Times Higher Education recently covered a University of Sheffield-led study that found that a greater tendency among women to turn down invitations to speak at high-profile conferences could account for their under-representation in senior academic ranks.
Researchers found that the proportion of women invited to speak at the prestigious congresses of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology was significantly lower than the proportion of women who had produced high-profile papers or who were faculty members at high-ranking institutions. However, the researchers also revealed that women were much more likely than men to decline invitations to speak. The study provoked a heated debate online.
Ayona Datta, senior lecturer in citizenship and belonging at the University of Leeds, took to her blog The City Inside Out to have her say. Responding to the suggestion by Hannah Dugdale, lead author of the study, that some women might turn down speaking opportunities because of a “lower perception of their scientific ability and discomfort with self-promotion”, Dr Datta says: “At best, this statement comes across as totally patronizing towards women.
“At worst, this statement reinforces some of the gender discrimination women continually face within academia and other professions. I do not believe that women feel less confident. Rather confidence has nothing to do with the way academic networks (which sometimes become well guarded cliques) feed into popularity, esteem, impact and academic superstardom.”
The article, Dr Datta continues, made her reflect on why she does not attend as many conferences as she would like to.
“Having recently become a parent I have reduced my speaking and traveling commitments because they are often incompatible with my childcare responsibilities,” she says.
“I have wondered why there has not been more debate on how women academics or anyone with primary caring roles fulfill the demands of an academic profession which require constant networking and research dissemination activities such as attending conferences, workshops, seminars and so on.”
Dr Datta suggests six ways that could help those with childcare responsibilities – male or female – to increase conference attendance, including making “a family trip out of far-flung destinations” and asking one’s employer to make a contribution towards childcare costs when one is attending an event.
On the Royal Society’s Inside Science blog, Dame Athene Donald, director of the Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative and professor of physics at the Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, picks up the discussion.
“For many women, small children may be felt to be a significant barrier to travel. It might be reasonable to query why this is more of a problem for women than for men, but the reality is that the expectation of society (if not of the individual couple) remains that childcare is primarily the mother’s problem,” she writes.
“So, while we are waiting for society to catch up, perhaps the conference organisers can be a bit more proactive about finding additional funds to facilitate childcare at the venue.”
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