Who gets to talk?

I recently returned from the Biophysical Society Meeting in San Francisco. For my overview, see here. This post is about some things that troubled me, and that I've been thinking about a lot since.


Very early on at BPS, I noticed a pattern. A speaker would finish their talk, the session chair would open the floor to questions, and a line of men would form at the mic.

I started counting. And then I started tallying up the speakers and chairs, too, while I was at it. My results are below.

Men Women % Female
Speakers 39 12 24%
Question Askers 58 20 26%
Session Chairs 21 10 32%

Now, do keep in mind that these are only the sessions I attended, and only the ones where I saw the full Q&A session, if it occurred (sessions running behind sometimes skipped Q&A). I didn't note how many questions were asked, or how many of those "questions" were actually statements.1 I just tallied the people queued up at the microphone, and used my own judgment based on appearance and voice to categorize them as male or female.

I also did not record order, which I now wish I had done because I can tell you anecdotally that men almost always got the first question. I know women asked the first question at least twice (one of those was my advisor, kudos to her for asking a good question, too), but by far the questions came from men. At one session, four men went to the mic without a single question from a woman.

So how does this compare to the gender balance of the attendees? Well, I can't say for sure, since I don't have those numbers. What I can say is that the conference appeared roughly even to me. Maybe it was 60/40 (more men), but it was close enough to even that I didn't feel like a girl in the boy's club. Also noteworthy (though I really wish it wasn't): there was a line for the ladies' room. Another attendee in line remarked on this as we waited, and though I'd have liked a shorter wait, it was a nice confirmation that women were well-represented.

I don't have numbers for current BPS memberships. The most recent stats I have are from 2010, and at that point only 22% of members were female. There's no way only 22% of BPS 2014 attendees were female. There were a lot more women than that.

More voices

So. Those numbers for the sessions. If membership in attendance is 30-40% female,2 then session chairs in a similar ratio is understandable. I'd like to see more women as speakers, in similar proportions as for attendees. With the question-asking, though, I'm not sure what I want. On the one hand, I'd say I want more questions from women. But maybe what I really want is an environment that welcomes questions from women.

Or maybe I don't want that at all because that is a difficult cultural thing to tackle. So maybe what I want is some alternative way to ask questions rather than a queue for a microphone. The BPS app could have been a good use for this, if it were better designed and considerably more reliable.

Part of the trouble I see is that people who asked questions were publicly recognized – if it was a good question, they were catching the audience's attention. (If it was a crappy question, e.g. hogging the microphone for seven questions or a diatribe, the audience might just roll their eyes.) If women are not asking as many questions and giving as many talks, they are not getting as much (positive) attention. And that's no good.

Shouting & silencing

One more note about gender balance at BPS: there was a poster I was very interested in, that I stopped by to read early in the day, before the presentation time slot. I'm glad I went early because when the presentation time came, a small crowd of young men were gathered around it, badgering the presenter in loud voices. I'm sure he was equal to it, he's an experienced guy with enough of a reputation to draw that crowd (including me), but those boys3 put me off completely. I did not feel welcome in that conversation at all. And since they stayed, I left. I'd really have liked to talk to the presenter, but I was not going to compete for his attention.

I was pretty happy with the gender balance among attendees to BPS, but I think there's room for improvement when it comes to the visibility of women. Speaking at a conference "counts" for more than simply attending. We need to let women have chances to be seen and heard. And it would be awfully nice if they didn't have to shout over the men to do it.

1: I heard one "question" that amounted to "You didn't cite our 10-year old paper that contradicts your new findings." It may be a fair point, but it's not a question, guys.

2: As I said earlier, I suspect it was closer to 40% than 30%.

3: Yes, "boys." They were full of hot air and bravado.