Women at the Conference Lectern: How organizing committees can do more to achieve gender parity

There have been a number of thoughtful blog posts on both the importance of women being invited speakers at conferences and how to increase diversity in speaker line ups. In terms of the importance, authors have noted increased networking opportunities, buttresses tenure and promotion packages, generates new collaborations, and speaker may often be viewed as a role model and/or leader within a subdiscipline. Regarding how to increase the percentage of female invited speakers, awareness of gender bias in speaker line-ups has been proposed as a main mechanism to achieve equality. This awareness extends to both selection committees, where including women on the speaker selection panel was shown to invite more women; but also to invited speakers themselves, who may choose to decline an invitation for a conference without gender equality of the speakers.

Gender equality of conference speakers is of great interest to me, not only as a (hopefully) future invited speaker, but also as one of the organizers of my department’s seminar series. I served on that committee for six semesters. One of the reasons I volunteered was that in Fall 2011 only 1 out of 13 speakers was a woman. I discussed the importance of having a higher percentage of women in our seminar series with the other members of the committee, and they agreed. However, achieving gender parity each semester was very difficult. Below I detail the stats from our series and highlight two factors I believe play into this difficulty (1- senior nominees; 2- permission to just say no).

Methods and Results
The seminar selection process in my departments is as such: students and faculty nominate speakers for seminar. A three person graduate student committee reviews all of the nominations and selects whom to invite based on the following criteria: would the speaker be of broad interest to our department, subdiscipline, sex, faculty rank, distance from campus, study system, have they given a talk to the department before, is the nominee a potential postdoc advisor for the host, has the host lab hosted a speaker recently, etc. We placed primary importance on balancing subdiscipline (EEB, MCB, Neuro) and sex (which I will refer to as gender although I know those are different). The point of this is to say that the selection of whom to invite each semester was not a random process, it was deliberate given the nominees for the semester. I used Scopus to record the current (Aug 2014) h-index and number of publications for each nominee for the analyses below.

Q1- What was the F:M of speaker nominees by the department?
73 female and 116 male nominees

Q2- What was the F:M of nominees selected to invite by the committee?
38 females and 49 male invitees

The data above show that while women made up 39% of nominees, they made up 44% of invitees as a result of committee action.

Q3- Was there a difference in response to invitations (accept, decline, no response) between women and men?
Women accepted an invitation to speak 50% of the time where men accepted 71%. Women declined an invitation to speak 45% of the time, where men declined 18%. Two women and five men never responded to inquiries.

The committee never had these statistics as we were working but there was clearly a sense that more women declined our invitation than men. Where this became a problem was that we had a smaller pool of female than male nominees each semester.

I anecdotally noted that the women who turned down the invitation tended to be high-profile researchers. To test my hypotheses, I recorded the h-index and number of publications from Scopus for each nominee. I ran a simple ANOVA with either h-index or number of publications as the response variable and gender, invitation acceptance (accept, decline, no response), and an interaction term in the model.

Q4- Was there a difference in h-index or publication count between women and men invited to speak?
No, gender was not a significant factor in the ANOVA for either h-index (P=0.613) nor publication count (P=0.212).

Q5- Was there a difference in h-index or publication count between invitees that accepted or declined an invitation? Did this differ between men and women?
Yes, invitees that accepted had 10.1 points and 36.7 publications fewer than invitees that declined. The interaction term (sex by acceptance response) was significant in the ANOVA for both h-index (P=0.003) and publication count (P=0.019). The figures below compare h-index and publication count for all invites, those that accepted, and those that declined; while not a true ANOVA figure, the interaction between males (blue) and females (pink) for accepted and declined invitations is clear.

Figure 1- Average h-index of men (blue) and women (pink) for people invited to speak at our seminar series, and the subset that accepted and declined their invitation.
Figure 1- Average h-index of men (blue) and women (pink) for people invited to speak at our seminar series, and the subset that accepted and declined their invitation.
Figure 2- Average number of publications of men (blue) and women (pink) for people invited to speak at our seminar series, and the subset that accepted and declined their invitation.
Figure 2- Average number of publications of men (blue) and women (pink) for people invited to speak at our seminar series, and the subset that accepted and declined their invitation.

Above I alluded to two factors that I think contribute to why it is hard for organizers to achieve gender parity: female invitees coming from a pool of senior researchers and being encouraged to limit commitments and travel.

The data presented above were mixed regarding the hypotheses that nominated females were coming from a pool dominated by senior researchers. There was no significant difference in h-index or number of publications between nominees invited and not invited by the committee (data not shown). However, there was a significant difference in these metrics between invited speakers who accepted and declined the invitation. Specifically, women who declined the invitation to speak had higher h-indexes and number of publications. This suggests that neither the department was nominating only high-profile women nor was the committee only selecting high profile women, but high profile women were turning down our offer.

I think the result above points to a juxtaposition that women face in that they are actively encouraged to set limits on their time and turn down these types of offers. Please don’t get me wrong, I understand the constraints on everyone’s time in academia, the desire for work-life balance, and that a subset of female scientists cannot take the speaking engagement load on alone. That said it’s a contrast we can’t ignore: we want a greater presence at the lectern but are turning away these opportunities.

The results of this quick exercise, that women decline invitations at 2.5x the rate that men do (which has been observed before), point to two partial solutions, mainly for organizing committees. First, just have a longer list of female speakers. If you know they will decline more frequently, a deeper pool will give more opportunities to achieve parity with less scrambling after the first short list has been exhausted. Second, make that nominee pool deep with junior researchers. If it is the senior and/or high-profile women that are turning down invitations, invite junior women. This would also help to elevate their profile and make new contacts. And anecdotally, seminar might be better! We noticed that some of the best talks were by early career researchers (men and women), so go on and seek out someone new!

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