JC: Are There Too Few Women Speakers at Conferences?



If you’ve had your eye on twitter in the last couple of days you might have spotted this paper about women speakers at conferences published online ahead of print in the EMJ 1 2 – and if you’ve got an eagle eye you might have spotted some familiar names among the authors. You may have read Ashley’s post yesterday on women at conferences, if not then please do.

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We at St Emlyn’s consider ourselves advocates for gender equity and we’ve been having the “gender at conferences” conversation over the last couple of years. We’ve been part of the evolution of smacc since 2013 and are supportive of its ongoing quest to challenge conference norms. It was Simon who emailed back in March 2015 to suggest that we have a formal look at the gender balance in conference programmes to see if our impression that women were under-represented was accurate. From the outset the group was Simon, Rick, Rich, Iain and me, but we wanted to ensure a 50:50 male:female authorship so we asked a few of our esteemed colleagues from the FOAM community to join us: the astute Katrin Hruska and the indefatigable Michelle Johnston, together with our own fabulous local EM trainee Rebecca Riley.

What did we do?

The idea seemed simple enough – we would look at the speakers at various national EM conferences to see what proportion were women. We selected a few key national and regional EM conferences (excluding smacc since it covers critical care and therefore non-EM specialties), decided on a timeframe (2014-2015) and obtained the conference programmes.

Simple research ideas are often the best but implementation of apparently simple ideas is rarely as straightforward as it might first appear.

We threw around a few ideas about other analyses we could undertake and how we should measure speaker representation – should we take the number of speakers or the amount of time speaking? We decided on both although in practice this sometimes required assumptions; conference programmes differ in their level of detail and some give the time for overall sessions rather than specific talks (when we came across this, we assumed equal division of time between speakers i.e. a 60min session with three speakers was assumed to represent 20mins per speaker).

Then there was the issue of determining gender. Again, we found ourselves forced to make assumptions. If we knew speakers personally or if they had “typical” gender specific names, allocating a gender seemed straightforward enough. For those names which did not immediately draw an association with one gender or another, we searched for the speaker on LinkedIn or via google, including specialty specific or geographical search terms to ensure we could find the right person (we were often able to pair speakers with their academic institutions) and where there was uncertainty we agreed a gender designation between authors – if we could not, the speaker was excluded. [Obviously we were working around a binary concept of gender which might be poorly reflective of the Emergency Medicine community and not one we authors necessarily hold.]

What did we find?

Yes, there are more male speakers than female and yes, perhaps more remarkably, men speak for longer than women do (as in, the average length of a talk given by a man was longer than that given by a woman).

We considered a sub-analysis of “keynote speakers” but discerning who these were was not as straightforward as we had thought it might be and too inconsistent for us to ultimately include in the paper. That said, the impression was that these presentations were almost overwhelmingly given by men.

But are the proportions unreasonable? Our results led to further conversation – what exactly should conferences be aspiring to? 50:50 gender representation or proportions which represent the current population within our specialty? We decided that we had to also look at the state of gender representation within Emergency Medicine itself to determine whether the proportions we are seeing in conferences is unreasonable. We also discussed whether speakers at conferences were more likely to be “senior” EM clinicians, and in particular academics, and that these individuals were even more likely to be men. We described this as a “function of the workforce” rather than a reflection of discrimination by conference organisers.

We were pleased to see that actually female speakers appeared in greater proportions than qualified specialists in Emergency Medicine for each sampled nation. That said, the proportion of time devoted to female speakers should surely by the same proportion as the speakers themselves, and this does not appear to be the case. We didn’t look in depth at the subject matter of talks given by women but superficially we noted more talks on paediatrics, obstetrics and gynaecology, medical education and “softer” topics such as leadership. It makes me rather wonder whether we would see starker underrepresentation at prehospital and trauma conferences although the mixed specialty buy-in for these makes comparison with workforce proportions much harder.

From GoogleDoc to Publication

The path to publication is rarely (never?) smooth – the paper was rejected by a couple of journals before it was accepted by the EMJ. Before we managed to achieve the holy grail of manuscript acceptance we received three “decisions” (read: rejections) by peer reviewers requesting pre-publication modifications, clarifications and even review of grammar by a native English speaker (which we subsequently delegated to Katrin as the only non-native English speaker among our authorship!). We wanted to share this process because it is often unseen; the amount of work and resubmission that goes into achieving a paper publication is considerable and occurs over a period of months.

We also thought it would be good to have an accompanying editorial – and whom better to undertake this task than our friends over at FemInEm, Dara Kass and Esther Choo. I thoroughly recommend you also take a look at their thoughts on our paper here (not FOAM) 2 .

What does it all mean for conferences and women speakers?

So what does our paper mean, for Emergency Medicine and for conferences?

Well, firstly our impression is correct: there are fewer female speakers than male speakers at the EM conferences we analysed. But that clearly isn’t the full story. Proportions are currently in line with (and possibly ahead of) proportions in the specialty, something that should be applauded.

But there is still work to do. All things being equal, talks given by women are shorter than talks given by men – and I don’t think all things are equal. And there are more questions to ask – what about the “keynote” talks, arguably more influential? Is our impression that women are more likely to talk on “family” and “soft” topics accurate too?

Whatever the answers, we should applaud the progress in our specialty but keep on pushing forward until we are surprised we ever had to have this conversation.

P.S. If you’re looking for awesome female speakers, look no further… (and if you are one, add yourself!)





Before you go please don’t forget to…

Carley S, Carden R, Riley R, et al. Are there too few women presenting at emergency medicine conferences? Emergency Medicine Journal. August 2016:emermed-2015-205581. doi:10.1136/emermed-2015-205581.
Kass D, Choo EK. When will we have enough women speakers in emergency medicine?: Table 1. Emergency Medicine Journal. August 2016:emermed-2016-206088. doi:10.1136/emermed-2016-206088.

Cite this article as: Natalie May, "JC: Are There Too Few Women Speakers at Conferences?," in St.Emlyn's, August 30, 2016, https://www.stemlynsblog.org/jc-women-speakers/.

3 thoughts on “JC: Are There Too Few Women Speakers at Conferences?”

  1. Victoria Brazil

    thanks again guys.
    So easy for us to have opinions.
    Bravo to the hard work actually doing the research and getting it published.
    Role modelling that excellent contribution we say women have. And of course your excellent male co-authors help send the message this isn’t just a ‘womens issue’

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Thanks so much for following. Viva la #FOAMed

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