Visible Women

Men are freaking out about this science conference with an all-female line-up

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Moya Crockett
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Organisers of a biology conference in San Diego wanted to show that it’s possible to have 100% women speakers at a scientific event – and men are crying sexism. 

If you work in a male-dominated field, there’s a solid chance that you’ve attended at least one professional event that featured very few female speakers or panellists. In fact, it’s entirely possible that you’ve attended conferences where there were zero women on the bill at all. And that’s because examples of all-male panels, otherwise known as ‘manels’, are everywhere.

Last November, researchers at events company Bizzabo analysed the gender make-up of thousands of large professional events that had taken place in 23 countries between 2013 and 2018. They found that globally, less than one-third (31%) of all speakers were female – including in the UK, where women made up just 25% of event speakers. The issue is so prevalent that one blogger was compelled to set up the Tumblr allmalepanels to document the world’s most glaring examples. Recent lowlights include a woman-free debate about breastfeeding in Mexico, and a panel discussing ‘Women in Math’ at a US university that consisted of four men.

When event organisers are asked why they haven’t bothered to make their conference or panel discussion more diverse, a common excuse is that they wanted to invite more women to speak, but – sadly – couldn’t find anyone suitable. (It’s an explanation that’s also frequently deployed to defend panels made up entirely of white people.) But this is generally nonsense. Whatever the subject of an event, there will be women out there who are eminently qualified to speak on it – you just have to make the effort to find them. Often, it won’t even be that hard. 

Ahead of a recent biology conference in California, the organisers decided that they wanted to prove that all-male events are unnecessary in science. The first International Microbiome Meeting, hosted by the University of California San Diego’s Center for Microbiome Innovation, featured talks by 27 microbiome experts – and every single one of them was a woman.

On the conference’s website, organisers initially explained that they wanted to “demonstrate that it is possible to have a large representation of women presenters in a scientific meeting by inviting only women speakers”. Seems eminently reasonable. 

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But, inevitably, the men’s rights brigade were soon out in force. An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled ‘No Men Allowed’ framed the conference as an ideological crusade against male scientists, and suggested that men were being prevented from presenting research.

This argument was later picked up by conservative American thinktank the American Enterprise Institute, which republished sections of the WSJ article so that people in the comments could splutter about “male-bashing” and “blatant bigotry” towards men. 

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No matter that this was a one-off event intended to make a point about the dominance of male voices in STEM (it’s worth noting that the earth, oceanic and atmospheric sciences, otherwise known as geosciences, are the least diverse within all STEM fields). No matter that there is no suggestion that male academics working in this field were being attacked, or that they’ll be prevented from presenting their research at future conferences. Nope: it’s clearly a sign that feminist scientists are out to Ban All Men.

In an interview with science news website STAT, one of the conference organisers wearily shut down the suggestion that the event was an example of discrimination against men.

“We are not the Amazons,” said Sandrine Miller-Montgomery, invoking the mythological race of women warriors who appear in Wonder Woman. “We are not wanting to control the world. We just wanted to show it is possible to have 100% women speakers.”

We think it’s an admirable goal – and one they pulled off with aplomb.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign raises awareness of women’s success in male-dominated fields and empowers future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.

Images: Getty Images