Women participate less at conferences, even if gender-balanced – study

Exclusive: small changes in conference design can make big difference to female inclusion, say researchers

Women are less likely to participate in proceedings at medical and scientific conferences, even with gender-balanced delegates, although simple interventions in conference design sparked a significant improvement in female inclusion, a study has found.

Medical and scientific conferences are imperative to the professional visibility of clinicians and academics, and researchers conducted this latest analysis based on data gleaned from the Society for Endocrinology’s annual national conferences.

Over the last few decades, women have comprised roughly half of undergraduates in medicine, but remain distinctly underrepresented in medical faculty positions. This imbalance should have been corrected by now, said the study’s lead author, Dr Victoria Salem, an endocrinologist and senior research clinical fellow at Imperial College London.

“There’s inertia in the system … and a part of that is about role models. If we don’t have more women talking and acting as spokespeople and expert voices, then the next generation just doesn’t aspire to that.”

Salem and her colleagues analysed questions and comments from multiple sessions conducted at the Society for Endocrinology conference in 2017 and 2018. The conference was attended by approximately 1,000 delegates – of which roughly half were women – each year. For the 2018 conference, the authors carried out interventions intended to improve female inclusion.

Despite the even gender balance of delegates, the researchers found that women asked fewer and shorter questions at the 2017 conference – about one out of five questions or comments came from women. Questions from men lasted a combined total of two hours 54 minutes, versus 56 minutes for women over the course of both conferences.

“There are still clear differences in male and female behaviour. Whatever the cause, whether it’s social engineering or biology, we need to somehow address that and take that into account when we are delivering platforms that are about equal access to science,” said Salem.

“There’s a lot of talk about women needing to ‘lean in’, but actually … we’ve kind of created the scientific culture that might make it more difficult for them to participate,” added senior author Kevin Murphy, professor of endocrinology and metabolism at Imperial College London.

“Lots of men are perfectly happy with that … but it’s incumbent on us to have a look at our behaviour a bit,” he said, adding that endocrinology is considered a fairly “female-friendly” speciality, and it was thus likely that men were hogging the limelight even more in other specialities.

For the 2018 conference, the researchers worked with the organisers to ensure more sessions with at least one woman in a chair position – and found that more female chairs resulted in an increase in female audience questions. In addition, if a woman was the first to ask a question, that increased the odds several times of subsequent audience contributions from a woman, according to the paper, published in the Lancet.

The findings suggest that simple tweaks can make a big difference, the authors said. “We tweak conferences all the time to make them more accessible,” said Murphy. “So if we think that it’s a good thing that there’s more diversity and equality, then we should be tweaking things to make it easier to get diversity and equality.”


Natalie Grover Science correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Men still paid vastly more than women on average in UK – study
Gap caused by scarcity of women at highest levels of major industries, with biggest divide – at 34% – recorded in east Midlands

Maev Kennedy

28, Nov, 2016 @12:01 AM

Article image
Women make up same proportion of UK high earners as six years ago
Research suggests efforts to tackle gender pay gap have stalled as women still account for just over 25% of higher-rate taxpayers

Alexandra Topping

01, May, 2017 @11:01 PM

Article image
Women with master's degrees paid less than men without them in England
Black graduates also paid significantly less on average than white peers, data shows

Richard Adams Education editor

25, Apr, 2019 @2:57 PM

Article image
Fawcett Society: government must take action to address gender pay gap
Sam Smethers, head of women’s rights charity, emphasises economic benefits of equalising women’s productivity

Alexandra Topping

06, Sep, 2015 @3:51 PM

Article image
Gender pay gap: female bosses earn 35% less than male colleagues

Four decades after the Equal Pay Act, male company directors take home £21,000 a year more than female counterparts

Simon Goodley

18, Aug, 2014 @11:01 PM

Article image
Female scientists urge research grants reform to tackle gender bias
Data shows 90% of engineering and physical sciences funding in UK goes to male-led projects

Sally Weale and Caelainn Barr

10, Aug, 2018 @12:52 PM

Article image
Former Co-op director says she was sacked after equal pay claim
Exclusive: Sam Walker tells tribunal she warned of possible company-wide salary gap

Alexandra Topping and Josh Halliday

14, Aug, 2018 @1:59 PM

Article image
Gender pay gap figures show eight in 10 UK firms pay men more than women
Some companies claim their pay gaps are ‘skewed’ due to few male employees

Pamela Duncan, Niamh McIntyre and Caroline Davies

04, Apr, 2019 @6:12 PM

Article image
UK gender gap continues to widen, says World Economic Forum report
Britain falls to 26th in Global Gender Gap Report rankings, recording its lowest overall score for equality since 2008

Simon Goodley

28, Oct, 2014 @7:57 AM

Article image
BBC women let pay gap happen, review co-chair says
Sir Philip Hampton, asked by government to look at how to raise number of women in senior business roles, branded out of touch

Nadia Khomami and Jill Treanor

27, Jul, 2017 @3:18 PM