Conferencing while female

In the past month, I’ve been to 3 different conferences. It’s been exhausting, especially as I’ve noted that I try to be picky about the work travel I do. I felt that all of these meetings would be important for different reasons. One would introduce me to people in a related field in my new state of residence; two others were small meetings with high-level experts in my field, so I’d have a lot of time for networking and discussion, and to make sure these people were familiar with my work.

The ratio of men to women in these different meetings and conferences varied greatly. At the first one I went to (we’ll call this Conference 1), the “new people in a related field” one, I was one of only 2 female speakers (out of 14 total) the day that I attended and gave my talk. To be fair, this is a male-dominated field, but even so, it doesn’t skew *that* male. Not even close.

At the second, a smaller, networking-intensive meeting (Conference 2), the ratio of attendees was very similar. There were 14 of us there, and 2 of us were women. But this one was even worse, as all the men were given a speaking role—neither I nor the other woman was slated to give a talk. Further, all of the men were white, and largely older (of the dozen, I’d guess 8 of them were 65+). When we had periods of discussion during the meeting, I felt listened-to when I spoke and respected while interacting with the other participants, but it was like a glaring spotlight that the women there were not asked to give a talk.

At conference 3, the atmosphere was initially very similar to conference 2. There were about 20 of us there, but the ratio was much more favorable to women (close to 50:50). However, this was a textbook example of how a better gender ratio alone does not ensure that women will be respected or taken seriously. There were 2 older men who arrived late in day 1 and insisted on dominating every discussion. One even told a female speaker to “watch [her] tone” and then denigrated the entire subfield that myself and 2 of the other female speakers were experts in. Honestly, I think I have a pretty thick skin after many years of being insulted or minimized online and off, and this shocked even me. My jaw literally dropped–it felt cartoonish and I honestly couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. What was worse was that neither the other speakers nor the organizers reined either of these speakers in (much—one time one was cut off from asking questions because we’d already gone over time limit).

Now, because these all were small-ish and fairly informal meetings, I didn’t receive the programs until I arrived, and so hadn’t known in advance who all was speaking (or not). I did contact organizers from each event after the fact.

Conference 1: Because this is a new organization for me this year, I didn’t want to rock the boat too hard, but I did ask the organizers how speakers had been chosen. I was told that all came from submitted abstracts, and a panel chose the ones which they thought would be most interesting to the group, or ones that were novel topics that had not been presented in recent years. They said that no attention had been paid to gender representation, which I believe is true—this often flies under the radar until it’s pointed out. This is a field which has many more men than women, but this isn’t an excuse to have such a male-skewed speaker panel. I did make a suggestion that they may want to consider a more pro-active approach for future conferences, and think about inviting women who were doing work to submit abstracts for consideration. I didn’t receive a response to this.

Conference 2: the organizers reported that they’d chosen “the leaders in the field” to come and participate. And I agree; there were some big names here, but many were also left out as you’ll see below. Of those who were included, some of the leaders were indeed huge names and Very Important People, but also people who’d not published in this field for the last 5 years, and several had emeritus status. Including more currently-active researchers, and more women, might have changed the discussion. I also asked how they’d chosen who would give talks, and they said it was by subject/research area. While I did appreciate that they had individuals covering a wide area of the field, and it’s true that there was another man there who did similar work to mine (and likewise with the other woman), how were the men chosen instead of us? In my case, myself and my male colleague are the same academic rank and have similar grant and publication records, so it’s not clear why he was given a speaking role and I wasn’t.

Conference 3: similar response as conference 2 regarding “leaders in the field.” For this, I much more heartily agree with, as it was made up of current researchers and as noted, a fairly equal number of men and women. As such, the only real issue was the sanctioned boorishness of the two male participants—allowing them to repeatedly dominate the conversation, and completely condescend to one of the female participants. As such, I’m almost the most disappointed in this conference, as it did seem like they’d worked to pay attention to gender balance and making sure prominent women in the field were represented, but then none of the men spoke up to note the inappropriateness of this behavior*. Ideally, this would have been addressed by one of the (all-male) organizers, as they were in a position of power by way of chairing the conference and being in charge of the moderators.

I’ve organized meetings, from local to international level, and I know that it can sometimes be challenging to find women speakers who are willing and able to give talks. However, it’s certainly not impossible. The first thing to do is to recognize your bias—and yes, even women can discriminate against other women unintentionally as I’m sure many readers of this blog are aware,so this isn’t an issue only for men. The American Astronomical Society has compiled a list of suggestions at this link regarding conferences that I’ll point you to rather than re-create the wheel; and this one by hashb8ng here at TSW extends those thoughts further. This post by Acclimatrix is a handy list of things that male academics can do to support women in the field in general, with a few specific points for conference planning and running. I wish the organizers of these conferences had read it prior to my attendance this month, and had realized that making women feel included didn’t stop at the invitation to attend.

Above all, if you find yourself winning at female conference speaker bingo, well, you just might have some work to do.

*Yes, some of the women could have spoken up as well, but I’ll note that the woman who was addressed about her “tone” was the most senior of the group. If she’s being treated that way and it’s being allowed, what does that tell the rest of us more junior and mid-level people, and how might speaking up have cost us? This is something I’ve been stewing and fretting about since it happened, and I’m still not sure what the right course of action was. Thoughts/suggestions? What would you have done?


7 thoughts on “Conferencing while female

  1. I am appalled that this type of behaviour still occurs in public places such as conferences. I applaud ProfColleen in discussing it here, and in writing to the conference organisers. I have no idea how I would have reacted in similar situations… will be interested to read of experiences of others.

  2. I want to suggest that you not assume that emeritus/emerita professors are inactive. I know many who are still very productive scholars.

  3. I’m a bit late to the conversation, but what about daycare at conferences or even facilities for nursing & pumping moms? I attended a conference that had gender neutral bathrooms but scrambled to find me a place to pump. And there’s no childcare at a conference I’m attending this summer, so I have to rely on my mom which has become a headache in and of itself. Academic women seem to be discouraged from having more than one child just by the sheer complexity of the logistics.

    • And I’m late to this reply. Best thing to do about this is to ask the organizers. Odds are they probably can’t accommodate your requests, but in some cases they probably never even had these questions posed to them before. For the conferences I listed above, I also had to deal with pumping/refrigerating milk. They were good about finding me places but it was still inconvenient, and childcare–yeah, no way. Some places can be very good about it (such as ScienceOnline, and the major conference in my field has on-site daycare) but it’s clear many organizers have never even considered daycare and pumping as issues for attendees.

  4. Pingback: Improving the Conversational Geography of Environmental Conferences - Edge Effects

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