Monday, January 27, 2014

Gender diversity begets gender diversity for invited conference speakers

There are numerous arguments for why the academic pipeline leaks - i.e. why women are increasingly less represented in higher academic ranks. Among others, the suggestion has been made there can be simple subconscious biases regarding the image that accompanies the idea of "a full professor" or "seminar speaker". A useful new paper by Arturo Casadevall and Jo Handelsman provides some support for this idea. The authors identified invited talks at academic conferences as an example of important academic career events, which provide multiple benefits and external recognition of a researcher’s work. However, a number of studies have shown that women are less represented as invited speakers, but proportionally and in absolute numbers. To explore this further, the authors asked whether the presence or absence of women as conveners for the American Microbial Society (ASM) meetings affects the number of female invited speakers. Conveners for ASM meetings are involved of selection of speakers, either directly or in consultation with program committee members. The two annual meetings run by the ASM involve 4000-6000 attendees, of which female members constitute approximately 40% (37% when only full members were considered). Despite this nearly 40% female membership, for session where all conveners were male, the percentage of invited speakers who were female was consistently near 25%. While explanations for these sorts of poor representation of females in academia are often structural, the authors show that in this case, simple changes might change this statistic. If one or more women were conveners for a session, the proportion of female invited speakers in that session rises to around 40%, or in line with women’s general representation in the ASM. The authors don’t offer precise explanations for these striking results, but note that women conveners may be more likely to be aware of gender and may make a conscious effort to invite female speakers. Implicit biases, our “search images”, may unconsciously favour males, but these results are positive in suggesting that even small changes and greater awareness can make a big difference.

The proportion of invited speakers in a session who are female from 2011-2013, for the two annual meetings (GM & ICAAC) organized by the ASM. Compare black bars - no female conveners - and grey bars - at least one female convener.

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