Posted by on August 16, 2016 - 7:07am

By Nicole C. Woitowich, PhD

Academic conferences and symposia provide scientists with the opportunity to learn about the most cutting edge research, establish professional networks and collaboration, and foster the exchange of ideas among colleagues. But for those invited to speak at a conference, it can provide the additional benefit of increased visibility and professional recognition within one’s field. However, for female scientists their invitation to present might have gotten “lost in the mail.”

A new study published in the journal, PloS One, analyzed the ratio of female to male speakers at conferences held by two scientific societies between the years 1999 and 2015 [1]. The authors found that neither the number of female presenters nor female symposia organizers increased significantly over time.

Lead author of the study, Stephanie Sardelis found this to be alarming, “We expected there to be more opportunity for women to excel…especially since both societies have been improving their gender policies,” she says.

Unfortunately, these results are not surprising. Several other studies have shown that women are underrepresented at academic symposia [2,3], and when women are given the chance to present, they speak for less time compared to their male peers [4]. In an attempt to mitigate gender bias at academic conferences the solution seems all too simple: Invite more women! Specifically, invite more women to be symposia organizers.  Sardelis and her colleague, Dr. Joshua Drew, found that when the number of female symposia organizers increased, so did the number of female presenters.  This suggests that women may be more attuned to gender bias and in turn, encourage the promotion of their female colleagues at conferences or symposia.

In addition to increasing the number of female conference organizers, Sardelis and her colleague suggest that scientific societies provide adequate travel funds, child-friendly facilities, and enforce a strict Code of Conduct that includes zero-tolerance for abuse towards women, minorities, and differently abled attendees.

Sardelis believes that gender bias at conferences is indicative of a more systemic problem harbored by academia as a culture. “To reduce the gender gap, all scientists must eliminate the misconception that women are less competent than their male colleagues,” she shares.

Yet, Sardelis remains confident that steps are being taken in the right direction after attending a recent conference citing numerous female speakers, gender neutral bathrooms and nursing rooms, along with a focus group dedicated to women at scientific conferences. “[This] was a testament to the fact that gender disparity is a serious issue, but one that is being (albeit slowly) targeted by the scientific community,” she says.

Let’s hope the scientific community can pick up the pace.  



  1. Sardelis and Drew, PLoS One. 2016; 11(7):e0160015.
  2. Casadevall and Handelsman, mBio. 2014; 5(1):e00846-13.
  3. Schroeder et al., J Evol Biol. 2013; 26(9):2063-2069. 
  4. Jones et al., PeerJ. 2014; 2:e627. 
Posted by on January 25, 2012 - 4:15pm

A recent blog talked about the importance of support women in the STEM fields.    A good example is the new partnership between our University and the U of Chicago:

Northwestern University and the University of Chicago have launched the Chicago Collaboration for Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, a three-year effort to enhance the recruitment and advancement of women faculty members in those fields.

“The University of Chicago and Northwestern are vitally concerned about the advancement of women in STEM at our respective institutions, and through this collaboration we have dedicated ourselves to making significant progress,” said University of Chicago Provost Thomas Rosenbaum, the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor in Physics.  Important elements of the collaboration involve studying the apparent relative strengths and weaknesses of the respective institutions when it comes to fostering a positive climate for women in STEM, said Northwestern Provost Daniel Linzer.

The percentage of tenure-track women in STEM fields in 2010, according to University of Chicago officials, were basic biological sciences, 23 percent; physical sciences, 10 percent; and social sciences, 29 percent. The percentage of tenure-track women in STEM fields at Northwestern for the same period were biological sciences, 20 percent; engineering, 11 percent; physical sciences, 14 percent; and social sciences, 36 percent.

The new collaboration for women in STEM includes two yearlong programs: Navigating the Professoriate, for tenure-eligible faculty members; and Beyond Tenure, for tenured associate professors and professors.

The Navigating the Professoriate program is designed for tenure-track assistant professors in the biological, physical, and social sciences, and in engineering.  The program began Oct. 26 with a session on “The Art of Negotiating,” led by Victoria Medvec, executive director of Northwestern’s Center for Executive Women and a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management.   Statistically it’s fairly well documented that, on average, women do not negotiate as often or as well as their male counterparts.

The Beyond Tenure program kicked off Oct. 17 with a session titled “What’s Next: Imagining Your Career.” The program was designed to help tenured professors in the biological, physical, and social sciences become architects of their own destiny.  “The idea of taking the long view of your own career and figuring out what you need to do to get there after you’ve already gained a level of success is really a new perspective for many women,” said Peggy Mason, one of the program’s organizers and a professor of neurobiology at University of Chicago.   Women can decide to continue what they have already been doing, but other choices might include becoming a department head or dean, taking a leadership role in a professional society, directing a center, or starting a company.