Thursday, May 5, 2011

Invited Speakers

Giving invited talks is an important part of any scientist’s career. It is an opportunity to sell his or her science topic in a long format and to a large audience. Yet, it seems that the same small subset of (mostly older male) scientists is asked to give invited talks at almost all the meetings. As a female physicist that has been in the field for more than 10 years, I have only been asked to give 2 invited talks. I took this personally. Perhaps I wasn’t a good enough speaker or my science topic wasn’t that interesting. Within the last year, however, I have sat on three different scientific organizing committees and those experiences gave me a different perspective.

For the first committee, I was out of town when the call came for suggestions of invited speakers. When I returned and read my email, I was dismayed to find that all the suggested invited speakers (> 20) were male. Another (female) committee member spoke up and suggested diversifying the list. In the end about 10% of the invited speakers were female for the conference. For the second committee, I responded to the call for suggestions for invited speakers with 8-10 names. I tried to suggest people in a range of ages and a mix of male and female. When I didn’t know a good speaker on a certain topic, I called my colleagues for suggestions and challenged then to name both male and female possibilities. Other committee members also submitted lists of potential invited speakers (primarily male). The chair of the committee then began to invite a subset of the potential speakers without additional input from the committee members. I noticed that even though > 10% of potential speakers were female, only male names were making their way onto the final invited speakers list. I had to speak up and request that we include females on the invited speakers list. On the last committee, I followed the email exchange on invited speakers closely without participating. Without fail, every name suggested by both male and female committee members was male. In the end, I suggested two female speakers.

What confused me about this process was that the men and women on the committees were not people I would think of as chauvinist. Is this the work of the unconscious bias? If so, why don’t the members of the committee realize it as it is happening? My challenges to all people on science organizing committees are:

-Self-edit. If the first 5 names you come up with happen to be male, challenge yourself to write down 5 female names;
-Make sure the final list of invited speakers are representative of the community;
-Don’t expect only the female colleagues on the committee to suggest female names.


[CSWA maintains a list of % women invited speakers on its web site. If you are an SOC member for an upcoming conference, please use the list to help begin the discussion on women invited speakers. If you are attending a conference this summer, please send stats on invited speakers to Nancy Morrison (, the CSWA web master]