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Why women talk less at conferences

Papers exploring the roots of gender disparities at meetings and the importance of attending them drew many online comments.

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Conferences are a central part of scientific life, but they are also an arena for gender disparities, according to a study proving popular on social media. Another paper attracted attention online because it highlighted the value of showing up and presenting at meetings — for researchers of either gender.

Researchers in Australia gathered data from the 2013 Australasian Evolution Society (AES) meeting in Geelong, and found that male speakers tend to get a bigger share of the exposure1 — a conclusion shared by past studies of conferences. Even though roughly the same number of men and women attended and presented at the evolution conference, women spoke for less time and were also less inclined to ask for longer slots for their talks. Katie Hinde, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shared her take-home message on Twitter:

The study found that women — whether they were students or PhD-level academics — spent about 20% less time talking than their male counterparts. One reason stemmed from the researchers themselves. People who want to give a presentation at the AES conference have the option of requesting a short, 5-minute talk or a longer, 12-minute presentation. Among the academics who had asked to speak, 62% of women requested the long talk, compared with 90% of men.

The authors did not find signs that the selection committee was biased against women. Female and male PhDs asking for a long talk were about equally likely to get one. Female students who requested a long talk were more likely than men to be denied, but the difference wasn’t statistically significant.

Margaret Stanley, an ecologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, came to similar conclusions as the paper in her tweet:

In an interview, Stanley said that women don’t always take the necessary steps to boost their visibility, referring to a 2013 study that seems to support this. It found that, of the scientists invited to speak at the European Society for Evolutionary Biology conference in 2011, 50% of the women and 26% of the men declined.

Stanley sees two possible explanations. She says that some women in science lack confidence, and some may lack time as a result of family obligations. “Personally, as a mother with young children, I often compromise on attending conferences,” she said. However, she added that she encourages everyone in her group, most of whom are women, to spread the word about their research through social media and other venues.

Contacted by Nature, Hinde noted that longer isn’t always better when it comes to conference talks. “Short talks can be killer, and long talks can be train wrecks,” she said. Still, she added that a lack of visibility at meetings can hinder female researchers in their careers. “Mentors should encourage all of their students to apply for long talks,” she said.

Gender differences aside, a study of another conference provided empirical evidence that giving talks does indeed increase visibility. Hurricane Isaac hit Louisiana in August 2012 and forced the cancellation of the American Political Science Association (APSA) meeting that had been scheduled in New Orleans. Seeing a rare opportunity for a natural experiment, two UK economists compared the fate of papers that were supposed to be presented at the APSA conference with those that had been presented at a similar conference that went on as planned.

Overall, presenting a paper at a conference was associated with between 17 and 26 more downloads. The link was especially strong for researchers at the beginning of their careers. “New paper shows how academic conferences matter,” tweeted Luna Centifanti, a developmental psychopathologist at Durham University, UK. Some felt that the message may have arrived a little late. Belinda Barnet, who teaches media and communication at Swinburne University of Technology in Hawthorn, Australia, tweeted:

References

  1. Jones, T. M., Fanson, K. V., Lanfear, R., Symonds, M. R. E. & Higgie, M. PeerJ 2, e627 (2014).

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Woolston, C. Why women talk less at conferences. Nature (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature.2014.16270

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