Gender imbalance evident at medical meetings


By Mardi Chapman

1 Oct 2019

Women are well represented in influential positions such as invited speakers and session chairs at Australia’s major respiratory medicine conference but international meetings have some catching up to do.

According to an Australian-led study published in the European Respiratory Journal, almost half of invited speakers (49%) and session chairs (46%) at the 2018 TSANZ ASM meeting were female.

This compared favourably to 35% and 45% respectively at the BTS Winter Meeting in 2017 and 23% and 31% at the ERS Congress in 2017.

The study authors said the policies of each specialist society regarding gender balance may partially explain the differences in women’s participation between the three conferences.

“While the TSANZ has a specific policy of gender balance for invited plenary speakers, it is unknown if the ERS and BTS have similar policies.”

“Importantly these results would suggest that both stringent policies advocating for gender balance in conference leadership roles, and women holding leadership positions within each society, are extremely important to close the current gender gap.”

The study also found that, in pooled results from the three meetings, more women were first authors on poster and oral presentations (1732 women v 1562 men).

However significantly more men were listed as last authors on presentations – “with this position representing the most senior member of the research team”.

The authors, including Associate Professor Natasha Smallwood from the Department of Respiratory & Sleep Medicine at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, said the reasons why a gender gap appears and widens significantly as the conference role becomes more senior and prestigious, were likely multifactorial.

Notably, the issue of fewer women in senior research roles was not isolated to respiratory medicine.

While surveys of medical students show that female students had lower interest in research than their male peers, Associate Professor Smallwood told the limbic that data didn’t reflect the evidence from later in their medical careers.

“Clearly women are engaged in research because there were more first authors who were women. Even though interest in research has been suggested as a cause [of gender imbalance at senior levels], it didn’t bear out in what we have found.”

“Again, we really need to be highlighting to women particular early in their careers but also throughout their careers that they can participate.”

Associate Professor Smallwood said gender imbalance in speakers at major conferences was likely unintentional – highlighting the important role for policy.

“People don’t realise that they have these biases. We really need to have an environment where everybody feels supported and welcomed – respectful engagement of men and women – and that those changes actually have to come from the top.”

She said there was no evidence that women were reluctant to travel to international conferences as had been suggested.

The study said bullying and sexual harassment have been identified as important issues in both clinical and academic medicine, and present barriers to career advancement for women.

“Promoting academic medicine to women should start early, from medical school, and mentors and sponsorship should be instituted,” it said.

“Without fostering academia and maintaining excellence in all clinicians, we are compromising our focus on evidence based medicine.”

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