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Journal of Clinical Oncology recognizes that readers do not always have time to review an article in depth, and yet they still wish to understand how the results will influence their clinical practice or research. To address this need, we offer podcasts that will enhance the readership experience by presenting the key results of high-profile publications in a convenient audio format. Our podcasts are designed to place selected articles into a clinically useful perspective that is easy to listen to in the office or while on the road.

Dec 26, 2019

This podcast discusses the results and implications of a recent study on gender bias in speaker introductions at an international oncology conference.

This JCO Podcast provides observations and commentary on the JCO article "Evaluating Unconscious Bias: Speaker Introductions at an International Oncology Conference" by Duma et al. My name is Dr. Tatiana Prowell. I am an Associate Professor of Oncology at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center and Breast Cancer Scientific Liaison at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Silver Spring, Maryland. My oncologic specialty is breast cancer.

In the article that accompanies this podcast, Duma and colleagues report the results of a retrospective observational study of speaker introductions at two consecutive years of ASCO Annual Meetings. The investigators hypothesized that female speakers in oral sessions would be introduced with a professional form of address less frequently than male speakers. For the purposes of the study, they defined a professional address as use of a title such as Professor or Doctor, followed by the speaker’s full name or last name, or the speaker’s full name followed by doctoral degree. A team of four male and four female reviewers analyzed 781 video recordings of oral sessions from the 2017 and 2018 ASCO Annual Meetings and recorded the gender of the introducer and speaker and how the speaker was introduced. They found that female speakers received a professional form of address 62% of the time whereas male speakers were introduced professionally 81% of the time, a difference that was statistically significant. Duma and her colleagues also assessed whether the gender of the introducer was associated with a difference in the likelihood of receiving a professional introduction. They found that male moderators introduced female speakers professionally a little more than half the time, whereas they introduced men professionally in 80% of cases.  Interestingly, when serving as introducers, women were more likely than men to include a professional form of address, which they did about three-quarters of the time, regardless of whether they were introducing men or women.  Perhaps the most striking result of the study was that one in six female speakers was introduced by her first name only, a surprising degree of informality for a high-profile conference like the ASCO Annual Meeting, which draws more than 40,000 attendees per year. By comparison, male speakers were introduced by first name alone in just 3% of presentations. In a multivariate analysis that included gender, degree, academic rank and geographic location of the speaker’s institution, male speakers were 2.5 times more likely to receive a professional introduction compared to female speakers. 

 

This study adds to a growing body of literature in medicine investigating the prevalence of gender bias in speaker introductions. For example, previous studies of speaker introductions over a 3 year period of Mayo Clinic Internal Medicine Grand Rounds and at an American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons Annual Meeting reported similar findings. In both cases, female speakers were less likely than men to be introduced using a professional form of address, and women introducers more consistently referred to speakers by a professional title, regardless of whether the speaker they were introducing happened to be a man or a woman.

 

This study raises two key questions: why do we see this, and how can we fix it? A speaker introduction, especially at an international conference, is by definition a formal ritual, and yet one so familiar to us that we may have lost sight of its purpose. It would be easy enough for speakers to introduce themselves. Every speaker has an opening slide that shows his or her name and institutional affiliation. So why choose someone, and often someone well-known within the field, whose role is to introduce the speakers at all?  What leads us to say, “Dr. Carol Greider is Bloomberg Distinguished Professor, Director of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Johns Hopkins University, and a recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine”? I believe we do this for two reasons. First, formal introductions provide a moment, however brief, to demonstrate our collective respect for the speaker and his or her scientific contributions. Second, the information in the introduction signals to any who are not familiar with the speaker that the person is credible, knowledgeable, and worthy of our attention. Although more than 50% of medical school matriculants and about 40% of medical school faculty are women, they remain underrepresented at higher academic ranks and in leadership roles. Only about one-quarter of full professors are women, and fewer than 1 in 5 department chairs are women. Women are also less likely than men to be the first or senior author of manuscripts and thus less likely to be standing at the podium. As a result, the names and work of women in medicine may well be less familiar to the audience. Female introducers may therefore be more likely to assign value to use of a professional form of address. If this were true, one might expect to see women more consistently use a professional form of address when introducing speakers, and this is in fact what Duma and her colleagues observed. 

 

The more troubling question is why men approached the introduction of male and female speakers so differently and why male speakers were 2.5 times more likely to be introduced with a professional title than women. I believe that most moderators, if presented with data from their own sessions, would be surprised to learn that they introduce men and women differently. This is called unconscious bias, and we are all susceptible to it. While the root causes of unconscious gender bias are numerous, one of these is surely the dearth of women occupying senior positions in medicine. As a community, we have tremendous power to remedy this source of unconscious bias. But while we can all re-commit ourselves to mentoring and sponsoring women in order to create more visible examples of female leaders in medicine, these efforts will not change the face of medicine, nor eliminate our unconscious gender bias, overnight. And yet, this is a change that needs to be made now. A male colleague of mine described introducing a woman at the podium by her first name as the verbal equivalent of rubbing the shoulder of a female professional acquaintance, then extending a handshake to a male professional acquaintance, that is to say, an inappropriate degree of familiarity with the woman. However, even in circumstances where the introducer and speaker are well-known to one another, formal settings call for formality. I call my physician husband “honey” at home, but if I were moderating an ASCO Annual Meeting session in which he was a panelist and said “Honey, why don’t you take that question?” it would of course be ridiculous.  Using respectful forms of address in formal settings like conference sessions is ultimately a mark of professionalism and, in 2019, non-negotiable. 

 

The good news is that, unlike many problems in medicine, this one has a couple of solutions that we can implement immediately. We can provide a simple standardized script at the podium that ensures all speakers receive an equitable introduction. All conferences should implement this now, and in fact, motivated by Duma and her colleagues’ work, session chairs will receive such a script for introductions at the 2020 ASCO Annual Meeting. Perhaps more importantly, though, we can appreciate the formal introduction as a ritual that has been conserved through generations of scientists for a reason. Regardless of our gender, all of us as physicians remember that feeling when were July interns and the attending said of us on rounds something like, “Dr. Smith will be back to explain the plan to you in more detail.” In that moment, when we were called Doctor before an audience of our patients and our peers, we felt respected, capable, confident, and proud. Let’s commit to ensuring that all of our colleagues have that feeling every time they take the podium. 

 

This concludes this JCO Podcast. Thank you for