Women Scientists Stress Need For Visibility At Conferences

It's hard to overestimate the importance of professional meetings to any scientist's career. But it is particularly crucial for women to attend, organize, and present their work at conferences, according to successful female scientists. OBSTACLES: "Women have lower visibility, less mentorship, [and] fewer female colleagues per department," observes Lawrence Berkeley Lab's Mina Bissell. "Women have lower visibility, less mentorship, [and] fewer female colleagues per department," observes cell

Alison Mack
Nov 23, 1997

It's hard to overestimate the importance of professional meetings to any scientist's career. But it is particularly crucial for women to attend, organize, and present their work at conferences, according to successful female scientists.

OBSTACLES: "Women have lower visibility, less mentorship, [and] fewer female colleagues per department," observes Lawrence Berkeley Lab's Mina Bissell.
"Women have lower visibility, less mentorship, [and] fewer female colleagues per department," observes cell biologist Mina Bissell, director of the Division of Life Sciences at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. Moreover, she adds, they "have to fight the perception that they are not as competitive [as men]. Thus, it is more important for women to be exposed to other colleagues' work and ideas, be seen and heard, and network outside their institutions." In order to take full advantage of meetings, Bissell and others advise women to make themselves visible by asking questions at symposia, giving invited talks, and serving on organizing committees.

CONSCIOUS EFFORT: Stanford's Helen Blau recently organized a session for an upcoming meeting that will consist entirely of women speakers.
Women often account for nearly half the audience at biological meetings. Despite their increasing numbers at such professional gatherings, women rarely represent a similar fraction of invited speakers. Among the few women who do get invitations, most report getting many more than they can accept. "There's a real threshold [all] scientists have to overcome before they get on the meeting 'circuit,'" reports Helen Blau, chairwoman of the department of molecular phar- macology and director of gene therapy technology development at Stanford University School of Medicine. That hurdle is especially high for women, she notes, not because of conscious discrimination, but because mostly male organizing committees favor established speakers and members' friends. Thus, Blau says, "we do need to make an active effort to recruit women as invited speakers."

Although giving invited talks is the most obvious way scientists gain recognition at conferences, it's not the only one. Even if they are not making a formal presentation, attendees should use meetings to expand their professional networks and discuss their work, advises Jaleh Daie, a professor of botany at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and president of the Washington D.C.-based Association for Women in Science (AWIS). Unfortunately, women often do not take full advantage of networking opportunities at professional conferences, she notes.

"I have always encouraged women to attend scientific meetings, even if they have to spend their own money to do it," Daie says. "That's where you get the latest information- though not necessarily at formal presentations. You can learn a lot by hanging out, talking with people informally."

Making the most of such conversations is a skill-one that men generally acquire by emulating male mentors and joining an already thriving male network. But that's less often the case for female scientists, many of whom don't have good networking skills, according to Daie. That's true in part because most female scientists don't have ready access to informal networks in their places of employment, she continues; women tend to socialize less with their mostly male colleagues, who often get to know each other through stereotypically male activities such as sports.

So it's especially important for female scientists to make the most of networking opportunities at conferences, Daie says. To do so, women "need to go beyond just meeting new people" and instead to lay the groundwork for professional relationships. "The best way to get to know another person's expertise is to share your own," she advises. "At first, you look for a way to give something to the other person and try to get to know them on a substantial level. Later, you can identify ways to support each other."

To young scientists who are attending their first conferences, Daie offers the following advice: "Consider meetings to be working events. Don't just sit passively in sessions or wait to be approached; choose a few people about whose work you want to learn more, seek them out, introduce yourself, and ask them questions." According to Daie, the most productive time at meetings is spent in one-on-one conversations. Talks, she notes, "will be published sooner or later."

DATA NEEDED: Princeton's Virginia Zakian has collected examples of meetings to illustrate that all-male committees tend to invite few female speakers.
Another benefit of conference attendance can be obtained through taking advantage of sessions geared specifically toward career advancement for female scientists, now offered at many society gatherings. One such meeting-within-a- meeting, that of Women in Neuroscience, was held at the Society for Neuroscience conference in New Orleans October 28 through November 1. This year, it included a mentoring program that paired senior women neuroscientists and those with less experience.

Making presentations at scientific meetings is generally more critical for advancement among scientists in academia and government than for those in industry. But industrial scientists also value conference participation, according to molecular biologist Barbara Mazur, research manager for agricultural biotechnology at DuPont in Wilmington, Del. Mazur says she finds the most rewarding aspect of attending meetings is renewing friendships that have grown over years of conference-going. One such relationship, developed during 15 years of conversations at scientific meetings, may lead to an important collaboration between her company and a research institute, she reports.

Mazur adds that she's dismayed to find herself among relatively few female scientists who regularly give invited talks: "I see so many women in the audience, but when I'm organizing a meeting and looking for distinguished speakers, I find myself wondering where all the women went."

How to get the most out of meetings:
  1. Make yourself visible: ask questions at symposia, give invited talks, serve on conference organizing committees.

  2. Treat meetings as working events. Make a plan to meet several scientists whose work interests you; introduce yourself and ask questions.

  3. Use meetings to extend your professional network; get to know others' expertise by sharing yours.

How to get speaking invitations:

  1. If your work is appropriate-and especially if you have hot data-ask organizers to be invited to speak at their meeting or session.

  2. Volunteer to give talks whenever you can. Bring your slides even to conferences where you're not scheduled to talk, in case there's an opening.

  3. Invited speakers often reciprocate, so offer to help organize seminar series, symposia or local or national meetings.
Other scientists-particularly biologists-have been asking a similar question when they find only a few women's names (and often the same ones year after year) on meeting programs. When AWIS conducted a limited survey of scientific symposia attended by its members in 1993 (the most recent year for which figures are available), the association found that fewer than 25 percent of speakers at most meetings were women. When organizing panels consisted solely of men, only 7 percent of speakers, on average, were women (K. Austin, AWIS Magazine, 22[4]:10, July/August 1993).

Many scientists agree with Blau that the primary reason for this discrepancy is the relative dearth of women on organizing committees. Several women interviewed for this article say they have seen plenty of anecdotal evidence-but no rigorous analysis-to support the contention that all-male committees tend to invite a much smaller proportion of female speakers than do committees with female members.

'PUSH YOURSELF': UC-San Francisco's Zena Werb notes that it's important for women to volunteer to give talks.
Virginia Zakian, a professor of molecular biology at Princeton University, has collected several examples of meetings that illustrate this apparent bias. Among those she described in a talk at last December's Women in Cell Biology meeting (part of the American Society for Cell Biology's annual conference in San Francisco): Nature's 15th International Conference on neuroscience in 1992, at which three of four sessions were chaired by men. In those sessions, all of the speakers were also men; in the single session chaired by a woman, however, three of five speakers (including the chairperson) were women. Zakian stresses the anecdotal nature of such information but says "it indicates the need to gather hard data" on how speakers are chosen for scientific meetings.

Female scientists who do get speaking invitations say it takes more than doing important work and giving polished, exciting talks. First and foremost, note several circuit regulars, women need to ask to be invited to appropriate meetings. "You have to push yourself," comments Zena Werb, a professor of anatomy at the University of California, San Francisco, "but you should realize that men do it all the time. When I organize meetings, men call me and volunteer to give talks, but women rarely do." She adds that "even if I say no, I remember them if a slot opens up or when I'm planning another symposium."

BE PREPARED: NIDR's Hynda Kleinman recommends taking slides to small meetings, "as often someone doesn't show up and they need participants to speak."
Another way to get invitations to talk is to give them, says Hynda Kleinman, a research chemist and chief of the cell biology section at the National Institute for Dental Research. "I run the seminar series for my lab, and you would not believe the number of times I invite people to give a talk who reciprocate" by inviting her to talk to their group. Kleinman also recommends that scientists seek every chance to present their work. For example, she advises, "always take your slides to Gordon Conferences and other small meetings, as often someone doesn't show up and they need participants to speak."

Even less-than-perfect presentations can benefit those who are bold enough to give them. Although the projector at her first-ever conference talk spat her slides onto the projection booth floor, graduate student Kylie Shanahan reports that she still got compliments for remaining cool under pressure. Shanahan, who is studying plant pathology at the University of Tasmania in Australia, says she came away from the conference "more enthusiastic than I've ever felt about my project."

In order to promote greater participation by women in scientific meetings, both the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health have established policies requiring organizers to document their efforts to include "representative" numbers of women among speakers at agency- funded conferences. These policies, says Zakian, "are in my opinion the best thing that's ever happened to women speakers," but she also notes instances in which they have not been strictly enforced.

Conference organizers and session chairpersons can do several things to encourage presentations by prominent female colleagues, according to Stanford's Blau. For example, organizers should consider inviting female scientists who have outstanding publication records but who are not yet "on the circuit," she advises.

In addition, Blau encourages women to offer to organize meetings, "and when they do, they should make a conscious effort to invite female speakers." She reports that a session she recently organized for an upcoming meeting of the Gene Therapy Society will consist entirely of women speakers. "I felt these women were all doing good work and deserved to be heard," she says. "It'll be interesting to see how they're received."

Blau's conscious choice of female speakers illustrates her belief that all women are more likely to succeed in science if today's leaders make an effort to "bring other women along." Ultimately, she believes that when representative- rather than mere token-numbers of women speak at scientific meetings, "both men and women will be more comfortable."

Alison Mack is a freelance science and medical writer based in Wilmington, Del.