On Being a Conference Quota

noprofileimageyetBy A Woman in Science


I attended an excellent specialist conference today, at which I was also a speaker. All speakers were invited. There were 24 of us. My invitation was somewhat clumsy. The organisers had noticed their first draft of speakers was a bit male biased (in fact it was 93% male!). They realised this was not great, and so sought out suggestions for suitable female speakers from colleagues. My (female) friend recommended me. A day later, I received an email inviting me to be speaker. I accepted, because the conference really interested me and I welcomed the excuse to put aside the hum-drum of daily life and learn something new.

I received a follow up email from the organisers, who apologised profusely for the way the invite had been issued. They guessed I had heard through my friend how the invitation came about. It certainly did look like I had been invited in a ‘wave of panic for equality’. They assured me that this was not the case, that this was not a ‘tokenistic invitation’, and that they were sure my name would have surfaced sooner, if they’d had noticed their blunder earlier. At the two-day conference, 5 speakers were female and 17 were male. So, they managed to steer their male bias from 93% to 71%, by luring in another 4 women somewhat late in the day.

I write this on my long commute home from the conference. I reflect on the day, as the sun reflects on the coming dusk. My talk appeared to be well received, I learned lots from the other talks and participants, I’ve even come away with some new ideas for a grant proposal. There is no doubt that today was a good use of my time.

But it is hard to not feel a little bit ‘tokenistic’. I have often joked about being a happy recipient of positive discrimination. But this is the first time I have knowingly ‘benefited’. I don’t regret the invite. But I do regret the knowledge I have about how (or why) I was invited. No scientist (man or woman) wants to be rewarded for their gender rather than the quality of their science.

Enough of such sentimental navel-gazing. Let’s turn our attention to understanding why conference organisers get themselves into a mess like this. Here is my ‘journalistic’ (i.e. subjective, unreplicated analysis) of the situation.

A plausible explanation for this situation is that this is not a ‘female-friendly’ branch of science, and there are simply not many women to choose from. For reasons explained below, this blog is anonymous, so I cant give away the discipline. From the list of 104 conference participants (including speakers), 46% were female. I can’t remember the last time I attended a conference with such an equal sex ratio. Clearly, women love this field of science, and clearly they have the funding to attend, which suggests they are successful, active scientists. Why weren’t more of them invited to speak?

The organisers were clearly targeting the more senior, established scientists as speakers (there we go – I’ve given it away: I’m no baby!). So, one could argue that it is not reasonable to expect the sex ratio of the speakers to reflect the sex ratio of the audience: there are fewer women in senior positions in science. Early career scientists appeared to be well represented in the audience demographic, and so this could be part of the problem (sadly, the ages of the participants were not provided – and I don’t have time to hunt down 104 CVs on the internet!)

A more plausible explanation, however, is the prevailing problem of the ‘lad culture’ in science. The organisers (both men) admitted to me that they’d largely drawn up their speaker list from their group of drinking buddies (either locally or from the crowds they hang out with at conferences). Five women were apparently invited: all but one declined (the reasons for this would be another whole blog…). Perhaps having a woman on the organising committee would have shifted the balance away from the pub crowd, to a gender-neutral choice.

So why is this Blog anonymous? Not for my own sake – I have no qualms about discussing this issue, and nor should anyone (male or female): the more we talk about it, the less these blunders will recur. This blog is anonymous for the sake of the conference organisers, who in every other way were brilliant and organised a top-notch, high quality meeting! They took great pains to explain and again apologise to me about the situation, and tied themselves up in knots in their efforts to assure me I was not a ‘token woman’. I hope they read this blog, realise it’s about them and use their experience to educate the scientific community. Meanwhile, i look forward to a world where checking the gender-bias in conference speakers is higher up on the list than booking the tea and biscuits.

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