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The Future of: Female Representation at Conferences

Conferences are a crucial place where professionals can network, learn new things and experience training, but speakers and panelists at these places have historically been disproportionately male.

A woman stands in front of a whiteboard and gives a presentation.

If you organise conferences for your organisation, it’s important to read the below statistics to be more aware of how women are represented at conferences. This is so you can investigate if the same disparities are true at your own conferences, and how you might improve on this at future industry events you organise.

A woman stands next to a sketch of a graph on a plain wall

The Statistics


A study about 2017 and 2018 conferences held by the Society for Endocrinology found that women are less likely to participate in proceedings at medical and scientific conferences. This is even the case when the delegation is evenly split between men and women. Only 1 out of every 5 questions and comments asked at the 2017 conference were asked by women, and these were also shorter than questions asked by men.


Despite women comprising about half of all medicine undergraduates, they are still underrepresented in medical faculty positions. Could this be one of the reasons why women do not feel as comfortable asking so many questions?

Anna Chlolpecki speaks at a conference

Can Women Be Further Encouraged to Participate in Conferences?


Victoria Salem, the lead author of the study about the Society for Endocrionology, stated that the lack of female spokespeople and expert voices in this field may be why they still lack participation in industry events. Senior author Kevin Murphy claimed that there may be a scientific culture making it hard for women to participate.


Therefore, with women not highly represented in medical faculty positions, which can dissuade other women from participating in conferences, which then keeps the scientific culture quite patriarchal, this might create a loop where women continue to feel unassured commenting on and questioning what is said in scientific conferences. It is essential for this loop to break, for women to participate more. So, how do we break this loop? Could this be done at the conferences themselves?

A group of colleagues of different genders sit around a table to discuss inclusivity

Can Conferences Increase Inclusivity?


Kevin Murphy stated, with regards to the Society for Endocrinology study, that conferences should be tweaked to ensure more diversity and equality. He stated that this is done all the time to make them more accessible, so we know it is doable.


For instance, in the 2018 conferences that were studied, when the researchers worked with the conference organisers to ensure more sessions with at least one female chair, more audience questions were asked by women. Furthermore, audience contributions from women significantly increased in likelihood when the first question in the session was asked by a woman.


So, we know that tweaks to conferences can increase how well women’s views are represented. However, this is quite an artificial change. How do we induce conferences to represent women in a more normalised fashion, without researchers needing to visit and work with every single conference organiser just to make them change their practices?


A more long-term, sustainable strategy, to convince conference organisers to alter their practices from the bottom up, might be in the form of boycotts. For instance, prominent men in science have publicly said that they will refuse to attend scientific meetings where women are not fully represented.


However, such techniques may not necessarily work. A study found that, even when certain conferences represented women well, women still did not participate to quite the same extent as men and did not ask as many questions. On the other hand, this changed when the students leading the study pointed this out or implemented a rule whereby the first question in every session had to be asked by a trainee.


Therefore, the above studies seem to suggest that artifical rules being implemented, and it being unnaturally pointed out that women are asking less questions, are the most effective methods of producing conferences that represent the views of women well. Simply making the delegation a bit more representative of women is not quite enough. Telis, one of the students carrying out the latter-mentioned research, stated that representation alone is not enough to increase the participation of women; even when men were 33% of attendees, they would still ask 55% of the questions.


Telis also stated that their work will hopefully inspire others to test other interventions to conferences, and “If we want to have women’s voices be heard, we need to be testing things”. Therefore, more tests need to be done and gender participation at conferences may be improved in future.


A microphone is shown in front of an out of focus panel

How Are Female-Oriented Conferences Perceived?


However, a factor decreasing the likelihood of conferences being more geared towards women, may lie in how these are perceived compared to co-ed conferences.


For instance, 30% of women-only conference attendees claim to primarily attend conferences to network with peers and find mentors, compared to only 25% of attendees of co-ed events. This has been said to suggest that women’s conferences have a reputation for being focused on networking and soft skills, not empowerment in the industry. Therefore, some conferences may be geared more towards men as a matter of reputation.


This finding can actually go the other way – women might perceive male-heavy conferences as less safe spaces for them to attend and participate in. 45% of female attendees at conferences have stated that they’ve been sexually harrassed or received unwanted advances at these places. 86% of these stated that this occurred at a co-ed event. Therefore, codes of conduct at such events, making them safer, would probably help to increase female participation in future.


Overall


It seems that, with more research and encouragement from conferences that they will become more inclusive and have more representation, conferences are on their way to becoming more balanced. However, this may take a long time, and this balance is crucial before we see a consistent increase in the participation of women. More research is needed in this topic, especially as conferences are a crucial source of networking, learning, and training opportunities in virtually every field.


The key may be to ask women to provide their own examples of what would make them more likely to attend and take part in such conferences. Previous research has asked such questions as if offering childcare would make women more likely to attend, which over half of respondents denied. Therefore, research must not ask such outdated questions that assume women stay at home for childcare reasons. They must also be more intersectional by including women from different ages and ethnicities.


To increase the reach of your events so that they reach a wider range of diverse people, contact CPD Online and we will livestream and record your events.


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