Hey Ladies!

Image courtesy of the National Cancer Institute
Image courtesy of the National Cancer Institute

Why are women turning down opportunities to present their scientific work at international meetings? A study in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology uncovered a lower representation of female scientists at the annual European Society for Evolutionary Biology meeting in 2011. The numbers of women were lower in the category of all presenters (48%)(including posters) and regular oral presentations (41%). However, only 25% of plenary speakers were women. But this disparity isn’t because women weren’t asked to present.

It turns out that 50% of women asked to deliver a plenary talk declined the opportunity as compared to 26% of men. Why is this happening? I find it hard to believe that women in general just don’t like to give talks at meetings. Is a concern about a tight budget environment keeping women from international travel? You would expect to see those effects in male recipients of invitations as well. Does it come down to women feeling the need to stay in the lab and prove themselves through productivity at the expense of international exposure? Do these women have children they feel they cannot leave for a week’s trip to Europe? The timing of the meeting coincides with the beginning of the school year in many areas of the US; are women concerned about getting their kids off to school? Were these women invited with enough time to make arrangements and plans to facilitate their travel? Or is this a secondary effect of the gender difference in grant funding?

Whatever the reason, some effort must be made to ensure female representation  at international meetings in all fields. Young female scientists need to see and meet women they can look up to at meetings to establish networks of support.

5 thoughts on “Hey Ladies!”

  1. I’ve heard prominent female scientists complain that they get invited to *everything*. Everyone is trying to get female representation, and the same women tend to get asked to be on lots of panels and attend lots of meetings, so they have to say “no” to some. The list of potential invitees often seems to include more men than women, so the women get picked more often. A solution would be for both men and women who get invited to conferences (whether they can attend or not) to volunteer some (other) women as potential speakers, to try to get more names out there, so that the organisers have more women to choose from the next time they organise a meeting.

    1. Yes. Conference organizers should not be able to use the rate of declined invitations as an excuse for poor male:female ratios, even when not lying. One hopes that these people are not lying in the results of their peer-reviewed paper on the issue.

  2. From the abstract: “Considering all invited speakers (including declined invitations), 23% were women.” While all the reasons above are relevant, the low proportion of invited speakers is a huge issue.

    That said, there are many things a conference can do to make conferences manageable for women with children: nursing rooms, child care, scheduling outside of the school year, free guest passes so that kids can be handed off to others, etc. @duffy_ma has written about a lot of them at dynamicecology.org

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