In this article I will celebrate the organizations that are leading in providing terrific meetings that are gender balanced. I will also provide links to resources that help you identify speakers who are outstanding women scientists and help you to get on the list of the women to invite to speak.

The ASCB Annual Meeting

The 2015 ASCB Annual Meeting is nearly upon us, and it appears that the meeting will have its usual outstanding array of intriguing topics and stimulating speakers. It’s a terrific annual event that we attend with the expectation (most often fulfilled) of getting new ideas, new perspectives, new tools, and career advice. And perhaps equally important, we encourage our trainees to attend so that they can hear and get feedback from (and possibly converse, eat, and drink with) senior investigators. These are the role models who will inspire them, influence their career choices, potentially become their mentors, and ultimately welcome them as colleagues.

ASCB has long recognized that establishing those key interactions is improved when trainees or younger investigators can easily find common elements to help them relate to their more senior, successful counterparts. As a result, ASCB has been a leader among national organizations in trying to ensure that the cutting-edge science presented at its national meeting is presented by cutting-edge scientists who also reflect the broad range of background and experience in its membership. So you may have noticed that ASCB meetings feature a significant number of outstanding women scientists and underrepresented minorities among the speakers and award winners. This year, for example, 47% of the ASCB Symposia and Keynote speakers are women.

Achieving gender-balanced scientific meetings is receiving considerable attention lately.1–4 Although women constitute about 50% of graduating PhDs and attendees at biological meetings, the latter often still have a gender composition of speakers reflecting an earlier time when few women were leaders in their fields.5

ASCB achieves appropriate representation of women scientists early in the Annual Meeting planning process. Prior to offering invitations to speakers for the Symposia and to chairs for the Minisymposia, the Program Committee casts a wide net. The Women in Cell Biology Committee (WICB) gets to offer suggestions of excellent women speakers for various topics. By having a deep list of outstanding women speakers, WICB removes the possibility that the Program Committee has the name of only one woman with relevant expertise for a topic, a lone woman candidate who may not even be available to speak. Furthermore, WICB has learned that if the Program Committee avoids narrowly defining the topics, the potential pool of women speakers can be greatly enlarged.

Inclusiveness from the Start

To achieve a gender-balanced and diverse meeting, however, the goal of inclusiveness needs to be articulated at the very start of the process so as to focus the program planning committee. Arturo Casadevall has written an instructive article documenting how American Society for Microbiology (ASM) leaders made their program committee aware of gender statistics and directly instructed the organizers to try to avoid all-male sessions. To help accomplish this goal, ASM increased the representation of women among session convener teams. Because the committee was more diverse, it obtained more diversity in speakers. As a result, almost half of the oral presentations at the last ASM annual meeting were given by women, a fraction that reflects the membership proportions.6

The American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ACNP) has achieved an even more remarkable result. Its 2015 annual meeting will feature women scientists as 70% of the plenary speakers and nearly 40% of the speakers for competitively chosen panels and study groups. This significant change from earlier meetings was achieved both by increasing the number of women appointed to the program committee and by making an explicit statement in the call for proposals: “While scientific quality is paramount, the committee will strongly consider the composition of the panels that include women, under-represented minorities and early career scientists and clinicians.” In the last two years, this step alone was sufficient to result in >90% of submitted and accepted proposals for panels or study groups including at least one woman. Over the same period, attendees’ ratings of the scientific quality of the meeting has increased.7

Finding Outstanding Women Scientists

Happily, there are online resources easily available to help you find outstanding women scientists for your conference or seminar series.

WICB Speakers Referral List
The WICB Speaker Referral List8 is available at and includes largely U.S. and Canadian scientists. It is composed of the names of women scientists whose expertise has been vetted as ASCB Symposia speakers, Minisymposia leaders, or award winners; the list is updated each year right after the Annual Meeting.3 You can search the list by name, keyword, or institution, and the person’s website is one click away. It is also downloadable. In addition, WICB offers an email request option: In response to your targeted request (, WICB provides suggestions for women speakers even in research areas not traditionally thought of as “cell biology.”

WILS Database of Women in Science
Comprised largely of European scientists, the WILS Database of Women in Science is an initiative of the ELSO Career Development Committee, supported by EMBO and FEBS. This database aims to help scientists, universities, research institutions, political institutions, conference organizers, and journal editors to identify appropriately qualified women scientists as speakers and also as candidates for professorships, advisory groups, monitoring panels, and committees and commissions. Like with the WICB list, users can search by keyword, institution, etc., and can also filter records by research area, position, or country.

AcademiaNet is another database of female scientists whose members are nominated by European funding agencies and societies to ensure high quality.

Synberc was established in 2006 as a multi-university research center to help lay the foundation for the emerging field of synthetic biology. Part of its mission is to train a cadre of “biological engineers.” Synberc believes that this requires enhancing diversity in the field; they are concerned that “Women are chronically underrepresented at the podium of science meetings… [Accordingly], Synberc offers a database of women speakers in synthetic biology related fields.” They also provide a template letter that you can use “to encourage conference organizers to improve female representation in their speaker selection.” This can help you alert organizers to the low number of women speakers at their proposed meeting and offer them a resource to help rectify the problem.

Anne’s List
Created by Anne Churchland at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Anne’s List highlights women “systems neuroscientists” and is an excellent source that has replaced an earlier database from the Society for Neuroscience. You can search for scientists who are grouped by neuroscience subject areas (e.g., theory, systems/computational, fMRI, sensory systems, cognitive neuroscience) or by seniority (tenure, pre-tenure, or senior postdoc). There is also an option to self-nominate or nominate a colleague for the list.

Finally, crowd-sourcing using a wide net can be effective. For example, because women speakers didn’t reflect the numbers of up-and-coming women in the microscopy community, the organizers of a microscopy meeting recently discussed on the interactive list serve various ways to increase the number of women speakers and editors in the field. This led to the generation of an impressive list of women who are outstanding scientists in super-resolution microscopy, a field often thought of as “male.” The list had enough names to change the “complexion” of a meeting by providing a dynamic and different speaker list, while maintaining, and by some estimates improving, the quality of the meeting.

Remember—It Starts with You

Making sure that speaker lists for scientific meetings and seminar series are filled with outstanding women scientists is an ongoing effort. As an individual and as a member of organizations and institutions, you can be part of it in a number of ways:

  • Seek a role on organizing committees. Volunteers are always needed. Volunteering gives you a seat at the leadership table for influencing the gender-equity mindset. A seat at the table is also highly educational; for example, did you know that people contact meeting organizers and offer to give one of the talks?
  • Women scientists: Where appropriate, submit your CV and ask to be included on lists such as Anne’s List.
  • Network up. Get a sponsor(s), a man or woman senior scientist, whose research overlaps yours. Make the person aware of your interest in presenting your findings. When your sponsor gets invited to speak or to be an organizer, he or she will be more likely to suggest your name.
  • Planning to visit another town or country where you have colleagues? Offer to give a seminar. It will introduce your excellent science to a new audience. Someone in the audience may end up on organizing committees in the future. As a possible bonus for your hosts, you can offer to absorb the cost of travel and housing, leaving them to pay only an honorarium.
  • Do not turn down an invitation to present your work at what is likely to be an excellent meeting—especially for fear that your gender contributed to the invitation. Be assured that you wouldn’t have been invited if your science weren’t terrific (see the October 2015 WICB column on how the imposter syndrome hinders career advancement9).
  • Have your own list of two or three women who are doing significant science in your field so that if you do have to say, “No thanks, unfortunately I can’t accept your invitation,” you can enthusiastically offer those names to the organizers.

If we are all proactive in generating, promoting, and using women speaker lists—and if dynamic woman speakers don’t shy away from that role when asked—we can foster this vital element of scientific communication and career advancement for a more diverse group of scientists. n

—Sandra K. Masur, Chair, WICB Committee

Footnotes and References

  1. Bao M (June 24, 2015). A perspective on gender diversity—be bias-aware and speak up (an interview with Anne Spang). CrossTalk (the Cell Press blog).
  2. Martin J (2014). Ten simple rules to achieve conference speaker gender balance. PLoS Comput Biol. 10, e1003903.
  3. Ernest M (July 21, 2014). Organizing a gender balanced conference. Jabberwocky Ecology.
  4. For a how-to guide to gender balanced conferences, please click here.
  5. I was shocked to see recently all-day events in pharmacology, neuroscience, and imaging that featured essentially only men scientists.
  6. Casadevall A (2015). Achieving gender equity at the American Society for Microbiology General Meeting. mBio 6(4), 1.
  7. Moghaddam B, Gur RE (2015). Women at the podium: ACNP strives to reach speaker gender equality at the annual meeting. Neuropsychopharmacology (11 November) doi:10.1038/npp.2015.320.
  8. Masur SK (2015). Invisible woman? Trends Cell Biol 25, 437.
  9. Barrett J (2015). How the imposter syndrome hinders career advancement. ASCB Newsletter 38, 16–17.

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