Want More Women at the Podium? Bring Conscious Awareness to Unconscious Bias.

You’re a meeting planner, a planning committee member, a symposium series organizer, or otherwise responsible for engaging speakers and presenters. You have an explicit goal of ensuring gender diversity* among the speakers you engage. And yet, despite your best efforts, you consistently fall short of your diversity goals. What is going on?

Your program is a victim of unconscious bias.

I experienced this early in my career, when I was running a grant program and was responsible for setting up review panels. I quickly learned that when asked the questions, “Whom should we invite to join the review committee next year?” the group, who at the time were mostly men, would quickly give me a list of names, all of them men. I would tear off that flipchart page, stick it on the wall, then say, “OK, now how about we come up with a list of qualified women.” And, invariably, I would end up with just such a list.

The good news is that these groups of men were quick to realize what had happened. Asked for the first names who came to mind, they named people who looked like them. To overcome that unconscious bias, I had to ask, directly and clearly, for what I wanted from them: a list of diverse candidates, not all of whom looked like them.

Unconscious bias looms large on the list of reasons why women and minorities struggle to advance in male-dominated professions, why they are less likely to receive promotions, funding, and awards, and why they are less likely to be considered as presenters and speakers at your meetings.

As I discovered, when what you are after is a list of potential speakers, reviewers, or award recipients, the direct approach works best. Whether in a committee meeting or a one-to-one conversation, these two steps will help you reach the diversity you want.

1.     State your desire for diversity up front and at the beginning of the conversation. Some variation on, “We are committed to gender diversity in our programs. As we talk about potential speakers (reviewers, awardees), I want you to give a lot of thought to identifying women who would fit well in our program.” Reiterate as needed.

2.     When you still end up with a list that is all or nearly all men, make your ask again, “You have recommended some fine people, and they are all (or mostly) men. Do you know any women whom we should ask?”

And don’t take “no” for an answer. If your current sources truly know of no women who qualify, ask another source.

  • Reach out to  “Women in [Subject]” groups, committees, or caucuses of scholarly societies.
  • Check with program officers or awardees of grant programs that support the advancement of women, such as the National Science Foundation Advance program.
  • Make use of databases like the one compiled by the RAISE project.

Do you have other tips for increasing diversity at the podium? Please, leave them in the comments section.

*Much of this is also true for racial/ethnic and other diversity goals. Gender is what I know best, so I’ll stick to that here.


The landmark 2007 study by the US National Academies, Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, noted that “Decades of cognitive psychology research reveals that most of us carry prejudices of which we are unaware but that nonetheless play a large role in our evaluations of people and their work. . . . Although most scientists and engineers believe that they are objective and intend to be fair, research shows that they are not exempt from those tendencies.”

If you think you’re unbiased, go take a few of the implicit bias tests available for free from Harvard University’s Project Implicit.

Books that describe research on unconscious bias and its impact include:

Madeleine L. Van Hecke Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things. Prometheus Books, 2007.

Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Shankar Vedantam. The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives. Spiegel & Grau, 2010.