Grassroots initiatives are trying to improve gender balance at conferences

The leaky pipeline that leaves women underrepresented in research is undisputed, with numerous studies highlighting the lower numbers of women working in certain fields. And statistics of conference speakers reveals another layer of inequality, where women are often underrepresented after gender imbalances in the field are accounted for, particularly in the case of invited speakers. (See herehere and here for published studies.)

US study published earlier this year has shown a correlation between the numbers of female invited speakers and the presence of a female convener. The authors concluded that the reasons for the underrepresentation of women at conferences remain unclear and need further study. But it is likely that the implicit bias we all carry from a lifetime of conditioning by society – men and women alike – plays at least some part.

Those women missing out on speaking lose out on networking and the boost to their CV provided by a presentation, particularly if the talk is an invited one. It also has a discouraging effect on younger women attending the conferences, as there are even fewer female role models for them to look up to. And if a section of a research community is not participating fully, arguably the entire community loses out and fails to reach its full potential.

A number of grassroots initiatives have popped up to tackle the problem, both in academia and in the wider professional world, mostly by drawing attention to it and encouraging discussion. Five hundred and ninety five people have signed a petition started by a group of academics in 2012. The Swedish campaign Tacka Nej has a broader scope, with supporters in academia, the media and publishing, business and the public sector, and has received around 250 signatures.

Roughly translating as “No, Thanks”, the campaign was launched in November last year and on the back of its success, a sister campaign (Takk Nei) started in Norway in March. It was founded by Thomas Frostberg, a business columnist working for the newspaper Sydsvenskan, communications adviser Fredrik Wass and Marcin de Kaminski, a PhD student at Lund University with support from activism group Equalisters.

As the campaign slogan (also a Twitter hashtag) suggests, those men supporting it are encouraged to say ‘No, thanks’ when invited to join a board, committee or panel, or speak at a conference where there are few or no women participating. It has received international praise, including from Melinda Gates, co-chair of the philanthropic Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In a chat on the phone, Frostberg told me he started to take action as an individual back in March 2011. While writing a column to celebrate International Women’s Day, he became frustrated that he was telling the same story year after year – that gender equality was improving, but that it was happening slowly. He made a decision to make a personal commitment and encouraged others to join him.

“I challenged the business community in Sweden where I live and work to make personal commitments instead of just nice words. And to set an example I promised I wouldn’t do any moderation of panels or conferences without at least some ground level of diversity on the panels.”

Back then, almost all the panels at the conferences Frostberg was invited to moderate were either all-male or male-dominated. But when he stated his position, in all but a few cases, conference organisers responded within days with a rejigged panel with more women. Since the formal launch of Tacka Nej last year, around half of the requests he’s received have come from organisations who have already taken steps to ensure diversity on their panels. While he’s pleased to see the increase in women on panels, he says the deeper goal of the campaign is to change attitudes.

“You can always fix the numbers at one conference… that’s fairly easy,” says Frostberg. “The bigger picture here is to change the mindset, so an organisation starts looking at diversity on panels from the very beginning, rather than trying to fix it at the very end just before the conference.”

Head of the Department of Physics at Lund University and Tacka Nej supporter, Knut Deppert agrees the campaign is about attitudes, rather than numbers, and says that the low numbers of women in physics is no excuse for a lack of representation at conferences. “There are competent women in all subfields of physics,” though he adds that those women in senior positions in relatively short supply risk being overloaded with invitations.

Both Deppert and Frostberg refute the claim that the approach gives women an unfair advantage. “This is not about taking competent men and replacing them with less competent women, rather the opposite – this is about recruiting from the whole competence pool,” says Frostberg. Overall, the Swedish campaign has been received positively, with signatories including CEOs, board chairs, editors and university faculty staff.

Deppert and Vice-Chancellor of Lund University, Per Eriksson signed up, like Frostberg, to set an example. Eriksson has been a vocal supporter, encouraging all university Vice-Chancellors in Sweden to follow his lead.

Frostberg welcomes support for Tacka Nej from outside of Sweden, but says ideally, individual countries should set up their own campaigns. He and his co-founders are keen to support overseas efforts – so watch this space, we might see “Tacka Nej” translated into more languages. Would you support the campaign?


Jenny Martin, a professor in structural biology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia has explored the subject on her blog, Cubistcrystal – and has curated some interesting links to related resources.

You can find information on the petition for academics here.


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