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.


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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