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Spotlight on international conferences & women in STEM

Attending international conference is a big part of my job, to show my research results and discuss with peers about current and future challenges. However, as a young woman it is not always a pleasant experience.

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), less than 30% of the world's researchers are female. In technological and scientific conferences, this often translates into the so-called “manference” (all-men conference) and “manel” (all-men panel). Moreover, a study from 2019 (#TheConferenceStudy1), conducted by Emerald Archer and Brady Hahn, reports that 45% of women experienced sexual harassment or unwanted attention from male peers at international conferences.

On a positive note, many actions are being taken to reduce the gender gap.

In June 2019, the Director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Francis Collins made an official statement, writing “I will expect a level playing field, where scientists of all backgrounds are evaluated fairly for speaking opportunities. If that attention to inclusiveness is not evident in the agenda, I will decline to take part. I challenge other scientific leaders across the biomedical enterprise to do the same.”.

Pushing for more female speakers, however, can make women wonder if they are invited only to fill in some sort of quota. For this reason, it is important that organizers make clear to the invited speaker why they are being selected. Jonathan Andrew Eisen, an American evolutionary biologist who advocates for gender equality in STEM fields, encourage women to seize the opportunity regardless of the reason why they are offered it, because having more female speakers at conferences is a key point to end this.

He also suggests to organizers that they understand why female speakers decline the invitation to explore possible alternatives. For instance, childcare facilities or extra grants could be offered to facilitate the presence of women in conference, who may refuse because of family commitments.

I believe that diversity is not only a social need for a fair and equal world, but it brings an essential asset to the scientific and technological innovation and development, increasing creativity and productivity. We should all take action to end the gender gap by speaking up, promoting gender equality and report gender discrimination. We all can and must contribute to achieve gender balance in international conferences.

With thanks - this article was written by Marta Luffarelli.

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