Men are given more opportunities to speak at scientific conferences than women, according to new research from the University of Cambridge. Researchers say the discrepancy exists because there are more men in advanced career stages, and because male conference organisers tend to favour male presenters when selecting speakers.
The team, led by Dr Heather Ford from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences, published their findings on Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications. Ford and her colleagues analysed data from the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting. As the world’s largest geoscience conference, the AGU Fall Meeting receives over 22,000 presentation proposals each year in fields ranging from atmospheric sciences to space physics.
Using data from 2014 to 2016, researchers examined participant information including career stage, gender and type of presentation delivered. They found that overall, male scientists were offered more opportunities to present their research than female scientists. Researchers said women scientists are at a disadvantage because many of them are either in the early stages of their careers or still students.
“Women are concentrated in these student and early careers stages and there are just fewer speaking opportunities at those career stages,” Dr Ford told The Guardian.
Their results showed that women accounted for only 29% of talks that had been assigned at the conference and for 27% of invited speakers. While 45% of men who asked the conference organisers to assign them a talk or allow them to display a poster showcasing their research were given the opportunity to speak, only 41% of women who asked for the same opportunity were granted the chance to speak.
The team said these differences are largely due to the fact that men outnumber women at senior levels, where scientists are more likely to be asked to speak. When controlling for career stage, the researchers found that women and men were equally likely to give talks. Their analysis also showed that in the early and mid-career stages, women were more likely than men to be asked to speak.
However, the research found that male conveners granted fewer women opportunities to speak than men, whether they were inviting them to do so or assigning a talk after receiving a request. This trend held true regardless of the career stage of the convener or participant.
Discussing the motivation for the research, Ford said she and study co-author Petra Dekens, from San Francisco State University, wanted to explore the topic after sitting in “too many conference sessions” with few to no female speakers. Geoscience, Ford and Deken’s field, is considered one of the least diverse Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.
Presenting at conferences is an important tool for career progression, since it can help scientists secure funding for their work and lead to job offers. In order to help women beginning their careers, the researchers called on conference organisers to grant more speaking opportunities to early career scientists. They also urged the ACU to give more women the chance to select conference speakers and to provide all members with diversity training.
“The burden of representation often falls on under-represented groups. We need the majority groups to think about representation, otherwise minority voices will continue to be drowned out,” said Ford.
AGU Executive Director and CEO Chris McEntee told The Guardian: “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.”