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"There aren't enough women."

"A quota system would be needed."

"Change will take a generation."

Those are some of the answers that have been given by organizers of scholarly meetings for having relatively few women on panels at annual meetings, and for having plenty of panels with no women at all. Many women have been rejecting such answers -- and some have even talked about staying away from sessions with only male speakers.

That may not be necessary at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.

The society roughly achieved gender parity at its annual meeting this year, with 48.5 percent of presentations coming from female scholars. As recently as the 2012 annual meeting, the percentage of women speakers was 25.9 percent.

An article published Tuesday in the journal mBio outlines how the association achieved the shift in a relatively short period of time. Consider these statistics about the percentage of female speakers (which went way up) and the percentage of all-male panels (which were nearly eliminated).

Gender Shifts at Microbiology Meeting

Year Percentage of Female Speakers Percentage of All-Male Panels
2011 26.7% 35.7%
2012 25.9% 31.4%
2013 36.2% 23.0%
2014 44.4% 29.6%
2015 48.5% 4.1%

The mBio article -- by Arturo Casadevall, the Alfred and Jill Sommer Professor and Chair of the W. Harry Feinstone Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at Johns Hopkins University -- described the need for associations to be committed on the issue and steps that worked.

In this case, the association took three steps that led to the changes: (1) The program committee for the conference was provided with data about patterns in the gender gap among speakers. (2) More women were recruited as "conveners," those who organize particular sessions. (3) Conveners were urged to avoid all-male sessions. At the same time, there were no absolute bans, and a small number of all-male sessions took place.

But the paper suggests that the shifts were interrelated. For example, from 2011 to 2015, the percentage of convener panels with at least one woman increased from 38.8 to 48.1. And the paper notes that past research has found that the participation of women on program or panel committees is directly associated with more women being invited to present.

Casadevall's paper also stressed the importance to a scholarly field such as microbiology in making such shifts. "Among ASM members, women now constitute the majority of the students and postdocs and therefore represent the future of the society," he wrote. "Thus, it is important to convey the message to the next generation that in this field there is no glass ceiling with regard to gender."

And he also noted the impact of these invitations on professors' career advancement. "Invitations to speak at major meetings are prized by scientists because they provide visibility and the ability to present their work efficiently to an audience of peers. Speaking invitations are used by faculty promotion and tenure committees as evidence of external recognition and thus can be critical to academic and professional advancement," he wrote. "Studies have shown that women’s participation at meetings is often underrepresented relative to their numbers. In fact, women lag in a variety of academic areas despite increases in the percentage of women scientists."

Perhaps most importantly, he noted that significant change could be made in a relatively short time span of a few years. "The near eradication of all-male sessions ... shows that it is possible to effect change in this type of session format and thus avoid any subtle negative messages to female scientists in training and younger faculty members," he wrote.

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