How Female Scientists Are Fighting to Be Heard

Image courtesy of Fotoshop Tofs.

Not long ago, a prominent neuroscientist noticed an announcement for an upcoming neuroscience conference. Apoorva Mandavilli of the New York Times reports that this scientist, Dr. Yael Niv of Princeton University, also noticed that “none of the twenty-one speakers were women.” She was upset because she had been pushing for greater inclusion of women scientists as speakers at conferences for years. To top it off, the organizers of this conference were women. This event pushed Dr. Niv and about twenty of her women colleagues to take stronger action to create change.

Why is it important for women to be included as speakers? Mandavilli cites Dr. Niv as explaining, “Being invited to speak on panels is more than a matter of prestige; it’s how your peers come to know who you are. When you are not known in science, your papers are less likely to be accepted. . . . [and] your grants are less likely to be funded.” In other words, it’s a matter of professional survival.

I wrote in a previous article about this same challenge for female microbiologists and the importance of being invited to speak at major professional meetings for career advancement. Invitations to speak at major professional meetings are used by faculty promotion and tenure committees as evidence of external recognition and are critical to advancement decisions.

The female microbiologists successfully utilized a strategy that may now work for their neuroscience sisters: they used data to bring pressure on conference organizers. In this same vein, Dr. Niv and about twenty other female neuroscientists conducted a study of more than sixty conferences in various areas of neuroscience and have posted the gender ratios of speakers to raise awareness of the problem. In the most-egregious-offender category, just eleven women compared with 213 men were speakers at thirteen of the conferences.

Dr. Niv and her colleagues believe that the lack of opportunity for women to be conference speakers is the result of implicit bias. These women are brain scientists, after all, and they understand a lot about the ways people make decisions. We are often unaware of the ways that stereotypes and biases influence our decisions. For this reason, Dr. Niv and her colleagues started a website, BiasWatchNeuro, where they publish the numbers of female speakers at conferences. The website may go a long way toward helping conference organizers make more conscious decisions about who they are inviting as speakers.

We all have bias. If you think you’re immune, click on this link and take some of the implicit bias tests from Harvard University. They may open your eyes. They opened mine! If you take any of the tests and are surprised by the results, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section.

Anne Litwin, Ph.D. is an Organizational Development and Human Resources Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together.’

Originally published at annelitwin.com on October 31, 2016.

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