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SAN FRANCISCO — The organizers wanted to do something different with their new meeting, as a corrective to what frustrated them about the usual scientific gatherings. And then one of the planners suggested an idea: What if they only invited women on stage?

The decision to invite only female speakers to the microbiome conference at the University of California, San Diego, this week was meant to make a statement about how scientific meetings ought to be organized. Instead, the move has ignited a minor controversy, thrusting a gathering about a technical scientific subject into the culture wars.

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The inaugural International Microbiome Meeting, put on by UCSD’s Center for Microbiome Innovation, is expected to have 27 microbiome experts — all women — take the stage as presenters over two days this week. The conference’s website initially said the goal was to “demonstrate that it is possible to have a large representation of women presenters in a scientific meeting by inviting only women speakers.”

That caught the attention of a Wall Street Journal editorial writer, who in an opinion piece titled “No Men Allowed” argued that the conference may be violating the university’s standards about discrimination against certain groups. The American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank, picked up the story, too.

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Soon, the language about the conference’s goal was gone from its website. Asked why, a UCSD spokesperson said it was “updated to eliminate any confusion with regard to objectives.”

In a phone interview with STAT last week before the meeting attracted criticism, the conference’s co-organizer, Sandrine Miller-Montgomery, left little confusion about what she and her team were trying to do.

“We are not the Amazons. We are not wanting to control the world. We just wanted to show it is possible to have 100 percent women speakers,” she said. The idea, she said, was to shoot down the argument she often hears put forward in defense of male-only panels or mostly-male conferences — that it’s too difficult to find enough women speakers to achieve gender parity on stage.

The big J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference last month put on three all-male panels and keynotes. Another big annual industry conference, hosted by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, featured 25 all-male panels last June.

The microbiome conference won’t be the first gathering of its kind. An annual Bay Area conference known as MedtechVision, for example, invites only women on stage to discuss topics like the impact of artificial intelligence on medicine.

At the microbiome conference this week, about 250 microbiome specialists from industry and academia — about 54 percent of whom are women — are registered to attend, according to numbers supplied by Miller-Montgomery last week.

In an email to STAT, Miller-Montgomery said she was sad to see the Wall Street Journal opinion piece, which she said she thought “made an unfair representation of our intent.”

Even before the meeting attracted criticism, Miller-Montgomery said that plans weren’t fixed about what the speaker lineup should look like for next year’s conference. At the end of the meeting on Thursday, a panel of experts is expected to discuss how to fix the gender imbalance in technical fields — and whether next year’s conference should again invite only women speakers.

That panel will include two men and two women.

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  • I love how it is “proportionate to expertise” when the bias is working against women (or other minorities), including such blatant examples as JPM, but it’s sexist when there is any effort to change things.

  • Pure sexism on display. Equal representation is no longer sufficient. It now must be women only, even in the bio realm where parity is common or women slightly exceed the number of men. To select speakers based on sex is just plain wrong.

  • It is biased and sexist. There are literally more women in colleges and universities then men these days because so much of our education system has pandered to female needs over the last 30 years while boy continue to struggle in school and drugged with medicines like Ritalin at rates that far exceed that of girls…for simply being boys. Stop acting like the biological and medical sciences have a lack of women in it. That’s far from the truth. Should they have conferences on childcare, elementary education, and nursing that only feature male speakers? I also don’t see outrage over the lack of women represented in hazardous jobs, as >90% of all work related fatalities are suffered by men. There are numerous avenues that exist solely for women. Women get easily get grants and awards much easier than a man can if they want to start a business. All sorts of scholarships and grants exist solely for women in STEM. At my undergrad university where housing was limited, female engineers only were guaranteed housing for 4 years while male students had to find off campus housing in less safe and more expensive areas. The NIH has all sorts of grants for women only, and for years it was only bring your ‘daughters’ to work day. Meanwhile boys are actually the ones struggling by every single conceivable objective scoring metric used to evaluate educational performance. Maybe it is because the entire system has been skewed for far too long against teaching boys in an effective manner and dealing with their different behavior other than using drugs.

    • Wow,
      Not even going to argue with someone who has so many unconscious biases to be so blind. There are significant differences between men and women in the workforce and at universities and having a voice at the table. Today women may get to the table yet still not have their voices heard. It is not even close to parity between genders. This conference was just making a social stance to make a point. I think it was brilliant. I have sons who graduated in engineering and they quickly tell me how women in their classes and project teams would have to work much harder and were often over were talked over by male classmates and often even the professors. They have admiration for all the women who persevered in this environment. They only want to work for a company that takes diversity and inclusion very seriously.

  • I can understand the WSJ criticism- so, I suggest adjusting the representation to mirror what we commonly see at scientific conferences. In this case, that would be 25 women and 2 men.

    • What evidence can you provide that typical conference representation, with a lot of men, does not reflect professional expertise? About 94% of registered dietitians are female. Should we still expect that half of dietetics conference speakers are male? As of 2017, a whopping 80% of enrollees in colleges of veterinary medicine were female. As women have come to dominate that profession, should we still expect that half of the speakers at vet conferences be male? Should the NBA all-star game consist of the best players or of representation by race mirroring the general population?

  • “Another big annual industry conference, hosted by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, featured 25 all-male panels last June.”

    So where were these “equality” groups when that happened? Suddenly it becomes a problem when it’s the other way around…

    • The all-male panel wasn’t expressly (or probably even consciously) discriminatory. In the same way, the NBA deserves no criticism for fielding teams of disproportionately Black players, since the the objective is the have the best talent, not the darkest skins. Women can all the discriminatory panels they want, but not at public universities.

  • As an organizer of a large national gathering I celebrate this plan. We have been very purposeful over the years about the makeup of our speakers and it has resulted in magority identify female and majority non-white speakers and our conference is so much better for it.

    • So you are a a racist and a sexist? Nice to know your organization is NOT inclusive. Can you explain why a persons skin color or gender makes a professional organization better? Does skin color proportionate to performance? If so, can you explain why?

  • There are better ways to point out that intentional demographic screening in science is counterproductve than showcasing your own intentional demographic screening. Quite wrong-headed…

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