At various times in this blog, I have described professional events such as conference sessions, workshops, and speaker series in which there are no invited women speakers. The audience might consist of 30-50% women, especially if students and postdocs are in attendance, but every invited speaker is male. It is easier to explain the occurrence of such situations if there are a limited number of invited speaker slots in a field with few women researchers; it becomes more difficult when there are a dozen or more invited speaker slots and more than a few women researchers in that field.
There are a number of possible explanations for the absence of women as invited speakers at these events: e.g., deliberate exclusion because the organizers don't respect women researchers, accidental/unthinking exclusion because the organizers just didn't think of any 'qualified' women, or despite-best-efforts exclusion when all invited women decline an invitation. In today's post, I don't want to discuss which of these explanations is most likely, as the answer to that will vary from event to event and from field to field. I would, however, like to discuss the question:
Does an all-men speaker slate influence your decision about whether to attend these events?
Let's assume that there are women doing interesting research in the fields relevant to these events and "there are no women" is not a valid reason for the absence of invited speakers who are women. So: If you saw that there was, say, a small conference or workshop on a topic of interest to you and/or others in your research group, but every organizer and every invited speaker was male, is the absence of women:
(1) a total non-issue? The only thing that matters is whether the topic is relevant and interesting, and whether you and/or your advisees will benefit from attending or otherwise participating in the event.
(2) disappointing, but what can you do? You can't avoid all such events or you would severely limit your professional interactions, and you don't really know why there are no women speakers. You therefore attend anyway, despite feeling uncomfortable about being at yet another event in which a group of men expound on their research to an audience consisting of women who supposedly will one day start populating the higher faculty ranks of academia, even though it is taking an extremely long time for this to happen.
(3) a reason for boycotting the event? What kind of message does it send to your advisees if they go to an event on Interesting Topic X and get the impression that no women are doing interesting research on this topic, even though it's not difficult for you to think of some? If you make a decision to avoid such an event, would you tell the organizers why you decided not to attend?
The gender of invited speakers should not matter. It does not matter to the research, and it does not matter to the quality of an invited talk. It does matter, however, when there is a systematic imbalance that doesn't have a good explanation.
If men-only speaker slates bother you, what can you do about this other than boycott such workshops and sessions?
You can organize workshops and sessions and think broadly about who would give an interesting talk, focusing not just on your impression of how famous someone is, but on what their research contributions are.
I believe that if decisions about invited speakers are made based on a person's research contributions and ideas and not on perception of prestige, then there will naturally be women included in any group in most fields. There would be no need to go out and find a token women just to have one in the list of speakers for the sake of diversity. Women speakers would be invited because they have interesting things to say.
That doesn't seem like such a radical goal, but, based on the last few session/workshop advertisements I have read, it seems to be a very difficult thing to achieve.
2 months ago