UNITED KINGDOM:A research conducted in the University of Cambridge states that women get fewer chances than men to speak about their work at scientific conferences, largely because those in the upper tiers of academia are male.
While speaking at conferences is a key part of academic life, not only does it help raise the profile of researchers but also provides them with a platform to share ideas and find job and funding opportunities.
The latest study confirms what many scientists have long suspected to be true: men give more talks than women.
“Women are concentrated in these student and early careers stages and there are just fewer speaking opportunities at those career stages,” said Dr Heather Ford, first author of the research from the University of Cambridge.
Writing in the journal Nature Communications, Ford and colleagues examined the numbers of male and female scientists giving talks at the world’s largest geophysical conference: the American Geophysical Union (AGU) fall meeting.
The team scrutinized lists detailing short summaries of research submitted by scientists for meetings between 2014 and 2016. The team looked at whether the scientist had been invited to provide an abstract, which often means the scientist will also be asked to give a talk, or whether instead the scientist had submitted an abstract and asked conference organizers to assign them either a talk or the chance to showcase their research with a poster of their results.
The team also took note of the gender and career stage of the first author of the work – who is most likely to be giving the presentation – and, in the case of invited authors, who was issuing the invitations.
The results reveal, overall, women spoke less than men, accounting for 29% of talks that had been assigned, and 27% of invited speakers. Indeed just over 41% of women who asked conveners to assign them either a talk or the chance to display a poster were asked to speak, compared to almost 45% of men.
Further analysis of the results, taking into account the proportion of women at each career stage, showed that this appears to be down to the fact that male authors outnumber female authors – an effect particularly stark at senior levels where individuals are far more likely to be assigned or asked to give a talk.
Indeed men and women at the same stage of their career were just as likely to give talks, with women in the early or mid stages of their career more likely than men to be invited to do so.
But the team discovered that male conveners of the conference’s sessions disproportionately chose fewer women to speak, whether inviting or assigning a talk. What’s more, the trend held regardless of their own career stage and whether they were inviting an early, mid or late career scientist. “This is a community-wide issue, it is not a generational issue,” said Ford.
“If we are interested in improving overall gender parity within a research conference in terms of the speaking opportunities, we really need to focus on student and early career stages, because that is the time when we have the most women currently,” said Ford.
She added that the research also flags the need to tackle the so-called “leaky pipeline” of science, whereby female scientists become fewer in number higher up the career ladder, and that female convener should be encouraged.
Dr Seirian Sumner, a behavioral ecologist at University College London and co-founder of the outreach platform SoapboxScience, said that the issue of men dominating speaking roles at conferences is widespread across the scientific community and that more must be done to ensure that female scientist are heard, pointing out that speaking could also boost the confidence of female scientists and raise their profiles, helping to tackle the leaky pipeline.
Chris McEntee, AGU Executive Director and CEO said: “The AGU is committed to improving gender diversity in the sciences and we’re aware of the gender gaps that exist not only across Earth and space sciences but currently within AGU activities.”
McEntee added the union has made efforts to increase the number of female scientists’ peer reviewing the work of others, and increasing gender diversity in committees, programmes and the honours and recognition process, while a diversity and inclusion task force will provide final recommendations by the end of the year.