The (In)convenience of Gender Blindness.

by Brian T. Murphy

This article originally appeared in the American Society of Pharmacognosy Winter 2018 ASP Newsletter

*Addendum: As of 2019, the graphs in this article were updated to reflect improved gender balance, the result of direct action of ASP members and in particular conference organizers (2019, Madison WI). Updated graphs appear at the bottom of this article.    

“I don’t see gender. I only see the quality of work being done.”

“…it’s not really a problem in our society, we’re good about that.”

These sentiments have permeated discussions about gender balance in conference speaker lineups at the international level. But this dismissiveness often lies in stark contrast to statistical reality, which shows men are heavily favored as invited speakers at conferences. Societies worldwide are under increasing pressure from a revolutionary force of female scientists and a handful of their male colleagues to deconstruct both entrenched patriarchal infrastructure and the false virtue of gender blindness. Both have been equally crippling toward advancing career opportunities for women, and have maintained a staggering imbalance of male voices in the basic and medical sciences in the past century.


An investigation into the number of female speakers at ASP meetings reveals a grim reality. Tabulating gender ratios from the past five ASP meetings (the 2016 Joint Natural Products Conference not included), male speakers outnumber female speakers by a significant margin. With the exception of the 2013 meeting, males outnumbered their female colleagues by between 2- and 4-fold in regard to plenary slots (note: the 2013 meeting hosted a special session of all plenary lectures highlighting contributions by women to natural products sciences). This pattern continued when all other oral presentations, such as parallel sessions, were taken into consideration as well.   

Despite a general welcoming and inclusive attitude that is a hallmark of the ASP, in the absence of concerted action from the society as a whole to ensure that women have equal opportunity to present their research at meetings, this status quo of male dominated speaker lineups will continue. Men may deride this statement and tout their gender blindness. Many suggest that selecting conference speakers (among other things) should be based on quality, not based on gender. However, just as race blindness has been a major enemy in the ongoing battle for civil rights, gender blindness has clearly been destructive toward women. The only thing that one remains “blind” to while choosing to not see gender, is ongoing inequality. It is precisely the opposite behavior: detailed attention to gender, race, and other discriminative markers, that will allow scientists to engage in an honest conversation and corrective action.


I am complicit in this trend. I have been a regular attendee of ASP meetings since 2002, and only recently have I taken an effort to recognize this imbalance and speak out. I present these statistics not to cast judgement, but to rally my fellow male colleagues. Be vocal. It is not sufficient to simply believe in equal opportunity. Belief without action is complicity. I suggest a few action items:


  • Tabulate the male/female speaker ratio for other societies with which you are involved. Start a conversation based on those results.

  • If you are invited to speak at a conference, be sure that the organizers have an appropriate gender balance. If not, work with them to offer your slot to a fellow female scientist.

  • Stand up. Speak out. Whether at a conference, at lunch, in lab, or on social media, young males need positive role models. Be proud about being proactive.


In collaboration with Dr. Nadine Ziemert (University of Tübingen) and several others, we created a resource for conference organizers who are seeking to invite plenary speakers to natural products meetings. Similar to the Women in Microbiome Research list, we started a Women in Natural Products Research Google Document. The list is curated by the two of us, is currently populated with nearly 150 scientists, and names can be added or removed from the list upon request. It clearly shows that there is no shortage of qualified female speakers in our field. 


Finally, the struggle for equality does not stop at gender. It is wise for the ASP to join a slowly sobering nation and make efforts to enhance opportunities for underrepresented minorities as well, so that bridges exist from neighborhood to lab, and from lab to podium. Our field will benefit. Decades of research have shown that diverse groups of people are more innovative than homogenous groups; just a few summaries were compiled in the Harvard Business Review and Scientific American (here and here). Our ASP, which is filled with kind hearts and open minds, would greatly benefit from amplifying this diversity, which has traditionally been relegated to members of the audience.


*Addendum, 10/10/2019. At the time the above article was written, the 2018 conference had not taken place. Conference organizers made attempts to improve the speaker ratio. 2019 stats were recently calculated and added, and reflect the results of direct action by ASP members and conference organizers.