.

    • Replying to Nick’s comment…

      1. There is no apparent bias in the field of bioinformatics at any level up to, and including, post-doctoral positions. Beyond that, the field seems to become male dominated. I base these observations on a survey I conducted of nearly 400 people working in this field: http://www.acgt.me/blog/2014/5/12/the-extent-of-gender-bias-in-bioinformatics

      2. At senior levels in the wider field of genomics, there is considerable gender bias. I logged the gender of 1,039 people in various ‘senior’ research roles in 40 institutes around the world. The overall ratio of female scientists in senior genomics/bioinformatics roles was 23.6%. http://www.acgt.me/blog/2015/6/28/what-would-be-a-suitable-value-for-the-absolute-minimum-proportion-of-female-speakers-at-genomicsbioinformatics-conferences

      Given that conferences are not venues where only senior scientists speak, organisers should be looking to have at least a third speakers represent each gender. This is a low bar and yet, as Jonathan has pointed out time and time again, most conferences fail to meet it.

    • Thank you Keith for providing the data for context. It’s very helpful in understanding the issue, though not at all surprising.

      In my experience applying to conferences to talk as a grad student, abstracts submitted are the basis for choosing speakers. It would be interesting to see whether there’s an imbalance in the pool of abstracts submitted vs. those chosen. Especially because it wouldn’t necessarily be clear where the bias was entering into the process; is the name alone enough? And if so, are female students with female mentors even less represented?

      To Johnathan: I don’t think the claim was that all conferences are just as skewed. It’s unclear from the article whether Tal Behar was referring to “all the women organizing this conference” or “all the conferences with similar skews”. I can see why you thought it referred to “all the conferences” though.

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