Don’t tell me you couldn’t find any women speakers

On November 16th, 2013, Entangled Bank Events will host a panel of distinguished scientists for a unique day of presentations and discussion. You, too, can attend!

Just don’t go expecting to see any women scientists.

Go ahead, visit their page and get a look at the overwhelming diversity. All six presenters are men. (Let’s put aside for the moment, the glaring lack of age and ethnic diversity, too.) In a preemptive strike at what organizers knew would be coming, they decided to add this gem to their FAQ page:


Fortunately, the online site Jezabel cached the page and exposed Entangled Bank (EB) before they had a chance to delete the text. If you visit EB’s FAQ page now, the above text has been replaced by this:


Summary: “We tried to make a joke. Our bad. Sorry we offended people. And no, still no women cuz we couldn’t find any.” Wow. Us ‘feminists’ feel sooooo much better.

And dear EB, I call BS on:

[The error] “should have been spotted by us, but as soon as our attention was drawn to it…we removed it.”

Really? You either tried to make a joke, or you didn’t. If you tried to make a joke, then the text was posted intentionally. It didn’t need ‘spotting’ or ‘attention drawn to it’. It’s your site and you know what goes on there. You didn’t post it by mistake. The error was in thinking it was funny.

It’s not funny that a scientific panel is exclusively men. And it’s not funny that nowhere in EB’s ‘apology’ do they talk about remedying the situation. Instead, their response is an all-too-familiar one: “It’s not our fault. We tried, we really did. We just couldn’t find any women speakers”.

I’d like to make something very clear to conference organizers everywhere: We – and I don’t just mean women; I mean men and women of the scientific community – are NOT buying the “I couldn’t find any women speakers” excuse. Never. Ever. Again. No, not even just this one time. No, not even because the event was “set up at short notice”. It’s BS. Plain and simple. Best-case scenario, it’s laziness. Organizers just couldn’t be bothered to make a few more phone calls, write a few more emails, to actually SEARCH for talented female speakers. Worst-case scenario, it’s sexism. (Yes, sexism still exists in science, so let’s not bother arguing that one.) Jokes don’t make up for a lack of diversity; they just make it all the more obvious how insensitive organizers are to the problem.

And another thing, conference organizers: No, one ‘token’ woman speaker does not absolve you. At a very minimum, the representation of women at scientific meetings should be equal to their representation in the field. If 26% of tenure-track faculty in the field are women, then even 15% female representation at your conference is not acceptable. (Neuroscience, I’m looking at you. See my previous post on this.)

There are many talented, eloquent women scientists out there who should be heard. Some scientists have even started to compile online lists of potential women speakers to make it easier for conference organizers.

So, don’t tell me you couldn’t find any women to speak at your scientific meeting. That’s just not good enough.

[Hat tip to Jonathan Eisen (@phylogenomics), who wrote about this on his blog.]

12 thoughts on “Don’t tell me you couldn’t find any women speakers

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  1. [Dons flame-proof vest]

    I’m really trying to agree with this, because of the people I respect seem to, but I’m struggling. Surely what we want is for speaking invitations to be issued entirely blind to the gender (and race, and hair-colour, and BMI) of the invitees?

    I know we discussed this before, on Twitter, regarding the BRAINi representation. Then I misunderstood your initial tweets and it eventually became plan that there are in fact plenty of women who by merit of their standing in the field ought to have been on various panels but were overlooked — presumably because they are women. Everyone would agree that that’s unacceptable: I hope it doesn’t even need saying.

    But here you see to be insisting that if the best available speakers for a given event are men, then less good speakers should be used instead in order to attain gender balance. Is that really what you want? It seems at best patronising; at worst, likely to kindle real antagonism.

    1. Mike, if this event were a real science conference, I’d agree with you. But judging by the spin, it’s intended to be more a pop science sampler, portraying the cool stuff scientists do. To me, that means it’s shaping the public image of scientists, and therefore it’s as much about who they are as it is about what they say. So I find the lack of diversity unforgivable. Young women & minorities really need to see role models in science if they’re going to feel that it’s a club they can join.

      1. Well put, I couldn’t agree more! The face of science has evolved, and it’s time the speakers at public science events represented that progress. When I present my work to students, one of the things I often hear, especially from female students, is how excited they were just to see a woman scientist speak. They have a lot of questions about my academic trajectory, and how I balance career and family. At the end of the day, my specific scientific message is less important than simply being there and having that interaction with them. And that is what is missing from events like this hosted by Entangled Bank. The events are intended for outreach, but their current line-ups speak to only a fraction of the public.

    2. I understand your concern, Mike. It’s a tough one. Regarding public events, I think we agree, as Suzanne said, that representation of women and minorities is essential. The harder question is, what about representation at scientific conferences? Should we sacrifice scientific content just to meet a quota of women or minority speakers? I have two points in response. They’re in partial contradiction, but I think both need discussing.

      (1) No, we should not sacrifice content for quotas. But I don’t think we have to. Similar to our Twitter discussion, it’s not that talented women speakers aren’t out there. In many cases, they’re simply not included. For every neuroscience conference that has 5 male keynote speakers, I could list at least 2 women that could give on-par keynotes. What I don’t know is whether these women were invited and declined. But at least in some cases, women are not being invited. (Some organizers even lie about inviting women speakers contributors.)

      (2) There are parallels here to affirmative action. Opponents say, “Don’t we want the best candidate for the job, rather than hiring someone less qualified just to meet a quota?” Sure, but as supporters point out, that assumes each applicant had equal opportunities to develop, which we know is not true. They argue affirmative action helps to level the playing field. One could say the same about women in science. There is sex discrimination at the level of graduate student selection, postdoc employment, publication acceptance, grant awards, etc. In an ideal world, we would evaluate speakers only on merit, completely blind to any other factor. The problem is, we haven’t been blind up to that point. There’s something to be said for giving women opportunities so we can ‘break the cycle’.

  2. I’d also add that there were no women at the previous event. Presumably no women of sufficient calibre available on either occasion?

  3. If 26% of the tenure-rack faculty in the field are women, I don’t find it that implausible that, out of six speakers, none are women just because of a statistical fluke if the selection was entirely gender-blind.

    I agree with Suzanne above, though, that in a popular science event the organizers should perhaps pay attention to get representation from different demographic groups in order to break the common view that science is only for thick-bearded white men.

    1. About 26% of the tenure-track faculty in neuroscience are women, but I was just using that field as an example since I had the numbers. The event to be hosted by Entangled Bank isn’t really field specific, but more a ‘sampler’ of interesting science to engage the public. In that case, the available pool of women speakers should have been much larger than any one field could offer, making it even more inexcusable that the number was zero.

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