On sending trainees to conferences that lack gender balance

Neuroscientist Bita Moghaddam asked a very interesting question on Twitter but it didn't get much discussion yet. I thought I'd raise it up for the blog audience.

My immediate thought was that we should first talk about the R13 Support for Scientific Conferences mechanism. These are often used to provide some funding for Gordon Research Conference meetings, for the smaller society meetings and even some very small local(ish) conferences. Examples from NIDA, NIMH, NIGMS. I say first because this would seem to be the very easy case.

NIH should absolutely keep a tight eye on gender distribution of the meetings supported by such grant awards.The FOA reads, in part:

Additionally, the Conference Plan should describe strategies for:

Involving the appropriate representation of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in the planning and implementation of, and participation in, the proposed conference.
Identifying and publicizing resources for child care and other types of family care at the conference site to allow individuals with family care responsibilities to attend.

so it is a no-brainer there, although as we know from other aspects of NIH the actual review can depart from the FOA. I don't have any experience with these mechanisms personally so I can't say how well this particular aspect is respected when it comes to awarding good (fundable) scores.

Obviously, I think any failure to address representation should be a huge demerit. Any failure to achieve representation at the same, or similar meeting ("The application should identify related conferences held on the subject during the past 3 years and describe how the proposed conference is similar to, and/or different from these."), should also be a huge demerit.

At least as far as this FOA for this scientific conference support mechanism goes, the NIH would appear to be firmly behind the idea that scientific meetings should be diverse.

By extension, we can move on to the actual question from Professor Moghaddam. Should we use the additional power of travel funds to address diversity?

Of course, right off, I think of the ACNP annual meeting because it is hands down the least diverse meeting I have ever attended. By some significant margin. Perhaps not in gender representation but hey, let us not stand only on our pet issue of representation, eh?

As far as trainees go, I think heck no. If my trainee wants to go to any particular meeting because it will help her or him in their careers, I can't say no just to advance my own agenda with respect to diversity. Like it or not, I can't expect any of them to pay any sort of price for my tender sensibilities.

Myself? Maybe. But probably not. See the aforementioned ACNP. When I attend that meeting it is because I think it will be advantageous for me, my lab or my understanding of science. I may carp and complain to certain ears that may matter about representation at the ACNP, but I'm not going on strike about it.

Other, smaller meetings? Like a GRC? I don't know. I really don't.

I thank Professor Moghaddam for making me think about it though. This is the start of a ponder for me and I hope it is for you as well.

16 responses so far

  • Ola says:

    Hate to say it, but this is so far off my lab's radar screen as to be invisible.

    If there are important speakers at a meeting - i.e. competitors and those whose work we are interested in, then we go. No further questions. The gender balance of the meeting is not something that would cause us to boycott. Similarly, if a grad student want to go, the decision is based entirely on the benefit to them and the science on show.

    It would take quite some balls to tell a student "no you can't go to this really important meeting where you might meet your future post-doc advisor, because there's not enough women on the podium". There are places in academia where we can use boycotts effectively to advance political agendas, but playing with trainees' career prospects at meetings is not an appropriate venue for such experimentation, in my book.

    Such argument might also be applied to the whole pre-print discussion on the Tweets of late - sure if you want to play a little with your grad students' career and you're a glam lab', go ahead and have them publish in OA/pr33p or whatever, they'll probably still get the job. For those of us in the non-glam universe, a solid paper in a decent rank journal is currently the ticket to a job, and no amount of glam folks saying how things should be, will change that (regardless of rainbow unicorn t-shirts).

    I see a recurring theme in several of DM's recent threads - that of the disparity between what "should" be the case in science, frequently espoused by glammers, and the high activation energy barrier for those of us in the non-glam world to even begin to think about achieving such utopia.

  • Pascale says:

    Frequently I can't ascertain the gender balance of a conference until I'm there. The full roster of speakers and panels often comes out weeks or days before the event, long after travel arrangements are made.
    Will it keep me from going? No. But it's then my prerogative to embarrass the organizers on social media about their lack of diversity...

  • drugmonkey says:

    These discussions can, imo, serve some positive purposes. We don't just have to throw up our hands in a fit of "what can I do?".

    Discussion can remind the powerful that they need to use their power because a revolution of the masses ain't going to happen. It can remind us all that we have to work on the side of constructing meetings with proper representation in advance, we cannot rely on boycotts to make people see the light. As per my post, it can remind us to stiffen our will when reviewing R13 applications and make representation of speakers a more important factor.

  • David says:

    "Identifying and publicizing resources for child care and other types of family care at the conference site to allow individuals with family care responsibilities to attend."

    Any idea how to do this (apart from the conference sponsoring child care)? I am informally involved in planning an annual conference that definitely does not address child care.

  • Newbie-Ish says:


    Childcare is often the deal breaker. It's not just about having the conference subsidize childcare, but it's helping *locating* safe and reliable resources. For example, one thing you could do is advertise by email and website so that attendees are connected with local (quality) childcare options. Without the help of an organizer that actually lives in the city of interest, I'm basically relying on Yelp, which means I'm basically not going to the conference. There are companies that specialize in drop-in daycare (the facility would obviously have to be nearby). A better option, although less common, works through companies that specialize in on-site childcare - they basically take over a conference room.

    Another one? A room to pump in and access to a fridge to store the milk. I cannot tell you the number of times I've had to negotiate very odd situations to pump at conferences. (Including pumping in full view of 30 organizers in a giant open room at a Europe conference; thankfully I'm not that modest when it comes to breastfeeding so it wasn't a big deal... but I'm very pro breastfeeding and probably not typical in my comfort level)

    Yet another. Calculating and then advertising gender ratios. I think this goes far to demonstrate awareness, which implies active attempts to change culture/climate.

    My dream? Don't scoff, but I'd love to see a conference note that well-behaved newborns (<2 months) can attend conference sessions. Think Licia Ronzullis:


    Having a baby can mean a 1-1.5 year hiatus on conference attendence for some of us. These kinds of active efforts make a big, big difference. Anything is better than nothing.

  • JustaTech says:

    Oh, I totally mis-read the initial Tweet. I though Professor Moghaddam was asking if we should use our travel/conference budget to *improve* the diversity of a conference. But now that I think about that, it doesn't make sense because the audience is usually not the issue, it's the speakers. Right? I don't get to go to conferences.

  • becca says:

    If you're gonna send a female trainee to a sausage fest GRC type meeting (or anything that is notorious for "professor greybeard in the hot tub with the lecherous grins", at least send her with another female friend so they can buddy up to defend from creepers.

    Other than that, don't organize a meeting without some kind of childcare (even if you don't have funding for it, set up a wiki or something so people with similar age kids can swap around a bit), and don't pick speakers without proportionate representation. Also, when you set up blocks of hotel rooms, at least check if they can get cribs or mini-fridges for nursing Moms, and at least use that as a tie breaker between hotel choices.

  • effie says:

    Last year I boycotted a symposium organized by a dear friend because there were no women speakers on the program. He was receptive to my observations and noted that the invited women had declined. Additional women were then invited but in the end, the program remained the same. In the planning, somehow no one realized that a meeting beginning the Monday after Easter would require anyone outside of the timezone to travel on the holiday... this at least partly explained the low representation.

    So I didn't attend in 2015. But he passed on suggestions to the 2016 planning committee and this year the meeting is more balanced. Progress can happen!

  • jmz4 says:

    "If you're gonna send a female trainee to a sausage fest GRC type meeting"
    -Are they all really that bad? I've only ever been to GR*S*, which was reasonable evenly proportioned. Though my field as a whole has a much more equitable split than most.

  • David says:

    @ Newbie-Ish
    Thanks for the information.

    I do wonder if there will be chicken vs egg push-back (i.e. how do we justify spending time/money on this topic when few women attend, but few woman may attend because of the lack of child care resources), but its worth bringing up.

  • becca says:

    jmz4- not at all, necessarily. Sorry, I wrote unclearly. I meant if you're going to send trainees that is both small enough to be described as "intimate" AND also extremely male-dominated, it might be time for a buddy system.

  • Newbie-Ish says:

    jmz4 - GRCs are more susceptible, I think. They are small. They are informal. Informality is actively encouraged. Alcohol is present. Hours are late. The hotels are smaller. People tend to lose some of their professional barriers, which is a problem. I wouldn't hesitate to send a female trainee to a GRC or other small conference but I would absolutely make them aware of some of the shit that has gone down. And there's a lot that has gone down at GRCs... it gets hushed up.

    David - I'd keep pushing with the argument that it's a relatively small investment. There is almost always an empty room at the venue that could be used for pumping, an employee fridge that could be located, etc. The work in helping locate childcare resources requires intellectual resources rather than money. I'd argue that if even one woman feels the conference is now accessible, it's worth it.

    On that note, I wonder if anyone has actually studied the extent to which birth of child reduces conference attendence for women... or other professinal opportunities (like fewer invites for talks, etc). I avoided applying for the early career NIH review program for this very reason. In the very beginning, for some of us [baby specific issues], you can't actually leave. After that period of time, there's still the burden of pumping, and it affects women differently. There was no way I could manage the pumping situation while giving full attention to a study section. I held off for about 18 months.

    If I'd known better, I would have applied earlier anyway - it seems that the waiting list is pretty long.

  • David says:

    @ Newbie-Ish
    I don't know how universal this "trick" is, and you have probably already experienced this, but one of my coworkers has had a lot of success with getting a free mini-fridge in her hotel room by asking a week ahead of time and saying it is for pumping. Perhaps a forward thinking conference organizer could add a provision in the room contract (and note it on the conference website).

  • Newbie-Ish says:

    @David Yes, hotels do often have mini fridges, which is good. The problem is if I am not near my hotel and I have to tote around the bottles during my 8-12 hour conference day. I usually bring a freezer pack (that only gets mildly cold in the mini fridge) and accept that the milk is going to get warm (breast milk is reasonably stable). Knowing that there is a fridge at the conference site is one less thing to worry about, if it can be arranged.

    It's seriously nice to hear people getting interested in how they can make things easier. I can't tell you how much good that does just to change climate/culture.

  • Scott says:

    @ Newbie-Ish
    Having it be acceptable for newborns to attend a meeting should be a no-brainer.

    GRC always bugged me for their pathetic attempt to deal with child care. Most of their conference sites say "For additional information about the area (including off-site housing and child-care), please contact the local Chamber of Commerce."

    Wow. Suggesting I google "name of small town in Maine" plus "chamber of commerce". Thanks. You're a life-saver GRC.

  • E rook says:

    David - To address the issue that you raise, I have seen this sentence under a "Special Needs" heading on conference websites, "For any additional information, and for any special needs including child/family care resources available to conference attendees , please email EmailAddress or contact Name at PhoneNumber." The organization can have a sheet of contact info for local day care centers to (make sure is up to date then) send.

    Childcare grants are very easy to include in an R13 applications. Although it's not without cost. R13s get no F&A. Someone has to pay to set up the system for advertising, receiving, evaluating, and disbursing these childcare grants.

    For diversity or gender balance -- I think starting with diversity or gender balance on the organizing committee is the best way a sponsoring organization can influence diversity on the podium.

Leave a Reply