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Of mice, men, microbes—
and women on the podium

How can science organizations get more women to speak at their conventions? Two scientists put their own group under the microscope and came up with a possible answer: get more women to invite the speakers.

Microbiologists Jo Handelsman of Yale and Arturo Casadevall of Yeshiva University examined the last three years worth of major meetings of the American Society for Microbiology, or ASM, in which they are both active. After analyzing 460 symposia with 1,845 speakers, they found startling results: sessions whose organizers included at least one woman had 72 percent more female speakers.

What's more, all-male convening teams produced all-male speaker panels 30 percent of the time. When a woman helped convene, the all-male sessions dropped to about 9 percent.

"This analysis is important, because all-male rosters send a subtle message, especially to junior scientists, that a field has few women," Casadevall and Handelsman write in their paper, published in the ASM's journal mBio.

Noting the "leaky pipeline" that drains women from the science careers they embark upon, the authors went looking for "points of leverage that might influence women’s success and retention in academic careers." They identified invitations to speak at national meetings as "key professional events."

Their research found "a striking and highly significant correlation": when women help choose the speakers, more speakers are women. But the study doesn't show why, or even prove that the presence of female conveners causes the presence of female speakers.

So the scientists propose another experiment, this one forward-looking rather than retrospective: "an experiment in which at least one woman is included in every team of conveners might increase the proportional representation of women among the speakers at ASM meetings," they write.

Filed under women in science, Jo Handelsman
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