A scientific conference invited only women on stage. Then came the backlash

by Rebecca Robbins

SAN FRANCISCO — The organizers wanted to do something different with their new meeting, as a corrective to what frustrated them about the usual scientific gatherings. And then one of the planners suggested an idea: What if they only invited women on stage?

The decision to invite only female speakers to the microbiome conference at the University of California, San Diego, this week was meant to make a statement about how scientific meetings ought to be organized. Instead, the move has ignited a minor controversy, thrusting a gathering about a technical scientific subject into the culture wars.

The inaugural International Microbiome Meeting, put on by UCSD’s Center for Microbiome Innovation, is expected to have 27 microbiome experts — all women — take the stage as presenters over two days this week. The conference’s website initially said the goal was to “demonstrate that it is possible to have a large representation of women presenters in a scientific meeting by inviting only women speakers.”

That caught the attention of a Wall Street Journal editorial writer, who in an opinion piece titled “No Men Allowed” argued that the conference may be violating the university’s standards about discrimination against certain groups. The American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank, picked up the story, too.

Soon, the language about the conference’s goal was gone from its website. Asked why, a UCSD spokesperson said it was “updated to eliminate any confusion with regard to objectives.”

In a phone interview with STAT last week before the meeting attracted criticism, the conference’s co-organizer, Sandrine Miller-Montgomery, left little confusion about what she and her team were trying to do.

“We are not the Amazons. We are not wanting to control the world. We just wanted to show it is possible to have 100 percent women speakers,” she said. The idea, she said, was to shoot down the argument she often hears put forward in defense of male-only panels or mostly-male conferences — that it’s too difficult to find enough women speakers to achieve gender parity on stage.

The big J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference last month put on three all-male panels and keynotes. Another big annual industry conference, hosted by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, featured 25 all-male panels last June.

Related: A year after ‘the Michaels,’ more women will take the JPM stage — but 90 percent of presenters are still male
The microbiome conference won’t be the first gathering of its kind. An annual Bay Area conference known as MedtechVision, for example, invites only women on stage to discuss topics like the impact of artificial intelligence on medicine.

At the microbiome conference this week, about 250 microbiome specialists from industry and academia — about 54 percent of whom are women — are registered to attend, according to numbers supplied by Miller-Montgomery last week.

In an email to STAT, Miller-Montgomery said she was sad to see the Wall Street Journal opinion piece, which she said she thought “made an unfair representation of our intent.”

Even before the meeting attracted criticism, Miller-Montgomery said that plans weren’t fixed about what the speaker lineup should look like for next year’s conference. At the end of the meeting on Thursday, a panel of experts is expected to discuss how to fix the gender imbalance in technical fields — and whether next year’s conference should again invite only women speakers.

That panel will include two men and two women.

About the Author
Rebecca Robbins
San Francisco Correspondent
Rebecca covers the life sciences industry in the Bay Area.

A version of this story appeared in “Go West,” STAT’s weekly newsletter about West Coast life sciences, health care, and biotech. Sign up here to receive it in your inbox.

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