Women underrepresented at academic conferences

Study suggests women more likely than men to turn down invitations to speak

June 24, 2013

A greater tendency among women to turn down invitations to speak at prestigious conferences could account for their relative scarcity among senior academic ranks, a study has suggested.

A team led by Hannah Dugdale at the University of Sheffield found that the proportion of female invited speakers at the prestigious congresses of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology was significantly lower than the proportion of female authors of high-profile papers or female faculty members at high-ranking institutions.

According to the researchers’ paper, Fewer invited talks by women in evolutionary biology symposia, published in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, only between 9 and 23 per cent of the invited speakers at congresses held between 2001 and 2011 were women.

At the 2011 event, 15 per cent of invited speakers were women: roughly half the number that would be expected.

However, the researchers also found that women were much more likely than men to turn down invitations to speak.

In 2011, 50 per cent of women declined an invitation, compared to 26 per cent of men.

The 23 per cent of invitations that were sent out to women is comparable to the proportion of female professors at universities ranked in the top 10 nationally (22 per cent) and female first authors of Science or Nature papers (29 per cent).

The researchers also found that the proportion of invited women speakers was not affected by the number of women among the conference organisers, suggesting that “evolutionary biologists do not harbour much implicit bias against female scientists”.

However, the paper suggests that the disproportionately low exposure of women’s research at top international conferences could be one reason why so few women rise to the top of the academic ranks.

Dr Dugdale said the team were currently investigating why fewer women accepted invitations.

She speculated that it could be related to their lower perception of their scientific ability and discomfort with self-promotion, as well as their childcare needs.

Julia Schroeder, a group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Ornitholgoy in Germany, added: “The most demanding phase of a career in biology, when it is important to communicate one’s findings and to build networks with other scientists, coincides with the age at which women’s fertility starts to decline, meaning it is their last chance to have a family.

“Therefore, these women are less flexible about travelling for work, and may be more likely to decline invitations to speak.”


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