The issue of unequal representation of women and men at academic conference is not a new topic, but it has often been on my mind in recent weeks following experiences and observations as both a conference organiser and attendee/presenter. I’ve had multiple constructive, encouraging discussions around this topic with people of varying gender and career stage, and through this article I hope to summarise some of the ideas arising from these discussions which organisers, conveners and attendees can put in place to promote gender parity in future meetings. I know that many individuals and organisations are working hard to effect change on this issue, and some of the material below may be obvious or already being applied, However, it’s clear that there is still significant room for improvement, and as long as there are still conference sessions where all speakers are men, in my view, we must do more to achieve a gender balance.
Encouraging attendance and abstract submission
- Earmark in-house funding for ECR female attendance where funds are available and flag external opportunities for conference attendance funding such as the Gill Harwood Memorial Fund from the BSRG.
- Offer childcare subsidies if possible, and strive to acquire sponsorship to contribute towards funding of crèche facilities and childcare.
- Solicit abstracts from female researchers to encourage submission to meetings and individual sessions, with a particular focus on talks. By contacting researchers directly they may feel more welcome and their academic contribution more appreciated.
- Try to achieve gender balance when inviting keynote speakers. In conferences with multiple sessions/specialisms this should be reviewed by the organising committee to ensure gender balance across the event and not only at session level.
- Ensure gender balance in session conveners/co-conveners. Having a good gender balance in the organising committee, session conveners, and invited keynotes can be used to advertise a meeting/session and create a positive, inclusive vibe.
Achieving session diversity
- Strive for an equal gender balance of speakers, even if (where appropriate) this results in “positive” discrimination in favour of women. The visibility of female speakers may act to encourage increased female attendance and abstract submissions in future meetings/sessions.
- If an oral session looks likely to be dominated by male speakers while the poster session has a larger proportion of women, think about getting in touch with individuals to ask whether they would consider giving a talk. This may not be possible where the abstract submission process is very formal (highlighting the need to solicit female contributions early on).
- It has been observed that men are more likely to ask questions during oral sessions even where conference gender balance is 50/50, but one study suggests that women are more likely to ask questions if a female is first to ask. Convenors could thus try to vary between men and women being given an opportunity to ask the first question after a talk. Individual institutions and organisations could also try to improve the confidence of ECRs of all genders in engaging with questions and discussion by implementing ideas such as “question club”.
Facilitating the needs of attendees
- Be aware of diverse needs when choosing a conference venue. I witnessed multiple instances of people with children and buggies struggling with non-automatic doors at the very busy entrance to EGU last week, for example. Ensuring accessibility is important not only for attendees with children, but also for those with disabilities and mobility issues.
- Try to set aside quiet/private spaces with adequate facilities for breastfeeding, pumping and other childcare needs.
- Strive to offer childcare/crèche facilities, and spaces for play.
- Consider inclusion of priority seating in oral and poster sessions, ensuring that pregnant women, and indeed those with reduced mobility, have access to seats should they need them.
- Facilitate the attendance of family members and caregivers. Given that many countries and organisations still do not offer full equality in parental leave, promoting family conference attendance may better support female researchers.
- More on this topic can be found in this recent article in PNAS.
Diversity in roles and accolades
- Conferences often involve medal ceremonies for researchers being recognised for their contribution to a specific field. Medal ceremonies and lectures are a visual display of excellence, and thus achieving gender balance here is imperative to encourage female ECRs to continue in their research careers. When soliciting nominations for these awards organisers may wish to highlight that the full range and diversity of the research community should be considered when nominating and voting for candidates. Ultimately it is up to the community as a whole to do better on this point; when calls for nominations come around the mailing lists, act! (Only 21.1% of nominees for EGU awards in 2018 were female, for example).
- Both conference organisation and convening can be viewed as prestigious roles, and may even contribute towards career progression. Committees should thus strive to encourage female participation in conference organisation, while sessions without female co-convenors could consider inviting additional female contributors.
- More broadly, female representation in organisations and committees must be improved across a range of roles and levels. Furthermore, females must have an equal opportunity to take on the most prestigious roles (and not only roles in outreach and networking, which are often taken on more by minority groups).
Considerations for conference attendees
- When organising networking or social events (both formally and informally) be mindful to avoid bias against those of a different gender. Given that ideas for new projects and collaborations can often arise outside of formal conference sessions, post-conference socialising and networking must be inclusive to allow equal opportunity for future research engagement. As with many of the points raised here, this issue is important not only in terms of gender balance, but also for all minority groups.
- Transparent guidelines for appropriate behaviour, including a policy on sexual harassment, should be considered, particularly for large events. These guidelines must be clearly-communicated and easily navigable, helping to ensure that all attendees feel comfortable and safe during the conference. AGU have made positive progress on this, including the implementation of the “SafeAGU” programme.
- Finally, all conference participants should be aware of their own behaviour during sessions. I’ve seen multiple cases of ECRs (particularly females) being questioned/criticized in an aggressive and non-constructive manner following what might be their first oral presentation at a large conference. While I certainly do not want to see sessions where constructive criticism is not welcomed, attendees should be mindful of where public criticism is appropriate.
This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of guidelines, nor can all of this be achieved immediately or at every conference. Many of these guidelines can be implemented simply by a change in research culture and through community buy-in, while others will require investment in the form of infrastructure and funding. I’d like to thank all of the men and women who flagged many of the ideas above to me in recent weeks, and I very much welcome additional input and open discussion around this topic in the future.
Dr Caroline Clason, 15th April 2018