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Female representation at Australasian specialty conferences

Lucy J Modra, Danielle E Austin, Sarah A Yong, Emily J Chambers and Daryl Jones
Med J Aust 2016; 204 (10): 385. || doi: 10.5694/mja16.00097
Published online: 6 June 2016

A gender imbalance has been noted at medical conferences internationally, with typically more male than female speakers.1-3

We conducted a retrospective observational study to assess the proportion of female program speakers and the time allocated to them at the annual scientific meetings (ASMs) of six Australasian specialty colleges from 2012 to 2014 (n = 17). For 2013, female ASM representation was compared with published data on female workforce participation for each specialty.4 The six colleges evaluated were the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine (ACEM), Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists (ANZCA), College of Intensive Care Medicine of Australia and New Zealand (CICM), Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP), Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) and Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG).

We audited official ASM programs and included all sessions with allocated speaking times. We compared distributed data using the Mann–Whitney U test and categorical variables using a χ2 test. A two-sided P < 0.05 was taken to indicate statistical significance.

The proportion of male speakers exceeded the proportion of female speakers at every conference (Box). The proportion of female speakers ranged from 8% (3/37) at CICM 2012 to 42% (39/93) at RANZCOG 2012. At seven of the 17 ASMs (all RACS ASMs, CICM 2012 and 2014, ANZCA 2012 and RANZCOG 2013), the median time allocated per speaker was significantly higher for male than female speakers. At the other ten conferences, there was no statistically significant difference.

In 2013, for all colleges except RACS, the proportion of female speakers was lower than the proportion of female doctors in the corresponding specialty workforce; however, this did not reach statistical significance. In contrast, the proportion of female speakers at RACS 2013 exceeded the proportion of women in the surgical workforce (P < 0.001).

Our results indicate that the gender imbalance among college ASM speakers largely reflects gender representation in the specialty workforce.

The longer median speaking time for male speakers may reflect the greater proportion of men at senior levels in the specialty workforce. As ASM programs did not always distinguish between invited speakers and those selected from abstract submissions, we could not compare these selection pathways. A limitation of the workforce comparison is that each specialty workforce includes practitioners who do not undertake research and are unlikely to speak at conferences; conversely, ASM speakers are not exclusively drawn from the specialty workforce.

Our findings raise an important question — should the proportion of female speakers at conferences reflect their representation within the college membership? Or should conference organisers be striving for greater female representation? Improving the balance of male and female speakers at conferences may improve workforce gender balance by encouraging women to pursue research and advancing the careers of female speakers. Colleges represent themselves to the medical community through their ASM programming choices. Efforts to improve gender balance in the medical community should therefore include consideration of speakers at medical conferences.

Box – Proportion of annual scientific meeting (ASM) speakers, by gender


ACEM = Australasian College for Emergency Medicine. ANZCA = Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists. CICM = College of Intensive Care Medicine of Australia and New Zealand. RACP = Royal Australasian College of Physicians. RACS = Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. RANZCOG = Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. * RANZCOG did not hold an ASM in 2014.

Received 28 January 2016, accepted 12 April 2016

  • Lucy J Modra1
  • Danielle E Austin2
  • Sarah A Yong3
  • Emily J Chambers1
  • Daryl Jones1

  • 1 Austin Health, Melbourne, VIC
  • 2 Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, NSW
  • 3 Alfred Hospital, Melbourne, VIC

Correspondence: lucy.modra@uon.edu.au

Competing interests:

Lucy Modra, Danielle Austin and Sarah Yong are all members of the Women in Intensive Care Medicine Network.

  • 1. Metaxa V. Is this (still) a man’s world? Crit Care 2013; 17: 112.
  • 2. Castaneda S, Roman-Blas JA, Cohen-Solal M, et al. Is lecturing in Rheumatology Satellite Symposia a male attribute? Rheumatol Int 2014; 34: 287-288.
  • 3. Fesperman SF, West CS, Bischoff CJ, et al. Study characteristics of abstracts presented at the annual meetings of the southeastern section of the American Urological Association (1996-2005). J Urol 2008; 179: 667-671.
  • 4. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Medical workforce 2013. Medical practitioners overview tables 2013. Canberra: AIHW, 2014. http://www.aihw.gov.au/workforce/medical/2013/additional (accessed Sept 2015).

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access_time 10:58, 7 June 2016
Bryan Walpole

Astonishing conclusions, bordering on political correctness.
Having been on the organising committee for about 50 conferences, the subject of gender of the speaker never entered discussion, as criteria are generally related to the conference themes, practice issues, relevant research,or international trends,
Do the authors think that we should had a balance of Gay presenters, over/under 40 years old, part timers, non English speaking background, AMC qualified grads,
What has gender got to do with the quality of an academic meeting?

Competing Interests: male gender.

Dr Bryan Walpole
Thaumaturgy

access_time 04:12, 8 June 2016
Lucy Modra

Thank you for your interest in our article Brian.

There is a large body of literature documenting the measurable bias against women in selection processes, even when applicants are assessed on apparently objective criteria (see for example Jena et al ‘Sex Differences in Academic Rank in US Medical Schools in 2014’ JAMA 2015: 314: 1149-58; Wennerås and Wold ‘Nepotism and Sexism in Peer Review Nature 1997:387: 341-343). This unconscious gender bias is likely to be amplified in informal selection processes such as invitations to speak at conferences.

Interestingly, there is some evidence that groups claiming to select based on merit alone are more likely to be biased in their decision making than those making no appeal to merit (Castilla and Benard, ‘The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations’ Admin Science Quarterly 2010:55:543-76). The fact gender was not discussed by conference conveners does not demonstrate that gender was not a factor in speaker selection.

Increasing the diversity of conference speakers- including gender, sexual orientation and ethnic background- can generate novel research ideas and lead to a conference more responsive to the needs of the diverse patient population served.

Convening a specialty conference is a mammoth task, with multiple competing considerations such as conference theme and presenting local and international research. We believe that gender is one important consideration in this process.

Competing Interests: Co-convener of the Women in Intensive Care Medicine Network

Dr Lucy Modra
Austin Health

access_time 07:44, 8 July 2016
Gerard Fennessy

The editor:
I congratulate Dr Modra, et al, on having the courage to publically address this issue. I am also impressed that they have taken a scientific approach, rather than an emotive, unquantifiable and anecdotal approach, which would probably have been the easier option.

However, Dr Walpole raises very important issues.

Thus, I would be interested in the amount of women who were on the organising committees of the "about 50 conferences" that Dr Walpole has sat on. This is almost 3 times the number of conferences that Dr Modra, et al, evaluated.

Is the gender imbalance on these organising committees a contributing factor to the number of women speakers at ASMs? Or perhaps there are other factors at play, maybe directly related to the committee members' personal beliefs?

I have only sat on 4 conference organising committees myself so I am certainly in no position to provide comment.

However, with "about 50" conferences under his belt, it appears Dr Walpole is in a very strong position to provide expert evidence on this.

I look forward to his expert opinion, obviously supported by evidence.

Competing Interests: No relevant disclosures

Dr Gerard Fennessy
Western Health

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