Creating gender balance at academic conferences: a reflection on recent experience and the elephant in the room

Earlier this month the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the handbook_coverUniversity of Plymouth hosted the QRA (Quaternary Research Association) Annual Discussion Meeting. This three day conference welcomed delegates from across the UK, Europe and further afield, and across all research career stages from masters students to professors. The overarching theme of the conference was data-model inter-comparison in Quaternary Science, with session themes spanning landscape evolution and palaeohydrology, long-term ecology, palaeoclimate reconstructions, glacial modelling and geomorphology, and sea level change. From the offset the 2018 QRA meeting was organised with gender balance in mind, including the make-up of organising committee, invited keynotes and session chairs, and the programme of talks. As the lead of the organising committee I was supported by both male and female colleagues, and while the task of organisation was a significant drain on time, at no point did I feel in any way that my efforts were not appreciated.

I am passionate about equality in STEM and academia more broadly. One of the responsibilities of my job is to sit on the Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity Committee in my school, where we look for ways to promote gender equality across a wide variety of academic activities, including the departmental seminar series, interview committees, and academic administrative roles. With a growing impetus for improved gender balance in academia, it’s imperative to consider not only how we might improve equality within our own institutions, but also how we can promote equality and diversity in the wider academic community. Conferences are an important platform upon which early career researchers can build networks, meet potential future collaborators and employers, and receive essential feedback on their work from other experts in the field. I’m all too aware from my own experiences that conferences are not always a positive experience for women, with the gender balance of presentations often far from equal. Furthermore, I know of senior women reduced to tears by aggressive questioning by other delegates, with the sometimes intimidating atmosphere of conference halls acting as a barrier to less “confident” delegates being willing to pose questions or voice their opinions. A recent article published in Times Higher Education  describes a study which found that women are two and half times less likely to ask a question during an academic seminar than men, and that female respondents to one survey were more likely to report feeling intimidated, nervous, or not clever enough as a reason for their reticence to ask a question.

With this article in mind, my colleague and I made note of the gender of every person who asked a question during the QRA meeting. The results of this survey, in addition to other variables including delegate numbers and gender balance of speakers, are summarised in the table below.

Male Female
Conference attendees 44 (54%) 38 (46%)
Talks presented (including invited keynotes and drop-outs/stand-ins) 23 (56%) 18 (44%)
Posters presented 11 (39%) 17 (61%)
Talks requested (on submission of an abstract) 23 (56%) 18 (44%)
Talks allocated by the organising committee 21 (57%) 16 (43%)
Keynote speakers 2 (40%) 3 (60%)
Session chairs 3 (60%) 2 (40%)
Organising committee members 4 (44%) 5 (56%)
Questions asked during the programme of talks 80 (77%) 24 (23%)

Let’s start with addressing the elephant in the room: 77% of questions during the meeting were asked by men, more than three times the number asked by women. There’s no way to dress this up as anything other than depressing reading, however having attended every session during the conference, and having presented a talk myself, I witnessed no aggressive questioning to either male or female speakers and certainly do not feel that the atmosphere of the meeting was either intimidating or unsupportive. Looking at the gender balance of conference attendees, talks requested and talks presented, I believe that we achieved a very good gender balance both in terms of conference delegates and the programme of talks. Quaternary science is a research field that has been historically dominated (in number at least) by men, however my recent experience of organising this conference fills me with genuine optimism that we are headed in the right direction. Achieving this gender balance was a core priority of the organising committee. We actively chose to invite three (excellent) female keynote speakers, maintained the proportion of talks requested and talks presented by women, and perhaps by selecting a female lead for the organising committee we played a small part in influencing the attendance of female delegates.

All things considered, these numbers give me cause to be happy, and contribute to what was an overwhelmingly encouraging conference experience. A number of delegates, including high-profile keynote speakers, commented positively on the gender balance of the conference programme, and I very much hope that the other attendees and presenters had a similarly positive experience, particularly those in the early stages of their research career. But what to do about the elephant in the room? How can we affect change not only in who attends and presents at conferences, but also in who feels comfortable and confident enough to make their voice heard? Unsurprisingly, I don’t have the answer, and our data are insufficient to offer additional insight. What I would suggest, however, is that this exercise should be repeated on a larger scale (EGU, AGU or INQUA for example). This might allow for a more detailed analysis of whether sessions with a greater proportion of female presenters also promote greater numbers of questions from female delegates, whether the gender of session chairs influences the proportion of males vs females who ask a question or make a comment, and whether females are more likely to ask a question if the first person to ask is also female.

Picture1-1

Ralph Fyfe, Stephanie Mills and Caroline Clason – three happy conference organisers!

To finish, I want to briefly touch upon the importance of not only retaining females who have chosen to enter the world of academia (a huge issue in itself) but also on attracting female school-leavers into the geosciences and STEM in the first place. “Girls into Geoscience” is an initiative to introduce female A-level students to the Earth Sciences, including a field trip, workshops led by female academics, and seminars from women who work in the geosciences. The next event will be held at the University of Plymouth this July, and you can follow us on Twitter if you’re interested!

Dr Caroline Clason, 24th January 2018

Pells, R., (2017), Men ‘much more likely to ask questions in seminars’ than women, Times Higher Education, available at https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/men-much-more-likely-ask-questions-seminars-women (accessed 24/01/2018)

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