Fiona Godlee: Where are all the women?

Fiona Godlee It’s only since taking on this job that I’ve noticed how few women speak at medical conferences. It seems to me that half the time I’m the only woman on the programme and the other half I’m in the audience listening to an all male line up. I don’t believe in tokenism and anyway, given all the talk of the feminisation of medicine, it shouldn’t be necessary.

After all, two of the six major general medical journals (BMJ and JAMA) now have women editors-in-chief, which can’t be entirely down to exceptional individual talent.

So where are all the women speakers? What’s going on? My guess is three things: there are still fewer senior women than men in certain fields, conference organisers don’t know about them or don’t bother to find out, and those women that are asked are more likely than their male counterparts to say no.

What’s to be done? One senior academic I know will only accept an invitation to speak if the organisers invite at least one other woman onto the programme.

Another friend is drawing up her own Emily’s list of women who can speak on various topics. A third has made a vow to say yes to everything on the grounds that the men she hears speaking, not all of them brilliantly, don’t seem to suffer from self doubt so why should she. There are risks to this strategy.

A colleague did an audit check of their organisation to check how many committees had women on them. He was pleased to find that there was a woman on every one, until he discovered that it was the same woman. One can only speculate about the effect of all these committees on her academic productivity.

For my part, I’m going to increase my network of excellent women so I can name an equal number of men and women when asked for suggestions by conference organisers. And although I hate to be a bore, I’m going to raise the issue whenever I find myself the only woman on a panel. What with this and my commitment to ask to speak via video link, the invitations may dry up. So be it. More time to read and write.

What do you think? Have your say on the blog.

Fiona Godlee, Editor in chief, BMJ