Thursday, August 05, 2010

Man Boy(cott)?

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.


Brad said...

For what it is worth, because there are so many good women working in my field, an all male slate would mean one of two things. Either the invited speakers are all really old, or the invited speakers were selected for a reason not having to do with science but having to do with connections to the organizing committee. Either way, I would be less inclined to attend.

David Stern said...

Boycotting is silly because then audiences would get the impression that there are even less women working in the relevant field. I think you should go and either ask a question about this, or ask the organizer in private, or e-mail the organizer, before or afterwards.

Anonymous said...

Why would anyone boycott such an all-male event? Doesn't that make things even worth? My best option would be to go there and show that I (as a woman) can participate in the discussion just as well as any of the invited men. And maybe have a little chat with the chair and express my surprise that he didn't invite [put name of some of the extremely qualified women in that field here]. And maybe it'll turn out that he asked all of them and they just couldn't make it because they are receiving some important medal somewhere else... ;-)

Anonymous said...

If I know that there are good female scientists in the field, then yes it does influence my decision about attending. There are enough interesting meetings in my specialism that I can pick and choose which I attend, and I don't need to reward organizing committees who are too lazy to look beyond the boys.

Ann said...

I have seen guys come up with a long list of physicists which is all male, be completely oblivious to that fact until it is pointed out to them, and then be embarrassed. Often explicit reminders that they should think of any women who should be included help. I believe the implicit bias is usually completely unintentional.

Boycott of an all male speaker session seems sexist to me.

Anonymous said...

I have responded to situations like these by thinking up a couple of women who would have been appropriate invited speakers and expressing surprise and confusion that they aren't on the list whenever I talk to someone I know is on conference organizing committees.

Anonymous said...

It is something that I would likely notice but I would certeinly not base my attendance around the issue. If I avoided all events that did not have speaker demographics to my liking (no Asian speakers, no speakers under age 50, no speakers from non-US schools, etc.) I wouldn't get out much.

Yael said...

I don't boycott events where all the speakers are male--however, when there is a choice of a meeting to go to (assuming scientific quality and relevance to my interests are equal), I tend to gravitate to those which have a number of female speakers.

When I am asked for my opinion on who to invite to my institution to give a seminar, I also make an effort to suggest female investigators (the fact that there are several female HHMI investigators in my field doesn't hurt, but they do tend to get overlooked).

Anonymous said...

My experience with invited talks is that the organizers invite their buddies / collaborators in the field. When the organizers are male, often their buddies are also guys. It's easier to invite friends than contact acquaintances in the field and try to find a broad slate of speakers, which is likely to include women. The latter would be a more interesting workshop and diverse by coincidence.

a physicist said...

Number 2.

Having zero female invited speakers seems not to be a big problem in my subfield of physics, but I got curious and looked up data on invited speakers at small conferences in my field in the past year. All had at least one; here's the data:

Workshop (US): 11% women
Workshop (US): 11% women
Large conference (US): 12% women
*Gordon conference (US): 13% women
Conference (US): 14% women
Gordon conference (US): 18% women
*Gordon conference (US): 19% women
Workshop (Europe): 20% women
*Workshop (Europe): 22% women
Workshop (Europe): 28% women
*Workshop (US): 31% women

Ones flagged with *'s had a woman as one of the key organizers, for example, chair or vice-chair of the Gordon Conference. These are all cases where the total number of invited speakers was 30 or fewer, and the total number of attendees was 40-200, except for "large conference" which has more like 1000 (but a small number of invited speakers).

The data on Europe look better in my table above, but I had to rule out considering many European conferences where they listed speakers as "T. Jones" unless I knew the field well enough to know if T was for Tom or Theresa.

That's the data. My unscientific estimate is that in my field, about 20% of the faculty are women, based on examining a list of faculty webpages I know of for my subfield.

Anonymous said...


And then when I mention to my collegues that it's ridiculous there are only men, everyone will shoot me down for being too sensitive about "women's issues."

Anonymous said...

I would be less inclined to attend, and if I knew the organizers (or one of the speakers) I would comment to them on their slate. A related problem is being the lone female speaker, when one is explicitly or implicitly labeled as the token diversity element. I hate that.

Anonymous said...

I have never specifically boycotted a meeting with an all-male (or male-dominated) speaker list, but one of the factors that affects my decision whether to attend a meeting or not is speaker diversity in general.

I work in an interdisciplinary field, and find that meetings with a broad range of approaches, techniques, and model systems are much more interesting than highly focused meetings on a single approach, etc. And anecdotally, it seems that interdisciplinary meetings tend to have a better balance of male/female speakers.

The worst (in terms of gender balance) programs I have seen tend to be symposia organized in honor of one person's birthday (70th, etc.), or commemorating an anniversary of a program or school. Perhaps it's not so surprising that these "retrospective" (backwards-looking) meetings are the most lopsided in terms of male speakers.

On the flip side, I have been the only or a rare female speaker on a male-dominated workshop program, and felt an extra pressure to participate as fully as possible in the workshop, particularly to be a good example to the female students/postdocs in attendance, even though the timing of the workshop turned out to be horrible with respect to a family emergency.

Anonymous said...

2. In my subfield, male-female distribution is close to 50-50 (although my field as a whole is more like 75-25), so although you would almost never see a panel in my subfield that is all-male, I still see panels that have a much higher percentages of males than females, and it's worse outside of my subfield. However, I know of efforts by other women in my field to mention such lopsided conferences on a feminist blog (as well as contacting conference organizers directly) BEFORE the event, and in most cases, the conference organizers have responded with appropriate contrition, and a promise to do better next time (of course, whether they do or not remains to be seen).

Anonymous said...

As a midcareer male who is currently organizing a workshop I made a conscious effort to get some women on our invited speaker list. We now have 1 out of about 10-12, probably we will add one more.

In my particular field there are certainly women, but a minority for sure, and a much much smaller minority at the senior levels, and even smaller at the senior levels in my particular subfield of the field. So in cases where the invited speakers are meant to be "big names" (which usually means old) it becomes much more difficult (though not impossible, and yes we need to try harder) to find women.

It is changing, but it is changing slower than it should based on how many women are getting PhDs. That is of course a big and well-discussed topic...

Ms.PhD said...

What Yael said. Wouldn't necessarily boycott, but if given the choice of two meetings around the same time, I'd pick the one with women. Although, there are almost no senior women in my field, and no female HHMI investigators in my immediate field. And the few senior women who work on related topics seem to always have a sick child and miss meetings, even when they're listed as speakers.

Why does it matter to me if there are women speakers? Because women change the atmosphere of the meeting. And because they are role models. If you pay attention, you do feel excluded just by looking at the speakers, one after another, when they all look the same. On some level, we are all thinking, "I don't look like them."

Guys, you would feel this way at a knitting convention. Just think, if you suddenly decided you needed to make a sweater (because you were trapped on a wool farm on a high mountaintop in winter, and it was an emergency). But from this experience you found that you really enjoyed knitting, and needed to go to a convention. Wouldn't you feel better if you had at least one other guy friend, or your brother, to go with you? As your wing-man, or whatever? How would you feel, walking into that huge lecture hall the first day, one of the only men among thousands of women?

Just try to put yourselves in our shoes.

There are some guys, to be sure, with whom I would feel completely comfortable as one of the only girls around. And I'm much more used to it than any men I know are used to being surrounded by women all day and night.

But I look a good ten years younger than I am, so they tend to think of me as a student or someone similarly disposable.

And most men, even scientists, tend to drink a lot at meetings, and this can lead to commentary and groping I'm not looking for in a professional setting. Especially in a remote location, as many scientific meetings are.

I would have little to no chance of being taken seriously in those kinds of situations, so I would have little to gain and plenty to lose by having to rebuff inappropriate advances. Better to avoid the situation entirely.

Anonymous said...

Having co-organized two meetings recently, my co-organizers and I (in one case two females and I, in the other 2 males including me and a female) spent some significant effort to increase diversity in a variety of ways, including gender but also in terms of scientific approaches. We did this in part because it makes for a better meeting, but also in part because in each case we had support from NSF, NIH, or the ASCB, all of whom take these issues quite seriously. If someone is seeking funding and has an all male panel, their chances of getting funding now or in the future from these organizations would be substantially reduced.

The Women in Cell Biology Committee of the ASCB will offer suggestions to organizers for female speakers in particular areas.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

I got a nice break when my PI recommended that I substitute for him at a conference he was unable to attend. I was the only female speaker that day AND the one of the only postdocs to speak at the meeting. (I also look young for my age.) It was great exposure and in the months that followed I was invited to 2 more international meetings by PI's who first interacted with me at that conference.

This seems like an easy and concrete way for senior PI's to give their junior lab members (which presumably include a higher % of women) a chance to shine at meetings.

Female Computer Scientist said...

Surprisingly, I can only think of such a clear lack of women invited speakers in just one subarea I work in. And in that field, the top women are such superstars there's absolutely no chance they'd speak at a small conference or workshop. So instead the same group of so-so men and their colleagues rotate around as invited speakers. But I think for most students/postdocs it doesn't matter - they know who the superstars are.

In general I wonder if on some level male organizers are afraid of being rejected when inviting female speakers. Sounds nuts, but could be a confounding variable. (Particularly for shy computer scientists)

Kevin said...

"Guys, you would feel this way at a knitting convention. Just think, if you suddenly decided you needed to make a sweater (because you were trapped on a wool farm on a high mountaintop in winter, and it was an emergency). But from this experience you found that you really enjoyed knitting, and needed to go to a convention. Wouldn't you feel better if you had at least one other guy friend, or your brother, to go with you?"

I used to go to weaving conventions, which were about 90% and in which the average age was about 30 years older than me. I did not find in uncomfortable, nor did I find a need to take a "guy friend". I was there for the weaving, and the looms don't care if you are male or female (though some of the wider handlooms without fly shuttles would be hard for someone with short arms to use).

scatterplot said...

My quantitative subdiscipline conference seems to be stuck in a bit of a vicious cycle: people seem to view research as less quantitative if it's done by a woman than if it's done by a man. Therefore, all else being equal, female potential speakers, poster presenters and attendees are more likely to view their own research as outside the [putatively quantitative] scope of the conference and effectively take themselves out of consideration. Over the years Program Chairs (all male as far as I know) have been subject to the same bias to varying degrees. It's not clear how to break the cycle for N>1, which is kind of depressing.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I would notice. In addition, I don't care so much either. Let us be honest, these conferences are basically vacations where you have to sit though a few boring talks from bad presenters of marginal data.

Thinkerbell said...

I agree with Ann that in most cases the bias is totally subconscious and unintentional. When pointed out to them, male organizers will not object to including more women. It's just that their personal circle from which it's easy to pick might include less women. The only way to 'fix' it is to point it out when you see it happen. So boycotting without letting them know certainly doesn't help. I favor the approach of asking the organizers why they didn't include in the lineup

Sally said...

I'm with anonymous 3:28. In my field, there are many more conferences each year than one person could reasonably attend. Why should I waste my hard-earned grant money on one with no women speakers? I vote for option 3--boycott.

Anonymous said...

Probably (2). In my subfield there is only one senior woman, she usually is invited to all the workshops/conferences and usually comes. I have been at a conference where we were the only two women in attendance at all let alone speaking. I can't really afford not to go to conferences though, I need to develop my network.

Actually the worst thing I have seen is a conference where there was an invited session and a contributed session in the same area. All the invited speakers were male and all the contributed speakers were female. Virtually none of the men bothered to come to our session at all.

Holly M. said...

I usually have a bunch of relevant/interesting conferences to choose among (multidisciplinary science and all) and I do take note of the diversity of the invited speakers in terms of areas of study, regions/countries, and gender. The more diverse is almost always more interesting...and more enjoyable.

I've also been the one female speaker and at first, I thought nothing of it/nonissue for the actually speaking part...until it was assumed that I was someone's wife/girlfriend. a booth babe, or conference center/hotel employee when I was not at the podium. That was really unexpected. I grew up with brothers, played on guys' sports teams, went to college/grad school with mostly guys, but then they were more my own age while most of the people at the conference were men of a more advanced generation.

Contrary to popular belief, we female/feminist/agitator types don't begin with an agenda and look for stuff to get pissy about, we usually have some jarring experiences that make us ask "now what is going on here?" and with our scientifically trained analytical minds, can find the common factors.

Good topic...I go out of my way to volunteer for conference committees or give suggestions to someone I know who may be on a committee to try to help make it easier to select an interesting range of speakers.

Madscientistgirl said...

I don't boycott - but if it's particularly bad, I write the organizers to complain and give them a list of female speakers they could have invited. This has sometimes made me enemies - but it's also made me friends. If I'm on an organizing committee, I throw out the names of women who should be considered for talks. Just suggesting women who should be considered gets more women invited.

Ace said...

If I notice that there are less women than expected (based on how many women are in the field), I definitely feel less enthusiastic about going.

I brought this sort of thing up once. The organizers were freaked out and kinda angry with me. They claimed they worked really hard and they looked for women but couldn't find anyone suitable. I know these guys pretty well and they definitely are not overtly sexist. But there certainly are women in our field...

I also brought up once that the editorial board of a journal in my field were 10/10 men! The journal straddles 2 disciplines. One department in my university has 50% femake faculty (my department!). The other has a third and it is known to be a very female unfriendly department. So 10/10 male is not representative of this field. The answer was that women are asked but they don't take on editorial positions. I somehow doubt they asked that many women... Noone asked me!

Joseph said...

"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."

This is a testable hypothesis. Choosing a male or female randomly is (to first order) a bernoulli trial, and a set of N speakers should follow a binomial distribution.

Ms.PhD said...

@CPP, what Ace said. Of course we always always say something.

I thought that went without saying.

It usually just gets a defensive response that reflects poorly on us (oh, she's such a whiny paranoid bitch who always talks about sexism!).

You can do it, CPP, because you're a guy. You might be able to provoke a useful response. We can't do it, especially not as postdocs/junior faculty, without provoking backlash.

Karen said...

I'm not a scientist, but at computer conferences I have been mistaken for a booth babe -- ugh! Here, take my card so that you remember me when I reject your paper.

Before I left my previous job at a medical journal, I helped the Editor in Chief add some ladies and younger people and international types to the editorial board. The EIC was enthusiastic about doing this, to improve both the actual expertise on the board and to encourage a wider spread of submissions. Diversity helps, people, it really does.

Boycotting isn't "silly" -- when you attend, you are not only supporting the conference with your presence, but you are concretely giving them money. I don't know that I'd boycott solely based on the gender makeup of panels, but I'd be less enthusiastic about sitting in an auditorium listening to a group of rich white men talk. I like the idea of writing to the organizers ahead of time to point out the lack of diversity.

R.B. said...


I like the analogy by Ms. PhD, but the only thing wrong with it is that gender discrimination isn't fully a two-way street. A man going into a traditionally woman-filled space isn't going to experience the same kind of gaze, expectations and condescension (usually).

So, I doubt that when you go into a woman-filled space you're called "little boy" or assumed to be younger/less experienced/available. It's necessary to realize that men's experiences do not directly mirror women's.

That's probably why some posters like to say things like this are "silly". Which is really just a cruddy thing to say to someone anyway.

Kea said...

If I was in a field with so many women (which alas, I am not) then I might consider a boycott, but all male conferences in my field are still common ... even all male audiences! But I do always consider the maleness of events when thinking about going to a conference. If I had a choice between an all male conference and one with women fairly represented, I would always go to the conference with women. The conferences with women are always more relaxed, honest and friendly. The more macho conferences are all about the hotshots telling everyone how wonderful the wunderkinds are, without anyone really listening or talking to anyone else. I am really tired of these events. I also shudder at being the Token Woman speaker at a mostly male event.

Anonymous said...

No I won't boycott the session, but I may be rolling my eyes once in a while. But, I have learned that it's important to talk up great findings and approaches of other female colleagues...even if they have competing interests.

Covoro said...

The options as far as reaction-types are:
1- doesn't bother you.
2- it bothers you but you ignore it.
3- it bothers you so you walk away.

All very passive options.

Why has no one, not one single person, mentioned the option of contacting the organizers and confronting them in a rational way? Show them the data- percent women in the field vs percent women invited to speak. Offer a list of women who are just as qualified as the men invited. Tell them you are unhappy with the message an all-male lineup sends.

Most importantly, raise their awareness! They might not even have thought about the gender split if the committee is all-male, but it is something important that they need to consider. And someone has to tell them that!

Anonymous said...

I understand not wanting to support a conference that has a high probability of having weak or biased reviewers. Why spend your money and time at an event that is not only clearly flawed but also signaling that it will not value your contributions? Being female you may want to help out. Don't. And don't encourage your students to go to flawed events.

And obviously it should not the be responsibility of women to raise awareness of male privilege. Guys, do the decent thing, and do not expect a cookie. No one has mentioned it because as women we we will pay a professional price, whereas for men you will be recognized for your insight and commitment.

Anonymous said...

I would attend but would definitely make a point of (1) asking the organizer why there are no women giving talks and (2) being sure to mention the women doing research on the topic when asking a question. I feel that more and more (male) researchers are becoming aware of this issue, both in conferences and in local seminars, but there are still many oblivious senior folks who fail to recognize a problem. I think it better to explain to them the error of their ways and open up a dialog, rather than be confrontational and inhibit the science. An even better solution is to take over workshops and seminars and be the change.

AnonEngineeringGuy said...

I would make a different suggestion. I would contact the organizers for _next_ year's event, not this year's event.

You could talk to the organizers for this year's event, but if you do, I'd recommend great tact. This year, the schedule is already set, and you're not going to change anything about the current schedule. The most you can hope for is to raise their awareness for any other events they may organize many years down the line. Delicacy may improve your odds of achieving this goal.

By the way, in my field, the program organizers for one year tend to have little overlap with the organizers for the next year. My comments assume this model.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I'd boycott such an event, as I'm not yet in a position where I can afford to take such a stand at the possible cost of the knowledge I would gain. But under your assumption of qualified female speakers existing (are there really that many areas where there aren't /any/ important female researchers at all?) but not presenting, it would definitely make me quietly uncomfortable. And if I were in a position of authority, loudly so.

I think there are a lot of people in my position: uncomfortable with sexism in science, yet just hoping it will quietly fade away without confrontation as the old retire and the young rise. I don't claim this is especially noble or isn't selfish, but at least know that whether you're quietly uncomfortable or willing to take a stand, you're not the only one who feels that way.

Anonymous said...

Over the last few years I have been to a *lot* of technology conferences (and plenty of other events) that have had no female speakers (and/or been lacking in other measures of diversity).

Last year I got to the end of my tether and started approaching the conference organizers and brought it to their attention. This was a big step for me because I usually do everything I can to avoid conflict and I felt like I was putting my head above the parapet. I was generally met with a fairly defensive reaction but with assurances that the best efforts to find female speakers had been made and that next year would be different.

Well it is now 'next year' and nothing has changed so a couple of months ago I decided that a) I wouldn't attend these events and b) I won't support them by helping to spread the word via my networks.

Boycotting them might well be 'silly' in the same way that consumer boycotts I participate in might be 'silly' and ineffective but it makes me feel like I've drawn a line in the sand and said (albeit very quietly) 'enough is enough'. I have many other events to choose from where the value of diversity is recognised and extra efforts are made to find female speakers so I'll be attending those instead.

I'm also taking other steps to raise awareness of the female speakers I see and to promote as a place where conference teams might be able to find those elusive female speakers they (in some cases) profess to be so keen to find.

I do not have hard evidence as to whether it matters that all the speakers are men and I know some women and men who don't care one jot about it ... but I feel deep inside that having female speakers validates their research/activity as interesting and as worthy of sharing in public and provides other women with a role model they can fully relate and aspire to.

I'd be interested to read this research paper on that topic: which points out that this is an under-researched area.

p.s. yes I am being cowardly and posting this anonymously ... I am not feeling in a brave mood today