How the creators of a database are stamping out all-male panels

Developers of ‘Request a Woman Scientist’ hope that its 10,000 participants can help to boost gender diversity in scientific talks and in the media.
Virginia Gewin is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.

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four female scientists in a laboratory with one teaching the research from a whiteboard

Female scientists are being recruited to an international database that aims to boost gender equity on conference panels and in the media.Credit: Diane Keough/Getty

The number of participants listed in a database of female scientists has now reached 10,000, according to the site’s curators.

The creators of ‘Request a Woman Scientist’, which launched in January 2018, documented 7,500 researchers across 174 scientific disciplines and 133 countries in the database’s first 11 months, according to a study in PLoS Biology1.

And the list continues to grow, says co-author Elizabeth McCullagh, a neuroscientist at the University of Colorado–Anschutz in Aurora. McCullagh and her colleagues are members of 500 Women Scientists, a non-profit organization based in Boulder, Colorado, that is dedicated to making science more inclusive and accessible.

The team created the database to allow users to easily locate female scientists through a number of parameters, including location, field of expertise, degree status and whether they are members of an under-represented group. These parameters, they say, could help conference organizers who are struggling to find female specialists in a particular discipline or field.

A survey of database members in the PLoS Biology study illustrated the initial impact of Request a Woman Scientist: 11% of 1,278 respondents had been contacted within 11 months after the site’s launch. Most of those reported contacts were from journalists, at roughly 48%. Only 21, or 14%, were seeking a female researcher to participate in a meeting or on a panel.

Of the participants in the database, 22.7% identify as members of an under-represented group. And as of 30 April, more than half of the database members were from four countries: the United States had 4,667, the United Kingdom 804, Australia 462 and Canada 399. “Still, with little marketing and no dedicated funding to date, people found us,” says McCullagh, citing representation from South Africa, Nigeria, Turkey and China.

McCullagh and colleagues plan to improve database users’ experience by making the site and its geographical map of members’ locations interactive, creating user profiles, developing links to social media and boosting representation from disciplines with fewer participants, including mathematics and physics.

Most participants said in the survey that they had heard about the database through social media or directly from 500 Women Scientists. Although many female scientists are connected to the database through existing disciplines, organizations or social-media networks, the degree to which male scientists are aware of it is unclear. “My white male colleagues don’t know about this database,” says Linda Hooper-Bùi, an entomologist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, who became a member of Request A Woman Scientist after learning about it on Twitter.

An ecology-conference organizer reached out to her shortly after the database had launched, to seek her participation on a conference panel. Although Hooper-Bùi was unable to accept the invitation, she offered names of other female scientists, including some in under-represented groups. Still, she admits, “I could do a better job of using the database” to identify under-represented potential collaborators, she says. “We have to be very intentional to support diversity.”

It is becoming increasingly crucial to ensure gender diversity in scientific organizations. The American Society for Microbiology (ASM), for example, achieved gender equity at its general meeting in 2015 (ref. 2). To increase participation by women, the ASM recruited more female scientists to serve as conference organizers and ensured that no session or panel would have only male speakers. Each of these deliberate actions is also outlined in 500 Women Scientists’ Guide to Organizing Inclusive Scientific Meetings.

McCullagh says that she and her colleagues aim to increase use of the database more broadly in the scientific community, including among male scientists. But that requires men to engage, too, says study co-author Jane Zelikova, an ecologist at the University of Wyoming in Laramie and co-founder of 500 Women Scientists. “We need men to know about the platform so they can use it but, even more than that, we need men to realize that equity and representation not only matters, but should be as important as other considerations when organizing a research team or a speaker panel,” she says.

Ryan Lagerquist, a PhD student in meteorology at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, will co-chair two conferences in 2020. He says that he and his co-chair have discussed the need for diversity among invited speakers. But Lagerquist notes that of the people nominated for panels by the 18-person organizing committee in the first round of suggestions, most were high-profile directors of major labs and national centres. Those positions, Lagerquist says, are often occupied by white men.

Even though he wasn’t previously aware of the Request a Woman Scientist database, Lagerquist adds that it was not difficult to find excellent speakers who reflect the field’s demographic make-up. “Usually, all it takes is a gentle reminder from myself or my co-chair to get some more diverse suggestions,” he says. Although most of next year’s conference speakers have already been invited, he plans to share the database with the organizing committee as a resource for future planning.

McCullagh aims to continue to grow the database so that users can turn to it often and help to continue shaping science into a more open and more inclusive enterprise. “This experience has reminded us that we need to rethink science, and to be an inclusive organization for women from all sorts of backgrounds,” says McCullagh.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01500-3


  1. 1.

    McCullagh, E. A. et al. PLoS Biol. 17, e3000212 (2019).

  2. 2.

    Casadevall, A. mBio 6, e01146-15 (2015).

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