Gender Bias in Academic Conferences

by Kassandra Burd

With the majority of men dominating STEM fields, it is not surprising to hear that the majority of presenters and speakers at academic conferences are predominantly male. While this doesn’t seem like a significant problem in the midst of so many other issues that women face in academia, it certainly makes a difference. Lack of visibility of women at conferences plays a negative role in women’s motivation to pursue STEM fields, and also sets them back when it comes to insufficient recognition and acknowledgement of their research. Essentially, this only benefits  men further, as it places their work in the spotlight and eclipses the valuable academic work of women. Also, women belonging to minority groups are even further underrepresented at many conferences, which is why it is crucial that rules be put into place to ensure gender equity and overall fairness when it comes to conference attendees and speakers.

Out of all of the STEM fields, the geosciences (earth, oceanic, and atmospheric sciences) are the most gender-biased sector of them all (Cannon et al., 2018). In British Columbia at the 2017 Canadian Geophysical Union and Canadian Society for Agriculture and Forest Meteorology meeting, women were the majority of attendees, however, they made up only 28% of oral presenters and 19% of invited speakers (Cannon et al., 2018). Poster sessions were more likely to be comprised of women, but these sessions are not as highly-regarded or reputable as presentations; additionally, only 5% of presentations were by women of colour (Cannon et al., 2018). Some question why women are not often visible as speakers or presenters at these conferences; could it be that they are simply less interested in attending than men? This may be partially true, but only because no effort is being taken to ameliorate the prejudice that persists. For instance, 41% of women state that the top three reasons for not attending a conference include underrepresentation of women, lack of accommodations for mothers, and gender-based discrimination (Baron, 2019). Ultimately, these revelations make sense as they contribute to the perpetual cycle of gender bias and non-attendance of female academics. 

In Beijing at the 15th International Congress of Quantum Chemistry conference in 2015, all 29 of the speakers and honorary chairs were male (Arnold, 2015). As a result, a petition was introduced signed by over 1,500 scientists. According to the National Science Foundation, 50.6% of PhDs in the sciences in the U.S. were awarded to women, so why is it that they are not represented proportionately at conferences? (Arnold, 2015). Many scientists boycott these conferences to raise awareness of this issue so that dwindling numbers of attendees might perhaps persuade measures be put into place to establish a more equitable and diverse environment. Less exposure for women essentially means that they are less likely to achieve higher positions in their fields (Kempston, 2018). If women aren’t getting recognition for their work, how are they supposed to secure prestigious positions in their fields of choice? Academic conferences provide an excellent opportunity for academics to showcase their work; with gender-biased conference practices, women’s research and applied work are rendered invisible.

Lin Classon, a director of an IT company outside Chicago, states that visibility is key, and she questions what message is being sent to girls and women in tech fields who are not represented on the conference stage (Baron, 2019). How are girls to stay motivated in the pursuit of STEM when they’re not seeing more women in the foreground of their desired fields? A few of the biggest obstacles that women face with conferences are that they’re least likely to be accepted as presenters, taken less seriously during discussions, dress code issues, balancing social and professional duties, and sexual harassment (Inomics, 2016). In particular, sexual harassment is a widespread issue that is quite prevalent at conferences, and unfortunately is not given sufficient attention. As an example, with tech meetings, nearly 31% of women witnessed sexual harassment during a conference, while 26% personally experienced sexual harassment (Baron, 2019). 

So, the question remains: what can we do to accentuate these issues and bring about a new reality for women at academic conferences that make them feel both secure in their attendance and acknowledged in their scholarly work? According to the Inomics team, first we we must collect data that illustrates and confirms the existing bias that is recurrent in these conferences; this data ultimately raises awareness of the issue at hand. Second, we can include women in conference planning so that conference rules and practices are fair and equitable across the board. When it comes to selection of speakers, having a woman included on the team positively impacts proportion of gender in the sessions (Inomics, 2016). Third, it is important to understand why women might turn down conference invitations; does it have to do with inadequate child care programs provided by the conference, making it difficult to attend? If plausible, perhaps financial assistance might help pay for child care if they have no other choice but to bring their children along in their travels. It could also be that some women don’t feel that they are given reasonable distinctive opportunities at these conferences. Knowing the reasons why women refuse to attend will help organizers to structure conferences and meetings in a more egalitarian manner. 

We know that women are absolutely crucial to the advancement of all academic fields, not just STEM. However, the fact that STEM fields have made virtually little or no effort to include women in keynotes at past conferences takes us a step back when it comes to making progress in these fields. Not only would positive change bring increased attention to women’s research, but it will also serve to inspire young girls to pursue their academic endeavours if they can see for themselves that recognition is indeed possible.