How to organize a diverse conference, symposium or workshop

This year I took my first stab at organizing a couple of symposia for international conferences. In each symposium, one in math and one in conservation biology, I was determined to achieve a diverse set of speakers. Below, I will focus my advice on gender diversity, but it also applies to other types of diversity as well. While I am by no means an expert on this topic, I did achieve my goal, and I thought it would be valuable to share how I did it.

Here are some common challenges to organizing a gender diverse symposium

  1. Women on average turn down invitations at a higher rate than men
  2. Even if you invite many women, the women you invite may be more famous/senior than the men you invite (due to unconscious bias) and hence be especially more likely to say no
  3. Female professors that you invite may ask if male students or postdocs can go in their place

Note that unconscious bias, which creates challenge two, increases the chance you will experience challenge three.

Solution: Start by inviting only women until you meet your diversity target

This means starting your search early because you will send fewer invites out per time step. For example, if your diversity target is a 50:50 gender ratio*, and the symposium has eight spots, you might start by inviting four or more women. If less than four say yes, you invite a few more. At this point, you might be asking, “Why can’t I just invite four men and four women from the start, and if all the men say yes, and all the women say no, then I only invite women from then on.” Often, near the symposium proposal submission deadline, you start scrambling for a last minute speaker or two to fill the final empty slots. If four women didn’t say yes yet, it will be a lot tougher to stay devoted to your cause when you are desperate to accept anyone relevant to your symposium topic. If you’ve already proactively combatted your unconscious bias and secured four female speakers, your unconscious bias at “panic-o-clock” will not undermine your goal of achieving gender diversity.

If you follow this solution diligently, challenge number three (women suggesting their male students) is not an issue; you can easily accept the male students without compromising diversity. However, imagine you didn’t follow the solution above, and you already have 4 men speaking. In this case accepting another male will throw off the gender balance of your symposium. Of course, you could choose not to let him speak, but I don’t think that is a good solution. It’s beneficial to give students an opportunity to speak in a symposium [career stage is an important part of diversity]. Also, it’s good for gender equity to give early career researchers (ECRs), mentored by women, opportunities to succeed. Advancing the careers of ECRs advised by women is an important piece of gender equity because professor performance can hinge on the success of their students and postdocs.

Lastly, if your unconscious bias is preventing you from thinking of good women to invite, you can find female researchers (and other underrepresented minorities) in ecology, evolution, and conservation, using the following list. Be sure to invite post-docs, and pre-tenured faculty (remember challenge two above). You can also search for grad students here. Another strategy is to read recently published papers related to your symposium topic and take note of the authors’ likely gender. It’s of course really easy to find fantastic female scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to speak at conferences.

When I take active efforts to create a gender diverse symposium, I believe that I increase speaker quality. I can easily fall into the trap of inviting the first eight people who come to mind. Being more conscientious about whom I invite means I read extra papers, come up with new ideas for the symposium theme, and end up inviting more relevant and exciting speakers. These are often speakers who I have never met, and possibly didn’t even know about before creating the symposium. It is truly win-win.

The above strategy worked for me, but perhaps you have different strategies (or disagree completely). Please share in the comments.


*One might decide to set the target as matching the gender ratio of those working in the given field of research rather than 50%. In my math-bio symposium, I chose specifically to still shoot for a 50:50 gender ratio (or more female) because I know other symposia will likely be more male dominated than the already skewed gender ratio of the field. Shooting for the higher target helps to combat this. Plus, shouldn’t we aim for the ideal ratio, not a ratio perpetuating a status quo that underrepresents women? I, of course, found plenty of great women to speak at my math symposia, despite a skewed gender ratio in math. However, the advice in this blog can apply to any target, not just 50%.


Related posts by others

A more business & technology oriented post about diversifying conference panels by Stephanie Goodell. She has a lot of great advice that translates to academic conferences.

Diversify EEB by Gina Baucom A piece describing the list of female and underrepresented scientists that I link to in this post.

Edit: more links below from Jabberwocky Ecology

Advice on diversifying seminar series 

Advice on diversifying conferences