One Weird Trick To Improve Women's Chances in Science

Female Scientist
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One simple fix could improve the visibility and opportunities of women in science, a new study finds — possibly combating the "leaky pipeline" that moves female PhDs out of academia.

When a woman is part of the organizing team that invites speakers to scientific conferences, the number of female speakers in the session shoots up by 72 percent, according to the new research.

"Since talking at meetings is really, really important for a career in science; you can imagine that this would be a very simple mechanism for increasing female participation in meetings," said study researcher Dr. Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "That could translate to making it much more likely they're going to make it through the glass ceiling." [Images: Artifacts from Extraordinary Women in Science]

Women in science

Women gain about half of the science and engineering doctorate degrees in the United States, and in many fields, they outnumber men in graduate schools. But only 21 percent of full professors in the country are female. The fact that women drop out of academic science faster than men has been dubbed the "leaky pipeline," and studies suggest unconscious bias plays a role. (Other structural problems include the long road to a full-time position for scientists. Science trainees are expected to complete doctorate programs that take five years, minimum, and then to work in largely low-paying postdoctoral research positions throughout their 20s and 30s in order to have a shot at a faculty job. These positions often require moving to different cities. This time coincides with the period when many women want to have children, and family responsibilities can clash with this early-career lifestyle.)

"I've become much more sensitized to the fact that it's not really an even playing field," Casadevall told LiveScience. "It's not only for women in science, but also for underrepresented minorities."

As the chair of the planning committee for the American Society of Microbiology (ASM) annual meeting, Casadevall noticed a gender imbalance in the scientists speaking at the meeting. Most were male, far above what would be expected if speakers were representative of meeting attendees.

"ASM, to their credit, pretty much opened up the archives," Casadevall said. The organization sent him lists of speakers in past years, along with lists of the two-person teams who organize each topic session.

Gender at meetings

Using this data, Casadevall and his colleague Jo Handelsman of Yale University were able to compare the number of female speakers in sessions organized by two men versus the number in sessions organized by a pair that included at least one woman. (There were not enough two-woman teams to analyze women-only teams separately.)

Of 216 sessions over three meetings between 2011 and 2013, 104 were convened by male-only teams. Those organized by men had between 22 percent and 27 percent female speakers. Those organized by teams with at least one woman had between 39 percent and 46 percent female speakers — an increase of 72 percent.

The likelihood of organizers coming up with all-male sessions also decreased, with between 23 percent and 36 percent of sessions organized by men having only-male speakers, compared with 8 percent to 10 percent of sessions with a female organizer.

All-male sessions "can be a huge turnoff for women trying to enter a field, which they might think is male-dominated," Casadevall said. [6 Myths About Girls, Math & Science]

An analysis of a second annual meeting run by ASM, the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC), returned nearly identical results. Having a woman on the planning team again increased the number of female speakers by about 72 percent.

Improving representation

Casadevall's research methods can't reveal why a woman on the planning team leads to more female speakers. He and Handelsman checked to make sure the result wasn't a side effect of female planners scheduling themselves to speak, and found that it wasn't.

It's likely that women on planning teams rose through the ranks of academic science themselves and realize the barriers, Casadevall said. They may make an effort to include other women as a result.

Men, on the other hand, probably don't consciously exclude female scientists, Casadevall said. When he showed other scientists his data, most were shocked to find that male-only planning teams came up with such a different gender ratio in their sessions compared with planning teams that included a woman.

"I don't think that anybody's consciously setting out to do this," he said.

Casadevall shared the data with the ASM planning committee in the summer and published the findings in the November/December issue of the journal mBio. He now plans to see if getting the information out there changes the gender ratios at the next conference in late May. He also hopes other scientific organizations will do their own analyses of their speaker lists.

"My hope is that when people become sensitive to this, they will design convening teams that have gender diversity up front," he said. "If that is the case, we should see a significant increase [in female speakers] this year. If I don't see it, I think we're going to have to take other measures. … I want to see whether the information results in a change of behavior, and if it doesn't, then we need to ask the question, 'Why?'"

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect a corrected statistic. Final calculations showed that a woman on the convening committee increased the number of female speakers by 72 percent, not 86 percent.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.