Hi Academics!

It's a new calendar year and the 2016 Spring (or Winter) Semester is upon us. Academically, it halfway through the year, but it’s a perfect time to take stock. Let's talk about invited research presentations and conference plenary sessions. Who's getting invited and why?

Most departments have regular presentation series – some call them Seminars or Colloquia. Some universities even hold large auditorium events, hosting exciting speakers who are heavy weights or up-and-coming stars in their field. Many of us are preparing abstracts for the summer conference circuit. About those keynote presentations and plenary talks. How are the line ups for your department seminars and your conferences looking? Off the top of my head, I cannot name a single field in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) that doesn't tend to have homogeneous panels at major meetings.

I want every academic reading this post to do, no matter where they are in the professional ladder, to go revisit the roster of (seminar) speakers you had last semester. And if your spring semester roster has been announced, look at that one, too. Does your speaker series pass the Bechdel test? Or to be more clear, does your speaker series include men and women of color or people who identify as LGBT or QIA? How well do your seminar topics accommodate individuals with disabilities? And the same thing can be asked about the professional conferences you attended in the last year(s). Who were the keynote speakers? Who gave plenary talks? Could your professional society pass the Racial Bechdel test?

In other words, how diverse is your dais?

Let's make a New Year's Resolution: Let's resolve to Diversify the Dais and get more speakers at science conferences and science seminars that come from underrepresented groups.

A little more than a year ago I asked my Twitter followers (which leans heavy on the academic science side) if they could name 5 non-white colleagues (peers, not students or trainees they were advising) in their field? At the time I was trying to make a point about the differences in effort in the pipeline. Sure, there was a lot of attention (and back patting I might add) for how many students of color researchers brag about having mentored could bring in their lab or advise, but when it comes to access and retention of talent at more permanent and professional levels is science, representation falls flat. Way flat. And the explanations for why there aren’t more professors from under-represented groups begin to have that familiar ring of “we couldn’t find any”. So my retort is, “Well, who do you know?”

Let’s start at the beginning. In order to diversify the professoriate (from the pool of individuals who ALREADY have the credentials), folks need to have a real long hard conversation with themselves (and their colleagues).

Do I know any Black, Latino, Native American, LGBT people in my field?
Am I making myself intentionally aware of who is in my field?
Do I have an antenna to where these individuals might be or where they may be gathering?

This gathering place could be an actual place or conference or could be professional societies or informal online networks. But know that they exist and I talk about them often (Cough: SACNAS, ESA SEEDS Program, NoBCCHE, FASEB MARC Program, AISESNSBE, NSBP).

4 Scientists from the 2015 TED Fellows class, l-r
Dr. Patience Mthunzi, from South Africa, Biophotonics Physicist
Dr. Danielle N. Lee, from USA, Zoology & Animal Behavior Scientist
Dr. Jedidah Isler, from USA, Astrophysicist
Dr. Aomawa Shields, from USA, Astronomer & Astrobiologist 

And thanks to academic men, like Dr. Jonathan Eisen, who are willing to put their weight on this issue, the conversation is starting and there is some action being taken. (Eisen has been known to turn down invitations from institutions that don't demonstrate gender parity in their invitation. Imagine this level of activism being demonstrated across all academic fields and in support of men and women of color, international scientists from developing nations, those with disabilities, and/or those who identify as LGBTQIA?)

Basic: Can you name five Women in your field?

Level up: Can you name five non-white men or women in your field?

Advanced: Can you name five LGBT or QIA individuals in your field?

Master level: Can you name five individuals with different abilities in your field?

As your assemble lists for department seminars and attend conferences, always ask out loud: Who’s not on this dais that should be?

This is not a competition. In fact, I encourage you to work with 1 or a few other colleagues in building these lists. That’s how networking works. The crowd can gain more insight and information more quickly than individuals because of different skills and strengths and information access.

What to do with these lists?

Start inviting these people to seminars to talk about their research/work. Nominate these individuals for endowed lectureships. Submit their names to steering committees to give keynote and plenary lectures at your professional society conference.

And with the philosophy of DELIBERATE & INTENTIONAL Diversity and INCLUSION in mind, ask EVERY seminar speaker who they think should also be invited to give a seminar. Watch your list expand.

And share your list with other colleagues.


Also read: Ten Simple Rules to Achieve Conference Speaker Gender Balance by Jennifer L. Martin & Philip E. Bourne at PLoS Computational Biology