October 28, 2021

UK Dental Conferences have a gender imbalance.

This paper looked at the gender imbalance of speakers at major UK dental conferences.  I thought that the results were somewhat concerning and relevant to orthodontic conferences.

In the UK, 50% of registrants are women.  As a result, we would expect equal representation of genders at dental conferences.  The authors of this paper point out that achieving a gender balance is essential.  This is because, in addition to providing us with research and clinical information, conferences also provide role modelling and mentorship opportunities. Significantly, speaking at conferences must influence career progression and perceptions of leadership roles.

They also point out that gender imbalance in medical conferences has been recognised. However, this may be slowly improving.  Nevertheless, we know little about the gender balance of UK dental conference speakers.

A team from Leeds and Liverpool in the North of England did this study. The British Dental Journal published the paper.

Speaking up for balance: analysis of the gender of invited speakers at UK dental conferences

Claudia Heggie, Sarah L. McKernon and Laura Gartshore

British Dental Journal: Online: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41415-021-3072-2

What did they ask?

They did this study to;

“Find out the gender balance of invited speakers at UK dental conferences in 2018 and 2019”.

What did they do?

They did a cross-sectional survey of conference programmes by using the following steps:

Firstly, they approached 14 dental societies and asked them for their conference programmes. If an organisation did not provide this information, they searched the public domain.

The authors then extracted this data on the main speakers:

  • Their gender
  • Length of presentation
  • Professional role
  • Gender of panel members and session chairs.

They defined an acceptable balance as being 40-60% female speakers.

Finally, they obtained the General Dental Council report for 2020 and obtained data on total workforce gender distribution for all registered dentists and within each dental speciality.

What did they find?

The authors found that 50.4% of dentists identified themselves as female and 49.6% as male.

They obtained data on 352 invited speakers. They identified 39.8% as female and 60.2% as male.

  • Only 3 (21.4%) of the conferences were gender-balanced (40-60% female).
  • In 3 (21.4%), the female speakers outnumbered males.
  • For 55.1% (n=8), males outnumbered female speakers.

The conferences with the highest number of female speakers were oral medicine (66%) and special care dentistry (61.9%).

The lowest was orthodontics (19%) and periodontics (18.4%).

The British Dental Association conference was not balanced, with 63% of the speakers being male.

Importantly, when they looked at the length of the presentations. The mean duration for female speakers was 31 minutes, and for males, this was 40 minutes.

Their conclusions were

“Gender imbalance exists in speakers invited to present at recent dental conferences. Conference organisers are encouraged to work proactively towards a more representative programme”.

What did I think?

These findings were concerning. However, in many ways, they reflected the situation in medicine. I have also posted similar results in a small study that I published on this blog last year.

I thought that their methodology was sound and it provided a reasonable level of evidence on this issue. Therefore, we should take the findings seriously.

The authors discussed their findings, pointing out that they recognise that organising a conference is a complex task. However, it is nonsensical that gender should impact conference content. Instead, addressing this issue should involve conference organisers actively raising awareness and providing a platform for female speakers.  I strongly support this statement.

On a personal note, I have been the conference chair of several major orthodontic conferences.  The largest that I was involved with was the World Orthodontic Conference in 2015. I am afraid to say that this programme was not balanced. For example, we did not even consider gender when we were putting the programme together.  I have thought about this process, and I cannot help feeling that when a conference puts its programme together, it tends to ask the “usual suspects”.  These are frequent speakers who are males, and they speak at other meetings and so the wheel keeps turning.

Final comments

We changed our approach at the British Orthodontic Conference this year. We asked people to suggest women speakers. As a result, this increased our pool of potential speakers.  I was pleased to see that this resulted in a conference that was gender balanced for the invited speakers.  This took a little more work, but feedback from our meeting has been great.

This post was originally published on the Balance the Dental Boards website. If you want to find more about this campaign have a look at the website and join our Facebook Group.

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Have your say!

  1. Statistics are hard. “They defined an acceptable balance as being 40-60% female speakers.” “They identified 39.8% as female”. Are we 0.2% short? Wow that does not seem so bad. If gender balance is so critical what might worry us that nowadays many more women are studying dentistry than men. From one inbalance to the next, in between a few happy years perhaps.

    • Rather than use this generous definition of balance, an alternative is to define balance as balanced at 50%, thereby being 10.2% short. As you highlight, this is at odds with the gender balance of the profession, 50:50. It is balance, without any imbalance, that is sought, as discussed in the article

  2. I’m so delighted that the British Orthodontic Conference took action on this as soon as the issue was highlighted. It will inspire the next generation of speakers to come forward regardless of gender . Bravo Kevin for being a leader on this 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻

  3. A study /survey should be done to ask dentists which topics and speakers they would prefer for their conferences. Then this should be evaluated to see the gender balance. Balancing just for it’s own sake could lift the quality of could diminish it. This should certainly be taken into consideration. If there are great speakers on interesting topics being overlooked because of gender bias this is a problem ,if good speakers are mostly male at this point it is not. I think this study is a great start but concluding that an imbalance is due to gender bias in selection (what would be concluded these days) is as much of a problem as the possibility of bias itself IMO.


  4. Dear Prof.

    This is useful to know with the current theme of the world market work force and gender inequality.
    Grateful as always for your efforts to bring out the analysis on latest research.

  5. You are on a slippery “affirmative action” slope. Soon, equity will replace equality.

  6. Equality without content is useless. As long as the content is of value who cares what gender is presenting it? Further dilution of professional standards by focusing on presumed inequities.

  7. The orthodontic and also dentistry feminization is a reality in all countries, but the speakers in conferences don’t take the same way. I would say that more than 50% of dentists are women. In Brazil, we are 60%.

    A very good and timely paper about this topic:


  8. As a female academic I would like to thank you very much for highlighting this issue!

    • I think this paper will have a positive impact for the future. It would be interesting to get through feedback why females are less likely to attend some conferences and what speakers they would prefer to see.

  9. Unfortunately the first statement in this argument is not logical
    “In the UK, 50% of registrants are women. As a result, we would expect equal representation of genders at dental conferences”

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