Female scientists give fewer colloquium talks than do their male counterparts, finds a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study, the latest in a lengthy string of gender-disparity findings in academia, quantifies a type of discrimination to which female scientists have long objected—the low number of speaker invitations that they receive compared with male scientists. One of the most egregious examples—speaker panels comprised solely of Caucasian males—has spawned the hashtag #manel (for ‘male panel’) on Twitter.
Study authors analysed the gender differences among 3,652 colloquium talks at 50 prestigious US research institutions in 2013-2014. They found that male speakers gave over twice as many colloquium talks during the year-long period (2,519 compared with 1,133). Female speakers in the study worked in six disciplines in which female scientists represented 22% to 47% of all researchers in each discipline.
The study dismantles several commonly held explanations for the disparity in speaker gender representation: that there are more men than women in science; that men hold higher ranks in science than do women; and that women decline talk invitations at greater rates.
While both women and men may share gender biases, the study shows that the number of female speakers increased when women were colloquium organizers. When female chairs presided over meetings, women represented 49% of speakers. Male chairs chose women speakers 30% of the time.
Colloquium talks allow researchers to publicize their research and increase their national and international reputation. Without those opportunities, women can miss out on job offers and research collaborations. More women need to occupy ‘gatekeeper’ roles — those who control who enters and advances in the workplace — says study co-author Michelle Hebl, an applied psychologist at Rice University in Houston, Texas. She also calls for male allies to lend their voices and support to the issue.
Jonathan Eisen, a microbiologist at University of California, Davis, is such an ally. He has refused to participate in conferences, seminar series and panels if they do not have a record of inviting diverse groups of speakers or if the list of speakers is not diverse. He calls for organisers of conference series to develop diversity policies and to encourage speaker diversity by providing childcare or financial support for speakers.
He and Hebl say that researchers at every career stage need to identify and act on examples of implicit and explicit bias. “If you are aware of it and not doing something, you are part of the problem,” Hebl says.
Virginia Gewin is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.