Women’s representation in scientific symposia and strategies to close the gap

Hi! Our 6th meeting, on September 7th, is dedicated to women’s representation in scientific symposia. Many of us have recently returned from attending the XVI congress of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology, and it’s fitting to discuss how women’s participation in scientific symposia reflects broader issues that stand in the way for women in science.

This post will be updated with the meeting minutes and summary as they become available.

Our reading list is:

– Schroeder, Julia, et al. “Fewer invited talks by women in evolutionary biology symposia.” Journal of evolutionary biology 26.9 (2013): 2063-2069. – http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jeb.12198/epdf

– Farr, Cooper M., et al. “Addressing the Gender Gap in Distinguished Speakers at Professional Ecology Conferences.” BioScience 67.5 (2017): 464-468. – https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/doi/10.1093/biosci/bix013/3062421/Addressing-the-Gender-Gap-in-Distinguished

– Sardelis, Stephanie, and Joshua A. Drew. “Not “pulling up the ladder”: Women who organize conference symposia provide greater opportunities for women to speak at conservation conferences.” PloS one 11.7 (2016): e0160015. – https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0160015

– Horner-Devine, M. Claire, et al. “Beyond Traditional Scientific Training: The Importance of Community and Empowerment for Women in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.” Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 4 (2016): 119. – http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fevo.2016.00119/full

Summary

Schroeder, Julia, et al. “Fewer invited talks by women in evolutionary biology symposia.” Journal of evolutionary biology 26.9 (2013): 2063-2069.

Intro points:

  • Fewer women as job status increases: leaky pipeline
  • Academics raise their profile by exposure and visibility (e.g. talks at seminars).
  • Exposure and visibility create a positive feedback loop: more visibility signals quality → more likely to be invited → more visibility
  • Hypothesis I: scientific achievements of women are less visible – because they don’t get invited as often to talk, which in turn causes them to be overlooked more often in invitations to talk.
    • Prediction: sex ratio of invited speakers will be biased towards males even after accounting for career stage and population sex ratio of the field.
  • Hypothesis II: sex ratio of speakers depends on sex of symposium organizers.
    • Prediction: symposia organized by males will have less invited female speakers

Materials:

  • All participants in every category of presentation at the XIII ESEB conference in 2011, plus sex ratios of invited and plenary speakers deduced from the congress guides for the ESEB congresses in 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009.

Main Results:

  • Representation of women: 54% essence posters, 50% regular posters, 41% regular talks, 15% invited talks (excluding plenary, including plenary 16.43%), 25% plenary
  • Sex ratio of invited speakers was biased towards males compared to all other presenters and compared to all regular speakers
  • 50% women declined invitation: 23% of all invited speakers were women, only 15% of realized invited speakers were women
  • Only 33% of symposia organizing committees contained any women, and only 18% of symposia organizers were women – these differ from the sex ratios of all presenters and of regular speakers
  • Proportion of female realized invited speakers was lower than baseline populations of early–mid career stage scientists but similar to senior scientists
  • Proportion of female invited speakers was lower than baseline populations of early–mid career stage scientists but similar to senior scientists
  • Proportion of female symposium organizers was lower than Fellows and Lecturers but not Professors

Discussion points:

  • Sex ratio of invited speakers was male biased compared to several baseline populations
  • Sex ratio bias of realized invited speakers compared to baseline populations was primarily due to fewer men than women declining invitations
  • Three potential and not mutually exclusive mechanisms leading to fewer women invited speakers: (1) the pool of scientists that could be invited to speak contains fewer women than men, for example due to the ‘leaky pipeline’; (2) women turned down invitations more often than men; and (3) there was a bias for selecting men as invited speakers.
  • Comparisons with baseline populations imply that we miss a significant proportion of high-quality Evolutionary Biology research during invited talks, and this research does not get the visibility in our field that it potentially deserves, which may impact on the careers of female scientists, reducing their visibility, which in turn decreases the number of female role models in Evolutionary Biology.
  • Compared to baseline population of female senior scientists, proportion of all female invited speakers was not biased, but the realized invited speakers were below baseline population b/c more women declined. Compared to men, women might find it more difficult to travel to meetings (childcare or family care duties), they self-promote less, and have a lower perception of their success, specifically of their scientific ability. Also, grant awards are gender biased, so invited women may have less travel funding which may contribute to them declining more often.
  • Implicit gender bias: both males and females subconsciously perceive females differently than males, even when skills and experience are matched between the sexes. People assign fame more often to men, and seeing mainly male invited speakers reinforces the image that successful scientists are male, leading to less women being invited.
  • Knowledge of underlying causes is crucial to provide solutions, therefore organizers and invitees should be aware of both higher decline rate of women and the risks of unconscious bias when selecting invited speakers.

Farr, Cooper M., et al. “Addressing the Gender Gap in Distinguished Speakers at Professional Ecology Conferences.” BioScience 67.5 (2017): 464-468.

Intro points:

  • Women in science are disadvantaged by institutional barriers, and by both explicit and implicit bias.
  • Inadequate mentoring and lack of role models are also recognized as important factors contributing to female underrepresentation in the sciences, as there is evidence that female mentors and role models are more effective in retaining women in scientific fields, boosting women’s academic performance and combatting impostor syndrome.
  • Invited speakers provide scientists with role models, and having fewer female invited speakers contributes to the underrepresentation of female role models compared to male ones.
  • Invited speaker talks are also more publicized in social media, amplifying their reach and impact. So having a fair representation of female scientists in invited speaker roles contributes to increasing female role models for scientists in general.
  • Objective: assess the gender ratio of plenary and keynote speakers (henceforth distinguished speakers) at ecological conferences in North America (the United States, Canada, and Mexico) and to investigate the factors that influenced speaker gender ratios. Tested the prediction that individual or institutional characteristics (i.e., career stage, field of expertise, and institution type) influenced the probability that a distinguished speaker was female.

Materials:

  • Annual conferences in North America with a disciplinary focus on ecology or a subfield in ecology that listed distinguished speakers on their program. Career stages were defined as Early-career professionals, midcareer professionals and late-career professionals; presentation types categorized as keynote, plenary, or plenary panel moderator or member.

Main results:

  • Over a 15-year period (2000 to 2015), women constituted only 15%–35% of distinguished speakers at North American ecology conferences, with no consistent pattern of increasing female representation over time, despite the fact that throughout the same period female graduate students in ecology programs remained above 50%.
  • Women are underrepresented at all professional levels (assistant, associate and full professors) in 36 ecology departments. Women made up 30% of all faculty and was lowest at full professor level.
  • Gender representation varied with sub-field of ecology.
  • Late career stages had a significant negative relationship with the probability of a distinguished speaker being female relative to early career stages, and working in the private sector also had a significant negative relationship relative to academia. Only 24% of the speakers in late career stages were women.
  • The distinguished speakers were also less likely to be women if they specialized in the life and physical sciences .

Discussion points:

  • Distinguished talks at conferences can boost the careers of speakers and provide important role models for early-career ecologists. Also, gender balance among speakers could also increase productivity by catalyzing an exchange of ideas among a more diverse pool of scientists.
  • Percentage of female distinguished speakers at ecology conferences was approx. equal to the percentage of women in early and mid stage academic positions, but the gender ratios were far from balanced and not representative of the ecology graduates population. These results confirm documented gender gaps in ecology and point to the need to increase the representation of female distinguished speakers who can serve as role models.
  • Results also reflect patterns of other types of professional recognition, e.g. men receive a higher proportion of awards and prizes for STEM scholarly research relative to their representation in the nomination pool.
  • Professional societies could institute policies requiring gender equality in distinguished-speaking roles.
  • Conference organizers should consider taking measures to accommodate women with family responsibilities that might limit participation, e.g. onsite childcare and reimbursing distinguished speakers for family obligations like the care of elderly or disabled dependents.
  • Conference organization should include greater representation of women on selection committees.
  • Increasing the number of female distinguished speakers at professional conferences will not resolve gender inequities in ecology because there are many factors that contribute to this, but evidence suggests female role models are important for women at early-career stages, and public recognition of scientific excellence is important at all career stages.
  • The lack of change over time suggests that professional ecological societies have not properly addressed gender disparity at a similar rate as awareness of this issue grew.

Sardelis, Stephanie, and Joshua A. Drew. “Not “pulling up the ladder”: Women who organize conference symposia provide greater opportunities for women to speak at conservation conferences.” PloS one 11.7 (2016): e0160015.

Intro points:

  • The “leaky pipeline” (where women’s representation decreases with increasing career status), although an issue with multifactorial causes, can be attributed in part to gender biases. These biases are self-fulfilling gender schema, underrepresentation of women at senior academic levels may negatively influence the ambitions of junior female scientists.
  • Women in science face systemic challenges related to their gender, e.g. being judged less competent, being promoted less, earning less, etc, which are contributing causes to their underrepresentation.
  • In settings where men are majority and fill in more senior positions, women are less likely to themselves contribute to group decision making. One solution can be to put more women in positions with increased visibility where they can have greater influence over more junior female scientists.
  • Article chose to analyze invited speakers for there is more room for implicit bias to appear, given these are choices made by organizers.
  • They hypothesize that (i) there would a positive correlation between the number of female organizers and female speakers (reflecting either gender assortment in professional networks or proactive motivation to achieve better gender representation), and that (ii) due to increased awareness for gender bias in science and increased number of women in STEM, there would be more female organizers and presenters at conferences over time.

Materials:

  • Collected information on symposia organizers and speakers from conferences held by the Society of Conservation Biology (SCB) Global chapter and from the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (ASIH) annual meetings. Data consists of organizers and speakers from SCB Global conferences 1999, 2002, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2015; and from ASIH conferences 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2015.

Main results:

  • At SCB Global conferences, 36.4% of organizers and 31.7% of presenters for the entire conference (all symposia cumulatively) were female. At the ASIH conferences, 19.1% of organizers and 28% of presenters for the entire conference (all symposia cumulatively) were female, which is less than the percentage of the membership that is female.
  • For every additional female organizer per symposium increased the number of female presenters at each symposium by 95% (SCB) and 70% (ASIH). The number of female presenters per symposium increased continuously as the number of female organizers per symposium did.
  • There was a strong, significant, positive correlation between the number of female organizers per symposium and the number of female presenters per symposium.
  • There was a significant, positive correlation between the number of female organizers per symposium and the total number of organizers per symposium at the SCB Global conferences (as the organizer pool increased in size, the opportunities for female organizers increases significantly), but not at the ASIH conferences.
  • There was a significant, positive correlation between the number of female presenters per symposium and the total number of presenters per symposium (as the size of the pool of presenters increased, there were significantly more women presenting).
  • Neither the number of female organizers per symposium nor female presenters per symposium increased significantly over time at SCB Global conferences between 1999 and 2015, nor ASIH conferences between 2005 and 2015.

Discussion points:

  • Hypothesis (i) was accepted and (ii) rejected.
  • Results show a strong relationship between women’s participation in the organization of symposia and opportunities for women to participate in symposia; increasing the number of female organizers leads to a continuous increase in the number of female presenters. Each additional female organizer per symposium has nearly a one-to-one increase in female speakers.
  • Results support research that identifies gender-based disparities in STEM fields based on the orientation of individuals towards others, rather than differences in ability or achievement.
  • As the total number of presenters and organizers per symposium increased, so did the number of female presenters and organizers. Increasing the total number of organizers per symposium had a significant positive effect on the number of female organizers at one conference, and increasing the total number of presenters per symposium had a significant positive effect on the number of female presenters at both conferences.
  • Symposia with larger pools of speakers and organizers are significantly more likely to include women in both categories – inclusivity stimulated by larger symposia with greater topic generality. Smaller symposia with more specialized topics are less likely to include women in their programs.
  • Number of female organizers and speakers has not significantly increased over time, partly due to females being more likely to decline invitations. This relates, in part, to female scientists having more barriers to participation (e.g. childcare and family care responsibilities, smaller grants and starter packages, smaller earnings, etc).
  • Potential interventions to alleviate the problems include: quotas for women organizers and invited speakers at conferences, increasing their visibility and potential for professional networking; facilitating travel by providing special funds to help subsidize women participants; make conferences child friendly by providing subsidized child care; encouraging and promoting women to organize more symposia since there’s a strong, positive relationship between women organizers and women invited speakers at symposia; enforcing strict codes of conduct to ensure the safety and comfort of all participants, especially women and other stigmatized groups who are at greater risk of being victims of inappropriate behavior.

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