Papers, Panels, and Presentations: Is It Still a Man's World?

Siobhan Harris


October 21, 2021

Our Medscape UK Gender in Medicine survey suggested being female was perceived by women to have a detrimental effect on certain aspects of their careers.

It showed that around 1 in 4 women believe their gender has a negative impact on getting a paper published in an academic journal.

The survey also suggests that 35% of women think that being female has a negative impact on invitations to present at conferences.

Is It Reflective?

We asked Dr Fozia Ahmed and Dr Greta McLachlan if the findings reflected their experiences.

Dr Ahmed is a consultant cardiologist at Manchester NHS Foundation Trust.

Dr McLachlan is co-founder of Women Speakers in Healthcare, which was set up to try to address the issue of all-male panels (manels) and all male keynote speakers at conferences.

'Manels' and Presentations 

Do you think that being a woman has a negative impact on invitations to present at conferences?

Dr Fozia Ahmed

Dr Ahmed: Faculty who are exclusively all-male, all-white, or both, are commonplace, and despite Twitter being awash with calls to disband the 'Manel', this message has yet to filter down to the educational committees for conferences.

Specific to the female author, perceived differences in the quality and significance of scientific contributions made by an author may persist long after the manuscript(s) has been published. Having conceived the study, overcome barriers to deliver the study, collected data and successfully published the manuscript, you would think that what follows is an invitation to present your data at a scientific conference. You wait with bated breath for the invite to come, but it never arrives.

There are few things more disappointing than being overlooked for a scientific session when it is directly related to your area of expertise. Questioning whether it is your gender, ethnic origin or accent that caused you to be overlooked for a scientific conference or working group could be avoided if selection processes were standardised and inclusive.

Another factor which could be implicated in faculty being overlooked is the misconception that audiences may find the scientific message less credible if delivered by a female. If so, then this myth needs to be dispelled.

Slow progress is not enough. While some organising committees actively seek out the subject matter experts for particular sessions based on their ability and authorship of scientific papers, others have yet to reform. Unconscious bias and a tendency to appoint faculty in our own image can overlook talent. If diverse businesses deliver better results in the corporate world, then is the same also true of a diverse faculty? Can it improve our conference experience?

Dr Greta McLachlan

Dr McLachlan: We are not surprised by these findings at all. We know that women speakers at conferences are vastly under-represented, with one reason often being given is that it is hard to find women speakers. We started Women Speakers in Healthcare to try and address this underrepresentation at healthcare events and help to give women the confidence to speak at events and the empowerment to know they belong there too.   

What can be done to make sure women are more represented in conferences and on panels? Whose responsibility should it be? 

Dr McLachlan: The first thing that people can do is to think, is my panel representative of the community it is serving? That means not only looking at gender representation, but ethnicity, LGBTQ2+ status, and disability. Then thinking about what barriers might be in place to stop people presenting at conference, for example child friendly environments and accessibility. It is also the responsibility of those attending conferences to call out 'manels' when they see them and ask for accountability by those hosting the event. It is not one person’s responsibility. It is everyone’s, but conference organisers need to take the issue seriously and we at Women Speakers in Healthcare are happy to work with organisers to ensure gender representation and diversity of speakers.  

Do you think there should be a strict gender-balance for conference speakers?

Dr Ahmed: We need to take the subjectivity and implicit bias out of speaker selection and adopt a more scientific approach to address the problem. In a specialty that places great importance on data and processes, perhaps what is needed is the equivalent of EQUATOR guidelines for faculty and board appointments, which shortlists the strongest male and female candidates.

However, I would also argue that we need to look beyond gender. Being female is a disadvantage, but does being non-white, non-middle class, working in a non-prestigious institution, result in cumulative bias and further increase risk of being overlooked as faculty? We need policies and mandates that solve the bigger problem of diversity and inclusivity.

Gender and Publishing Papers 

The Medscape UK survey showed that around 1 in 4 women believe being female has a negative impact on getting a paper published in an academic journal. What is your opinion and what can be done about it?

Dr Ahmed: The extent to which the peer-review process is influenced by gender bias remains an area of ongoing research and much debate. However, reforms to the structural processes of peer-review are essential if we are to minimise the risks posed by gender bias. Many journals anonymise articles prior to inviting reviewers, but in my experience, this is not always the case.

Another practice that should be reconsidered is whether the sacrosanct cover letter should be disbanded. On the one hand it allows the author to frame the context and relevance of their work for the editor. At the same time, it robs the author of their anonymity and reveals their identity; whether it be their gender, ethnicity, or the fact that they aren’t a famous author. Anonymity, throughout the review process, would secure an unbiased review process, level the playing field, and allow papers to be accepted on merit alone.

Dr McLachlan: Arguably this is all part of the same problem. In the healthcare world and academic world conferences are usually the first place to present and discuss your work in the wider community. If fewer women are presenting their work, then there is less opportunity to take that work further to publication. Another thing that journals need to be looking at is their authorship rates in regards to gender and diversity. Gender bias can affect anyone and needs to be called out so that it can be rectified and addressed.  

Do you think some women feel they don't get the same opportunities as their male counterparts?

Dr Ahmed: To be male in our society is a privilege. To be male and white confers further advantage. Throughout your life you will be judged by different standards. Unless you have experienced gender or racial bias then you can’t compare experiences.

We exist in a profession that has structural problems with promoting women to positions of senior leadership, both in clinical and academic settings. Can we really expect the broader scientific community to be any different?

The key question is how do we address problems of gender bias, or any bias for that case? Diversity is the first and easy step, but inclusion is when real change occurs. Specific to science, this means making sure that editorial boards, elected board members, and scientific committees, are representative of not only the medical workforce, but also the patients we treat.

Is it up to women in medicine to help each other when it comes to being role models and inspiring leadership?

Dr Ahmed: The problem is that society tells us that there is only space for “a few good women”, whether it be in senior leadership or on the expert panel, which may make you view your female colleague as an existential threat. This is not the case.

My personal experience has been relatively fortunate, having been mentored by male and female leaders alike. In helping me navigate various aspects of my training and career, appointing me to new roles, and providing childcare so I could attend conferences, it provided me with the very opportunities I needed to progress. However, I realise that this degree of opportunity and sponsorship is not universally available.

Various 'women in cardiology' networks have been set up to provide dedicated mentoring and a peer-to-peer support network. Joining an organisation like this may help create a movement that is likely be more successful in supporting meaningful change.

However, it shouldn’t be left to women to solve this problem. If we are to address the problem posed by implicit bias then trialists, societies, and employers need to partner with organisations like Project Implicit to address broader issues of diversity and inclusivity which extend beyond gender.


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