Evidence for gender inequality in pharmacology: raising awareness and motivating change

Published: 26 Aug 2018
Category: Equality, diversity and inclusion

The exchange of ideas and knowledge is an essential aspect of being a scientist that enhances our collective progress. As academics our contributions to the field, both as individuals and teams, are measured by our metrics. Peer reviewed publications are the core ingredients we use to demonstrate our productivity and capability. However, the quality and impact of our research relies on a variety of evidence, including peer recognition in the form of invited conference presentations and scientific awards.

I have recently returned from a mini world tour where I gave a departmental seminar, was an invited speaker at the Society’s Cell Signalling meeting, attended an Early Career Researcher (ECR) symposium and a large scientific meeting (Experimental Biology, San Diego). The value and impact of these opportunities are at the forefront of my mind.

The immediate positive outcomes from this trip were:

  1. opportunities to plan projects and new grant applications with collaborators (both established and new);
  2. share my technical expertise and research ideas with new audiences;
  3. invitations to speak and to contribute a minireview;
  4. meet with potential new recruits.

Undoubtedly, attendance and participation in scientific meetings facilitates development of our networks and allows us to be ahead of the game by immersing ourselves in unpublished and cutting-edge research. These amazing opportunities are overshadowed by my growing awareness that female scientists are often poorly represented within invited speaker ranks at conferences or among recipients of scientific honours. In recent years, I can recall attending sessions completely absent of female speakers, suggesting that pharmacology may not be immune to this inequity. Since I am an analytical pharmacologist at heart, I thought of taking a closer look at the data.

Female pharmacologists are overlooked as invited speakers at large scientific conferences

The gender of invited speakers was assessed within programs from three recent pharmacological society annual scientific conferences and the upcoming International Union of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology World Congress in Pharmacology (IUPHAR – WCP; as published online 11.5.2018). Speakers selected from submitted abstracts were excluded from the analysis, as were trainee prize sessions and workshops/satellite meetings. The gender of speakers was assigned by referencing publicly available information: images and biographies from institute websites and social media (researchgate, LinkedIn) or by employing online gender name tools. Speakers without a web presence, with gender-neutral names or listed as ‘to be advised’ were allocated as unknown. Females represent ~35% of British Pharmacological Society and ~44% of ASCEPT (Australasian Society of Clinical and Experimental Pharmacologists and Toxicologists) total membership (among those that disclosed their gender), but this breakdown is unavailable for ASPET (American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics). The British Pharmacological Society has committed to 30% female representation across all activities in 2015. Recent ASCEPT, ASPET and British Pharmacological Society annual scientific meetings have exceeded this aspiration, with female invited speakers representing 35-40% of the total (Figure 1A). In contrast, the recent IUPHARWCP, a quadrennial event representing global pharmacological societies including ASPET, ASCEPT and British Pharmacological Society, does not meet this level. Furthermore, analysing the different session types and themes reveals that across the 87 IUPHARWCP symposia, 33 have speakers from a single gender (all male). There was only one female speaker among the 33 cutting edge lectures and seven plenary sessions (Figure 1B). Symposia and cutting-edge lectures were grouped into 12 themes; two themes met or exceeded the aspirational target for female speakers. It is worth noting that ASCEPT, ASPET and British Pharmacological Society all have diversity policies for submitting symposium proposals that includes consideration of gender, career stage and institution. Implementation of equal opportunity guidelines in other fields has resulted in an increased proportion of female invited speakers to better align with membership demographics.

How do smaller scientific meetings compare?

Given the varied performance of different research areas within the IUPHAR-WCP program, I next assessed satellite symposia and focused meetings. For this purpose I analysed G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR)-centric meetings, since this is a field I am most familiar with. Nine meetings were included that have been held in the past six months or are planned before the end of the year. Of the nine meetings, only two have in excess of 30% female speakers (Figure 1D). As co-chair of the upcoming British Pharmacological Society-MPGPCR 2018 meeting, I am proud that we have >40% female invited speakers. Without compromising the scientific quality of the program, this may reflect the composition of the organising committee (four women and three men) and upfront discussions on creating a diverse program (gender, location, career stage and research). Organising committees with female members have demonstrated a propensity to have a higher proportion of female speakers.

Peer recognition of female pharmacologists – keynote lectures and scientific awards

Keynote lectures and scientific awards recognise an individual’s outstanding contributions to the field. Across all society meetings, I analysed the recipients of award/keynote lecture slots, as well as scientific awards, excluding early career awards. Award lectures within the British Pharmacological Society and ASCEPTAPSA programs showed similar levels of recognition of female scientists (Figure 1B), although it should be noted that one British Pharmacological Society award specifically acknowledges female pharmacologists. Within ASPET award lecturers, women were not well represented, nor within scientific prizes receiving only two of 11 division-sponsored awards. Since focused meetings generally only have one or two keynote lectures (two had no designated keynote speakers), the gender of keynote lecturers was assessed globally. Among the seven meetings, no women received this distinction (Figure 1D). The paucity of female awardees may be in part attributable to the lower proportion of women within senior academic roles and among nominees, but may also reflect unconscious bias among conference organisers/judging panels.

Why should we address the imbalance?

As scientists, conference presentations and scientific awards are key metrics we use to indicate the excellence and impact of our research programs. The peer recognition and exposure gained from presenting to an international audience has the potential to create a wealth of new opportunities. Indeed, the “Matthew effect” where early success is a strong indicator for future success, applies to science funding, and likely also to speaker invitations and awards. Beyond the importance to an individual, a diverse speaker program (where gender is but one factor) benefits the scientific community. Diverse and inclusive teams are known to make better decisions and ask different questions, therefore diverse conference programs are likely to push scientific boundaries more effectively, with increased exchange of ideas and knowledge. Within biological sciences >50% of UK PhD students identify as female, therefore increasing the visibility of female pharmacologists provides role models for trainees and changes perceptions around the contribution of women to the field.

How can an individual make a difference? What am I doing?

The data highlights that female pharmacologists do not receive equal representation or recognition within Society meetings or focused colloquia. Having identified that the imbalance is genuine, what can an individual do to improve? I do not have all the answers but I was inspired by these data. Listed below are my strategies to make a difference:
  1. Get involved in conference or symposia organisation and engage with your local pharmacology Society: submit symposia proposals that include diverse speakers, chair sessions and judge student/ trainee prizes.
  2. Nominate inspiring female pharmacologists for awards and encourage your colleagues to apply: this year I took the #FWpledge.
  3. Share opportunities (awards, positions, funding announcements) with your networks.
  4. Be shameless with self-promotion: ask senior colleagues to nominate you for awards, nominate yourself to speak or chair within symposia proposals, share latest research on social media and live tweet your conference impressions.
  5. Draw attention to unbalanced programs from internal seminars to large scientific meetings, check out: #manel #panelpledge and Jenny Martin’s ten-step guide for speaker gender balance.
  6. Make women/yourself visible during question time at seminars and conferences. At departmental seminars, if a woman asks the first question this correlates with a balanced and representative Q&A session.
  7. Give credit to students and postdoctoral fellows during presentations by including their photo, especially if they are attending or presenting at the same meeting.
  8. Surround yourself with a supportive network: I am lucky to work alongside stellar pharmacologists, both male and female who encourage rather than compete with one another, share frustrations and successes and discuss strategies.
  9. Engage with like-minded individuals through social media. As a starter check out: @STEMMinist; @FranklinWomen @malechampions.
  10. If you have other ideas, share them with the Society and me: @gregory_kj @BritPharmSoc.

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About the author

Dr Karen J Gregory is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow and lab head of the Class C GPCR Biology laboratory at Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Monash University, Australia. Karen received her PhD in Pharmacology from Monash University in 2009, and spent four years at Vanderbilt Centre for Neuroscience Drug Discovery supported by an National Health and Medical Research Council CJ Martin overseas biomedical postdoctoral training fellowship. Her research program focuses on allosteric modulation of metabotropic glutamate receptors; attractive therapeutic targets for diverse psychiatric and neurological disorders.

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