This simple policy will shift social norms in the right direction for Canadian Women in STEM

If you’re a woman in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), how often do you attend conference plenary sessions, keynote addresses, or prestigious invited lectures where the speaker(s) is a white man?

In 2015, CBC As It Happens covered Saara Samar's Tumbler “Congrats you have an all male panel”1. STEM community members active on social media may have encountered the #YAMMM, Yet Another Mostly Male Meeting, hashtag, which calls out these continuing events2.

Some scholarly organizations such as the American Astronomical Society3 track their speaker line-ups and have policy on including women4.

The pattern has been noticed, and is being discussed. However, in Canada, STEM academic events still regularly feature invited speaker line-ups that are either all or mostly male5. This includes my research fields: sustainability and ecology, where female undergraduates have been at a 50:50 ratio with male students for decades6.

Why is the under-representation of women in prestigious invited speaker line-ups still happening?

Social sciences research has described phenomena such as unconscious gender bias7 and gender stereotype threat8. There are many subtle reasons for both men and women continuing to rate women as less competent in STEM, in spite of actual data regarding the competence and performance of women. This research is being broadly discussed across STEM fields9, 10, 11. So, is it acceptable that many of my STEM colleagues continue to claim ignorance about the complex social reasons for the ongoing under-representation of women in STEM fields in the academy?

Taking the pressure off individuals when it comes to shifting cultural norms

I've organized many seminar series and conferences in the last 35 years. When I was younger, I was usually the lone woman on the organizing committee, and the only voice raising the issue of the lack of female speakers. My concerns were mostly dismissed, leading to all-male speaker line-ups.

It's tough to be that one person advocating for inclusion and diversity in speaker line-ups. The pressure on activist individuals can be alleviated with policy.

A simple policy to require gender balance in prestigious plenaries, keynotes and speaker series would help enormously. In Canada, such policies are broadly lacking across nearly all organizational levels: from departments, to faculties, to the higher education institution, oversight bodies and professional societies. Such a policy, broadly applied, has the power to shift entrenched social-cultural norms rapidly in the right direction. Let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting that this policy should apply to the everyday departmental seminar series or volunteered conference talks.

This simple step will push against some of the barriers that women in STEM encounter. A recent Nature article documented the under-representation of women in the world’s professional societies12:

“An academy will only make progress if, like the Royal Society, it has a clear and stated intent to encourage more women nominations into the potential pool of candidates, says Athene Donald, a physicist at the University of Cambridge, UK, with an interest in gender diversity. Without such measures, "numbers won't go up fast", she says.”

It’s not as if Canadian institutions would be trailblazing by doing this. There are many great resources about how to develop and implement such policies13,14.

Why doesn't every STEM department and faculty adopt such a policy?

Why doesn't every university adopt such a policy?

Why don't national and provincial institutions such NSERC (Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council) and COU (Council of Ontario Universities), which both create and support STEM research chairs, adopt and support such a policy?

Individual faculty members could adopt a personal policy. When a STEM colleague is invited to be a plenary speaker or give a prestigious lecture, why not make it a habit to ask the organizers what their policy on gender balance is, and how they have addressed the issue of speaker balance? Remember to keep the bingo card handy! If the organizers don't have such a policy, then point them to Jenny Martin's article.



Twenty-five years ago, I would look at my colleague, Professor Emerita Judy Myers' group photos from Gordon Research Conferences: all white, mostly male. I didn't think I would ever want to go to one. BUT, the foundation that runs the Gordon Conferences made a conscious decision to diversify their meetings with respect to gender, people of colour and age. The faces at the vibrant Gordon Conferences that I attend have changed radically compared with Judy's photos from the 1980s and early 90s. And, it wasn't random.


  2. Eisen, J. Tree of Life Blog.