About my idea of a 33% target for women speakers at genomics conferences…

Last week I wrote a post on the subject of gender bias at genomics/bioinformatics conferences. I suggested a figure of 33% might make for a minimum target for the proportion of women (and men) who give talks at such conferences. I also went so far as to end that post by saying:

I don't attend many conferences, but from now on I won't be attending any if at least 33% of the talks are not by women.

At the time that I wrote this, I knew that I was going to be speaking at a genomics conference myself later this year. What I didn't know at the time, was the gender ratio of speakers at this conference. That information only came to light this week. So what is the proportion of talks by women at this conference?


If you're quick on the uptake, you will notice that 28 < 33 So what did I do? Well, I wrote to the conference organizers and explained my position and told them that I would like to withdraw my speaking role. I also suggested that they find a woman to take my place (and offered a suggestion of a female co-worker who has worked on the very project that I was intending to talk about).

The conference in question is the new Festival of Genomics that will take place in California in November. This is the second Festival of Genomics conference organized by Front Line Genomics and you may have read about the first conference in this series that recently took place in Boston. This conference was very well received (e.g. see this, this, or this) and so I was very much looking forward to speaking in November (especially as this was the first time that I have been asked to speak at a conference).

The current list of speakers shows 66 men and 26 women. It's possible that these numbers might change slightly; adding just 7 more women speakers, or replacing only 5 male speakers with women would be enough to reach my suggested 33% target.

I have had several productive exchanges with Front Line Genomics about this issue. They acknowledge the problem and seem to genuinely want to do something about it to reduce gender bias in this field. I'm confident that subsequent conferences that they organize will do an even better job at representing women in speaking roles. It also must be said that they are doing much better than most genomics conferences and 28% is higher than the current proportion of women in senior roles at most genome institutes. Once again, I want to reiterate that I have found Front Line Genomics to be extremely open about this issue, and I genuinely believe that they are receptive to suggestions that might improve the situation in future.

What can be done?

If you are a male scientist who is concerned by the current level of gender bias at genomics conferences, and if you are ever invited to give a talk at such a conference, then you do have the power to help change the situation. If you learn that women speakers are going to be underrepresented, you can withdraw your speaking position and instead make some suggestions of female scientists to take your place. You can also raise this issue when first invited to speak. If conference organizers received responses from all potential speakers saying 'I will only talk if your conference has an unbiased gender ratio of speakers', then this could change the situation dramatically.

Time to conclude this post by saying (once again): I don't attend many conferences, but from now on I won't be attending any if at least 33% of the talks are not by women.