Virginia Valian has a comment entiltled "Invite Women to Talk" in the last issue of Nature here. For those without access to the journal, the text of the comment is available after the break
(Psychologist at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York)
INVITE WOMEN TO TALKIn 2003, I was invited to give the keynote speech at an event held annually by the Sigma Xi scientific-research society to honour scientists’ achievements. I was asked to speak about women in science. During dinner, I scanned a list of the event’s previous speakers, from 1964 on, to count how many women had given the keynote. Most were listed only by surname and first initial, so between courses, I walked around the room asking people whether they knew anyone on the list. Eventually, I found an older scientist who reviewed the list, recognizing every name, then turned to me with a surprised, rueful smile: in nearly 40 years, I was the only woman to speak at this event. He had heard nearly every lecture but had never noticed that they were all given by men. At the beginning of my talk, I used that story as an example of how hard it would be for organizers and attendees to detect such a pattern, given only one data point a year. The pattern isn’t a product of discrimination or intentional exclusion of women. Rather, few people — men or women — think of women when they picture ‘top’ scientists who might headline an event.
Are men still disproportionately featured at conferences? Determining an expected number is hard, but it is still relatively rare to find women giving plenary or keynote speeches at conferences. At the American Chemical Society’s upcoming spring meeting, for example, all four of the planned plenary speakers are male. That doesn’t send an optimistic message to young female chemists. The blog Feminist Philosophers lists nearly 20 recent philosophy conferences — many of which focus on science — featuring only male speakers.
At a language-processing conference I attended recently, I went to 15 or so talks, making note of who asked questions in each one. Women were more likely to ask questions in sessions chaired by women, regardless of the speaker’s gender. If that is a general pattern, bringing more women into prominent positions in conferences will increase women’s overall participation in scientific discourse. Many organizations strive to include scientists who are from non- English-speaking countries — the same can be done for women.
To that end, my colleague Dan Sperber, a cognitive scientist at the Central Euro- pean University (CEU) in Budapest, and I have created an online petition (go.nature.com/sj4yed) whose signatories commit to accepting talk invitations only from conferences that have made good-faith efforts to include women. So far, we have more than 450 signatures — but few of them are from senior male scientists, and even fewer are from scientists in the United States. What counts as a good-faith effort? There is no single prescription, but Sperber and I have adopted a few suggestions from Feminist Philosophers. For one, organizers should seek out women in relevant fields to speak at conferences — and keep looking if the first woman they ask says no. Other examples include extending invitations early so that women have time to make arrangements, and offering child-care services at meeting sites.
But efforts should go beyond the individual. Conference funders should be mindful of gender equity for invited speakers. Similarly, universities should follow the example of the CEU, which now requires that organizers of university-funded events show good-faith efforts to include qualified female speakers (go.nature.com/ym81ws).