Athene Donald is a member of the Royal Society’s Equality and Diversity Advisory Network.

I have seen frequent complaints on the web about scientific conferences that have an overwhelmingly white male slate of speakers, including lists that don’t even have a single woman scheduled. This is not something peculiar to science; for instance see this link for a discussion of an equivalent problem in Philosophy. It does seem hard to believe that in all cases such a situation truly reflects the composition of the researchers in the field; indeed in many cases this is manifestly not so. Furthermore, it must be recognized that such a lack of diversity provides very little to inspire those minorities present in the audience or provide them with aspirational role models. It really should be possible to achieve a more representative balance of speakers in most cases.

An American professor, who blogs under the name of FemaleScienceProfessor, provides one explanation of why this unfortunate situation can sometimes arise: if a group of individuals are each asked to come up with two or three names for a session then, unless someone steps back and looks at the totality of names proposed, it is perfectly possible for each nominating individual to fail to think about the overall breadth. But, that overarching scrutiny is exactly what is needed because all the evidence shows that in general women and other minorities are otherwise likely to be systematically overlooked.

This kind of unconscious ‘marking down’ of women is an effect that has been well-documented more broadly. A study looking into this was recently published in the PNAS in the context of CV’s and job applications. In this study, identical dummy CV’s were randomly assigned either a male or female name and submitted as applications for a laboratory manager post. When these were evaluated by faculty in the US, both men and women systematically scored the ‘woman’ less well than the ‘man’, even though the CV’s were precisely the same. Such unconscious devaluation of women’s achievements has a name in the psychology literature – unconscious or implicit bias. If you want to test just how good or bad you are at this yourself, I highly recommend you try the tests at Havard’s Project Implicit. One of the tests specifically tests the association you make between male and female words, such as uncle or grandmother, with jobs in the sciences and arts. You may find it a real eye-opener!

So, the indications are, unless conference organisation committees consciously pay attention to the diversity of their speakers, they may end up with a very non-representative selection. But, it really shouldn’t be too difficult to make a first pass at a list of plenaries, invited talks etc and then step back and consider the names that have been put forward. And then try again. Almost invariably, when I have seen groups do this, it takes no time at all to come up with equally excellent speakers who just happen not to be white males. Then everyone is astonished why some of these ‘obvious’ names did not emerge in the first pass. It only takes a bit of deliberate thought to achieve an appropriate outcome, rather than going with the easy names which came first to mind and which anyhow most of the prospective audience will have heard talk many times before.

This type of action is relevant to how the Royal Society proceeds. Before it agrees to host meetings and conferences (Discussion meetings for instance), a committee of the Royal Society – the Hooke Committee – scrutinises the outline plans, including names of potential speakers. This takes place before there is any agreement that the meeting can go ahead. If the speaker list looks inappropriate – however topical and exciting the potential topic is – the committee will send the names back and ask for further thought to be given as to whether this really is the most suitable and appropriately diverse group to ensure the meeting’s excellence. Meetings will not go ahead on these terms unless the organisers can convince the Hooke Committee that, in order to achieve the aims of the meeting, there really are no other speakers who could and should be considered. In practice that is rarely the case. It is just the organisers had fallen into the trap of coming up with the familiar names who, more often than not, will indeed be white males.

By taking this proactive step, the Royal Society is doing what it can to ensure that speakers are appropriately representative. It is a small but significant step. The Royal Society’s Equality and Diversity Advisory Network (EDAN) also looks at the overall distribution of speakers under various headings, as well as the make-up of audiences at all events – from those for school-children to those for practicing scientists – looking at whether their composition reflects the pool from which they are drawn. This is not always an easy task. Benchmarking what percentage of ethnic minorities one might expect amongst school -children, for instance, is complicated by the fact that if the audience is drawn solely from London the numbers should be higher than if they come more broadly from anywhere within a 60 mile radius of London. Nevertheless, by monitoring the figures EDAN is able to identify any obvious anomalies and try to work to improve the situation. This is an ongoing process, into which the current BIS-funded project (aimed at increasing diversity in the scientific workforce) will feed. These are important, if small and really rather easy steps to improve the situation for minorities, both for the scientists of today and tomorrow.

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