Lack of Women Speakers Spurs Conference to Make Changes

January 16, 2020

A study that highlights the lack of female invited speakers at a major scientific medical conference has caused the organizers of the conference to make changes so as to encourage more women to attend and to speak at the event.

The study analyzed data from 2014 to 2018 on the gender of speakers who were invited to the American Heart Association's International Stroke Conference (ISC), which is held annually in the United States.

The authors found that although women represented 37.7% of all ISC attendees, of the 1086 persons who were invited to speak at the conference over the 5 years, only 28% were women. This rate was constant over the study period.

Among 164 speakers who were invited more than once, only 21.3% were women.

"The gender disparity is pretty significant," lead author Lauren Fournier, MD, a vascular neurologist with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston, Texas, told Medscape Medical News.

"The most important thing about this work is that it highlights an issue ― once the issue has been recognized, steps can be taken to fix it. The ISC is taking those steps now, and we hope that by highlighting this, other groups will do the same," Fournier added.

The study was published online in Stroke on January 6.

Other notable findings were that the gender of speakers significantly differed in accordance with race or ethnicity. Among white speakers, 32% were women, whereas among black speakers, only 16% were women, and among Hispanic speakers, only 12% were women.

The data mirror faculty in neurology departments, where men outnumber women at all ranks; the disparity increases with advancing rank, the authors note.

"The problem is, of course, that there are fewer women in senior academic positions," Fournier said. "Even though now equal numbers of men and women are entering medical school, when you look at the senior academic positions, women only make up a small minority. The pool of female experts is smaller, so this is bound to lead to fewer women being invited to speak."

"Leaky Pipeline"

Fournier and her colleagues report that for full-time faculty in neurology at all US medical schools, the proportions of female assistant professors, associate professors, and full professors were 47%, 38%, and 21%, respectively ― a disparity that has been dubbed the "leaky pipeline."

Therefore, the disparity of invited speakers at the ISC is not simply an underrepresentation at the conference alone but is a trickle-down effect from the hierarchy of academic institutions, the authors state.

Fournier acknowledges that the well-known conflict between career and family holds women back. She herself will not be able to attend the ISC this year because at the time the meeting will be held, she will be 8 months' pregnant.

"It is somewhat of a vicious circle as you build your career by presenting work at conferences and networking with colleagues, but if it is difficult to travel to conferences because of the demands of family, then those opportunities are reduced, and still it is invariably women who cope with the majority of family responsibilities," she said.

The authors of the Stroke article write: "Leaders in the field should support a culture of diversity, particularly among junior faculty. Department leaders and mentors should be aware of the growing opportunities for underrepresented groups, including funding for research and career development opportunities.

"Including females on the organizing board of the conference, developing a speaker policy, hosting training programs geared for females, collecting and evaluating the conference sex data, and creating a family-friendly conference environment are ways to improve female representation at scientific conferences," they add.

The ISC seems to have taken this on board.

Fournier explained that the current data on gender disparity at the conference were presented at the 2019 ISC meeting.

"The data were submitted several months before the meeting, and the program committee started to make changes even to the 2019 meeting. These included the inclusion of a women's lunch session featuring several different female speakers on a faculty panel. There was also a session on female-specific issues in stroke."

A coauthor of the current article, Louise McCullough, MD, PhD, who is chair of the Department of Neurology in the McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston and is incoming chair of the ISC for 2020/21, told Medscape Medical News that the conference has made great efforts to include more women following the presentation of these data.

"We have made a concerted effort to try to represent women and minorities better at the ISC, and it has had a dramatic effect," she said. "I can't reveal the exact numbers, which will be presented at the conference next month, but I can say that we will see a large increase in female speakers. Just by being conscious of the problem, we have brought about change."

She also reported that the ISC is doing other things to attract more women to attend.

"We all know that having babies and raising children can be detrimental to your academic career," McCullough said. "The traditional roles of caring for children and elderly parents tend to fall to women, and then they often don't have time to travel to meetings and network. We are trying to address that with free child care available at ISC and nursing rooms on site.

"It is hard to get promoted to senior academic jobs if you don't present research and attend meetings. We want to encourage junior scientists and clinicians to come to the meetings."

McCullough pointed out that the problem of there being fewer female invited speakers is not unique to the ISC ― it is the same in many medical fields. "As a member of the program committee, we want high-profile speakers. We want to attract people to come to the meeting to hear the experts talk ― but there is a smaller pool of women to select from."

But just being aware of this can help, she said. "Women may not be as well known as their male colleagues, but they can still be valuable speakers. Women tend not to push themselves forward as much, and they are more easily overlooked. We don't tend to advocate for ourselves enough ― we need to change that.

"These changes will increase the scope of science and diversity at ISC, and that can only be a good thing," she added.

The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Fournier and McCullough were supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Stroke. Published online January 6, 2010. Abstract

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