We're in a State of Dysbiosis! Gender Inequity at Microbiome Conferences

Carly Rosewarne offers a perspective on Yet Another Mostly Male Microbiome Meeting

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The term “dysbiosis” is often used (albeit somewhat controversially) to describe the disordered ecology observed in microbial communities associated with disease states. In such systems proliferation of certain taxa occurs at the expense of others, leading to niche domination through competitive exclusion at the detriment of the host. Despite being a well-recognised hallmark of highly functional microbiomes, the importance of diversity is all too often ignored from a professional perspective. I find it intriguing and frustrating that many microbiologists fail to see the irony in continuing to perpetuate gender inequity, when it has been shown that diversity promotes innovative thinking.

From a global perspective, Australia can be a challenging place to be a scientist. Although we punch above our weight in terms of research output, our geographical isolation limits opportunities to attend international meetings, particularly when funding is tight. I often find myself in a position where I need to weigh up the benefits of networking and professional development against the cost to my budget and time spent away from my core research. Imagine my excitement when I came across something being held almost on my doorstep – the Nature Conference on Environmental and Human Microbiomes (#EHMicrobiome2017) in Singapore. This could be great! The flight between Adelaide to Singapore takes less than 8 hours (a short trip from down under) and there’s only a two hour time difference between the two cities. I could be there and back in a week with no jet lag and less financial damage compared to travelling to the US or Europe. I started to get ahead of myself, thinking about how I could make the most of the trip by visiting a couple of people I know at Nanyang Technological University. As I perused the program and invited speaker list for more information, my heart sank. It was a YAMMM, Yet Another Mostly Male Meeting.

Sadly YAMMMs have become all too common in my field, to the point where I am going to start adding another M for Microbiome. In a gastrointestinal context, where I have been focused for most of my post-PhD career, the Yet Another Mostly Male Microbiome Meeting concept would be analogous to trying to promote host health by selectively supporting proliferation of Firmicutes and inhibiting growth of Bacteroidetes. A reduced diversity scenario such as this would be suboptimal in terms of ecosystem function. I became despondent, thinking about all the amazing women microbiologists I know who could have contributed to the outcomes of the #EHMicrobiome2017 conference. Invited speakers were asked to participate in a closed brainstorming session around each of the themes on the final day so it didn’t make sense to me that diversity wasn’t considered important. Disappointed, I decided that I wasn’t going to spend my travel funds on attending this meeting.

Women can experience further marginalisation at conferences where gender imbalances exist. You might be interested to see what you can observe for yourself. Next time you’re at a meeting, pay attention to the diversity of chairs, speakers and attendees. Does this impact on how often women actively participate in discussions? Does the limited diversity make it harder for women to be included in social interactions? Elisabeth Bik, Science Writer at uBiome and founder of Microbiome Digest (IMHO the best summary of microbiome science available anywhere on the web!) wrote an honest personal account of the Keystone Symposium on Microbiome in Health and Disease, February 5-10 in Colorado. The report is available on the NPJ Biofilms and Microbiomes site here. She observed that despite almost achieving gender parity for the short talks (selected from abstract submissions), less than a third of the keynote speakers and less than a quarter of the moderators were women. In case this wasn’t disappointing enough, she (and others) were actively ignored by some of the invited speakers who appear to have been more interested in chatting amongst themselves. Such experiences may contribute to those insidious feelings of self-doubt that cripple many women in STEM. I have heard similar anecdotes before but many would not be willing to share them publicly, so I want to thank Elisabeth for calling it out and giving me the motivation to write this piece.

Improving gender representation on invited speaker panels at scientific conferences is not difficult. The most effective method is to use guidelines that specify a minimum target threshold, most preferably for each session but at least across the whole event. In the microbiome field there are no reasons why this is impractical since there is no shortage of highly qualified women who would be delighted to be asked! Additional consideration may be required in order to provide extra support (financial or otherwise) to those who have caring responsibilities. If diversity is also present amongst the organising committee these needs will be more readily identified. In the absence of formal guidelines, those responsible for selecting speakers must be able to accept and address criticisms whenever problems occur. The most disappointing aspect for me about #EHMicrobiome2017 was the unwillingness of the (all male) organising committee to do anything about it, even though it was brought to their attention on Twitter more than a month in advance. Elisabeth offered to point them towards her directory of Women in Microbiome Research. It currently consists of more than 450 names and even includes a handy form which makes it easy to add new suggestions. Do the field a favour – add your name, add the names of your friends and colleagues, and most importantly, use it! Provide it to people who come up with great lines such as “ We couldn’t find any women to speak ” or “We asked someone and she said no” or in this particular case “ We did improve our ratio but then had several last minute cancellations so we’re back where we started …. and now it’s a bit too late to ask someone to fly out to Singapore ”. Ugh! It’s unacceptable to make this statement without attempting to make things right. I have no doubt that the situation could have been improved. The end result – YAMMMM proceeds and the patriarchal reality of my career choice comes sharply into focus.

After the conference had finished I obtained a copy of the final program and was even more concerned by what I found. In the figure below I’ve highlighted the names of women in green and men in yellow. Of the thirty individuals listed in any capacity, only five were women (17%). The roles of session chairman (yes, this was the term used), introductory speaker, discussion leader and summary session speaker were exclusively performed by men. There were six keynote talks delivered by five women and 20 keynote talks delivered by 19 men (5/24 = 21% or 6/26 = 23%). No matter how you look at it, the numbers are incriminating. Taken together with the conversations on Twitter, I have no choice but to conclude that gender equity was not considered to be an important component of #EHMicrobiome2017.

Unfortunately my observations are not unique and this scenario occurs frequently at scientific meetings worldwide. Like me, many women in STEM will continue to enjoy a heady mix of frustration and disillusion until something changes. As individuals we have the power of choice over our actions. I am trying to make a difference by highlighting the consequences of gender inequity on a personal level. I can use social media to persuade conference organisers that addressing gender imbalance on speaker panels is the way forward. When that fails, I can vote with my feet and decide that my limited travel budget would be better spent elsewhere. As an early career researcher without much standing in the wider scientific community this may seem tokenistic, but I wonder what would happen if others did the same. Could we reach a point where such events fail to attract a crowd? I hope this post will motivate you to look at more than just the topic and location when considering attending a conference. If you’re in the enviable position that invited speaker invitations arrive regularly in your inbox, it’s not difficult to ask if the event has an equity policy and indicate that your attendance is contingent on a minimum standard being met. Better still, so-called “male champions of change” who openly refuse to participate in YAMMMs and use their professional networks to question others about their involvement are powerful allies for women in STEM. In the microbiome arena Jonathan Eisen is one individual who is leading by example – credit goes to him for coining the term YAMMM and for working to end gender inequity at meetings for at least the last five years.

I’d like to be able to look back on this post in another five years from now and write an update on how things have changed for the better, but one thing is for certain. In the words of George Bernard Shaw “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything”. It’s up to those of us who care enough to convince those in positions of influence that achieving equity and inclusion at conferences is a necessary and important step forward. In response to criticisms about #EHMicrobiome2017, a tweet from @NatureConf on January 10 stated “Yes we guide organizers towards gender & other diversity on programs. Written policies are currently under discussion”. It’s time to revisit that conversation. I am calling on Nature Conferences to take leadership in this space by acting as a champion for diversity. By implementing a policy for future events the Nature Research Group will provide a strong and irrefutable demonstration of their willingness to lead by example on this issue. The benefits from such a simple action will be immediately tangible. By proudly declaring no more YAMMMs we can move together towards the ultimate goal of curing conference dysbiosis, not just in terms of gender but for diversity in the broadest sense.

Carly Rosewarne

Research Scientist, CSIRO

I’m an early career microbiologist from Adelaide in Australia. In my role at CSIRO I use molecular biology and bioinformatics to study gut microbiomes in humans and livestock. I'm also a passionate advocate for developing a positive and inclusive network of EMCRs in Australia, working together towards a brighter future for our scientific community.


Go to the profile of Naomi Boxall
over 5 years ago
Great article! I'm going to actively scutinise conference programs now, and will similarly vote with my feet and encourage others to do so as well. And, when I assist with conference organisation, gender equity and other diversity will be high on my agenda. I hope Nature Conferences gets the message and responds. Please share if they do/don't.
Go to the profile of Sharon Longford
over 5 years ago
Thanks Carly for your very apt post! Gender equality needs to be considered from the outset when organising conference and keynote speakers, and not just an afterthought in the face of criticism when the preliminary program is released.
Go to the profile of Nicolas Fanget
over 5 years ago
The conference organisers would like to thank Dr Rosewarne for pointing out the imbalance of women to men speakers posted on our recent program for the Nature Conference on Environmental Microbial Biofilms and Human Microbiomes: Drivers of Future Sustainability, held in Singapore in February this year. Indeed, we completely agree with the need for gender diversity on our conference program, and a balance that reflects, in this case, the equal contributions that women and men make to research in the microbiome field. We also recognize that the low ratio of women to men speakers does not adequately reflect the wider microbiome community. While not visible on the program, we did initially invite a number of qualified women presenters, who had to decline our invitation for various reasons. Additionally, several confirmed women presenters were not able to attend. We acknowledge that more could, and should, have been done to equalize this balance. As regards the overall Nature Conference calendar of events, we have and are working with our conference partners and internal organizing committee members to achieve more balance on our programs. We are not always as successful as we would like to be at achieving these aims. As the conversations about important topics and who is best placed to present on them ensues, there is always a goal to invite recognized and insightful speakers and to achieve diversity on our programs. It's a delicate exercise, particularly so with some disciplines. Moving forward, we are pleased to report that a working group is being convened to discuss and create a written policy to be shared with our organizing committees for events starting in 2018. Additionally, cost of travel to our events is an important issue related to invitation acceptance. We do currently offer our invited speakers travel support to ensure travel costs will not be a limiting factor. Our working group will also discuss other possible factors to further accommodate a diverse program and audience. Regardless, we aim to improve gender balance at our events. Once our internal policies are in draft, we will invite a few members of the scientific community to provide feedback toward creating a policy that is both progressive and achievable. Organisers of Nature Conference on Environmental Microbial Biofilms and Human Microbiomes: Drivers of Future Sustainability Nature Conferences global team
Go to the profile of Barb McCracken
over 5 years ago
I'm an immunologist/microbiologist teaching at a dental school. This makes me one of the few non-dentists on faculty. I recently attended the American Dental Education Association meeting and the American Association for Dental Research meeting. I was happy to see the number of women speakers and session chairs at these two meetings. I will look through the programs to get a sense of the percentage, but off the top of my head, I'd say it was close to half. The chair of the board of directors for ADEA is a female and at that meeting, all of the plenary speakers (some non-science topics) were female. At the AADR meeting, one of the 3 main session speakers was female. I think the field of Dental Medicine may be a little ahead of the curve (I'm saying this without data - I'll have to look into it) on diversity. Now that you've gotten me thinking about it, I'm going to research this statement and advocate for more basic science women in dental education.
Go to the profile of Josh Franken
over 5 years ago
As far as I can tell, most people accept that it is good to have people of all races, nationalities, sexes etc... involved in science. In science, we need the smartest people, period, no matter where they come from. IQ, training and ability. Science needs to be a meritocracy no matter what the background. I think most would agree with this and thus, non whom are qualified should be excluded. I have a few problems with this article, if it is being written as more than an opinion piece. As an opinion piece, this is just fine. But as a factual piece this article I believe is a little dubious and misleading. My first problem with this article is this statement, and the linked article contained in the statement, "I find it intriguing and frustrating that many microbiologists fail to see the irony in continuing to perpetuate gender inequity, when it has been shown that diversity promotes innovative thinking." First, the statement. This is the boogie man statement. Please prove this statement. Show readers even a single scientists in microbiome whom you can prove is perpetuating gender inequity. Without some sort of proof, this is just, as I said, a boogie man statement. Also, I should probably note that most scientists know there is a difference between causality and correlation and also they are able to admit that just because more men are present in one area of science than women are, this does not prove that women are being discriminated against in that said science. My second problem here is the linked story under "diversity promotes innovative thinking," from the above statement. I clicked the link and read it. This is what really drove me to say that this piece can only be considered as an opinion piece. This link effectively linked to another opinion piece. I expected it to link to a scientific publication where there was some measure for testing and proving that diversity does in fact drive innovative thinking. Nope, no scientific publication here at all. Just an article with a couple of statistics in it. From what I can tell, this article suggests that having 2-D diversity can increase capture of market share and also help to capture new markets. I haven't consulted Webster's dictionary here, but I'm pretty sure market share and innovation don't have the same definitions, in spite of what the title of said article would suggest to you, after reading the context of the article. This is a factual misrepresentation and has no place being presented by a scientist or to scientists. I didn't want to make it too much further in this piece for the two reasons I listed above. It's hard for me to give an article a third chance after it presents and illogical conclusion and factual misrepresentation that are both apparent within the first paragraph. That said, since I wanted to comment, I read it all. This article actually hurts women getting into science as I'm sure it would be easy to prove that women are good for science. The company I work for has mostly women scientists and I've worked closely with them and they've all been amazing and brilliant. I mean absolutely fantastic and they have truly driven forward some of the discoveries that make microbiome work easier. I also see later in the article, you are again attempting to connect inequality of outcome with inequity of gender. Just because more men spoke than women, does not mean any sort of discrimination has occurred. And to go to a committee and demand they find more women speakers, "just cause" is offensive. Why has this world become a place that is so sexist that you can demand there be more female speakers, just because they are female. Please refer to what I said above about MERITOCRACY. This is science, it must be a meritocracy. Meritocracy means that in any given year there probably will be inequality of outcome. Just cause, chance! Now, you want to prove your committee in question is sexist. You should have put together a list of highly qualified females in this field. Females you know are more qualified than some of the male speakers and can prove it. You'd have to define a criteria for what means qualified or more qualified, which itself could be questioned but at least we'd have a starting place for a logical discussion at that point. If you put this list together and brought it to the committee you could force them into an awkward position of explaining why each persons on that list are not included. If many of them weren't even asked, and they are truly qualified, and the committee refused to ask, you might have something substantial. Then, the correct move is to remove the discriminators from the position of authority. But again, we need some sort of verifiable, checkable proof. I'm going to end this by stating that most educated and logical people are rejecting the idea that inequality of outcome means inequality of opportunity. This is probably why you had such a hard time convincing the committee to change anything. You know the best way to change things in the future. Get yourself qualified enough to be on that committee. Say it with me now. Meritocracy, meritocracy, meritocracy. Oh, and science needs proof, not the assumption that correlation equals causation. Now, how long will it take my comment to be deleted? I'll save it just in case. By the way, feel free to respond. If I've missed something here I am open to logical and factual arguments.
Go to the profile of J Wapatoo
over 5 years ago
Of course inequality of outcome doesn't mean inequality of opportunity. It's pretty obvious just because there is no any chance in the Universe to carry out the research where everyone initially has absolutely the same opportunities: individuals, even twins, have as different so many parameters — behavior, tactics, strategies, reactions, take alone physical possibilities and mere chances. So inequality of outcome in general is a natural consequence of always dynamically changing opportunities while individuals interact with each other and with the environment. It doesn't mean, of course, that someone should be oppressed due to their gender, nationality or social background (oh, the latter is perfectly drown in haranguing of #GenderBalance subject) and deprived of opportunities. But creating artificial quotes for promoting some individuals basing only on some of their parameters (even one parameter in #GenderBalance case!) is a sheer nonsense, shameful for scientific community: choosing to work for science you chose intellectual challenge first and you expect be challenged likewise even your expectations'd be betrayed. But if you're chosen further because of your gender — it's a shame and motivation for career sharks, not intellectuals: so you get more shoddy research from females, you are actually making even worse the positions of intellectual female who would abhor selling themselves by gender! By the way, have you noticed how those propagandists of «equality» (of course it's a fake equality) motivate women? — cheating with numbers, hacking statistics, they don't even motivate women for intellectual job, but for career — this is a code for females «just like us» — closer to the bodies of males careerists… What a disgrace… Work ethic is enough; for anyone who puts intelligence above gender and professional skills above social biases — #GenderBalance is an offense. Whoever tries to substitute work ethic with #GenderBalance and promotes career sharks by patching social biases with stats — is a fraud.