Gender bias evident against females at respiratory conferences


By Louise Durack

6 Feb 2020

Women have fewer active participation roles at respiratory medicine conferences than men, although Australian meetings fare better than their international counterparts, research shows.

A Royal Melbourne Hospital study published in the European Respiratory Journal, analysed gender participation rates at the European Respiratory Society (ERS) Congress in 2017, the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand (TSANZ) annual scientific meeting 2018 and the British Thoracic Society (BTS) winter meeting 2017.

Pooled results from all three conferences, which had over 23,000 attendees, showed that women were under-represented as invited speakers (23% vs 77% male) and session chairs (31% vs 69%), compared to males,. For poster and oral presentations there were significantly more female first authors (1713 vs 1562 males), whereas more males were listed as last authors on presentations (2057 vs 1202), with this position representing the most senior member of the research team.

The ERS Congress had the greatest gender imbalance for participants, with only 23% females having roles of invited speaker and 31% taking on the role of session chairperson. At the BTS meeting, fewer invited speakers were female (35%), although broadly similar numbers of males and females were invited to chair sessions (45% female). The TSANZ annual scientific meeting, had similar numbers of males and females as invited speakers (49% female) and as chairpersons of sessions (46%).

The study authors said the findings highlighted the ongoing gender imbalance in respiratory medicine research and reflected unconscious bias and systemic barriers to women participating in meetings. But the problem was not just at conference programming level, but reflected the lack of senior roles for women in respiratory medicine research and its professional societies.

“At the entry level of academic research (first author conference presentations) in respiratory medicine, women participate significantly more than men. However, a gender gap appears and widens significantly as the conference role becomes more senior and prestigious, with fewer women involved,” they noted.

“Previous studies have determined that women tend to have a greater interest in teaching than research, and that the gender bias and lack of adequate mentorship contributes to the disparity of genders in academic medicine,” they noted.

“In addition, bullying and sexual harassment have been identified as important issues in both clinical and academic medicine, and present barriers to career advancement for women

Co-author Professor Jo Douglass, a consultant physician with interests in asthma and allergic disease at the Royal Melbourne Hospital,  said the higher rates of female participation in the Australian conference could be attributed to TSANZ having enacted pro-active policies on gender representation in both governance and meeting participation.

“It’s a very important fact that TSANZ has an overt stated policy of gender equality at its conferences in terms of chairmanship and oral presentations and I believe this has led to the equal representation in this regard,” she said.

“Women have for many years, been represented on the board and prior to that the governing committee of TSANZ. So these female leadership roles have obviously played a strong influence in this way, with Australia and New Zealand now being a bit ahead in respiratory medicine, and the results showing that a clear policy can really make a difference.”

Professor Douglass acknowledged that inequality is a symptom more broadly in medicine and one which still needs to be addressed.

“A policy regarding gender and diversity is just the starting point,” she said.

“It follows that there is a strong need for this to be played out within the governance of other organisations as gender inequality is represented in other committees across many other medical specialities, where women do not hold senior roles as frequently as would be expected given the equal number of women that enter the profession. These numbers have been static for a long time, like over 20 years and whilst it’s changing it is still doing so very slowly.”

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