Striving for gender equity in science: Conference participation behaviour contributes to gender disparity in academia

Efforts to improve gender equity in science often focus on countering discrimination against women. This is clearly a justifiable approach because such discrimination remains a very tangible issue (e.g., Moss-Racusin et al, 2012). However, increasing evidence suggests that differences in the behaviour of women and men may also contribute to gender disparities: women tend to publish less, use more tentative language, and ask for less in job negotiations than men. It also seems that women and men may have different approaches when it comes to formally presenting their work at conferences and this might have serious consequences for their visibility in their respective communities.

In our recent study, we compared gender differences in visibility at an evolutionary biology conference. Participants could request either a long talk (12 min) or short talk (5 min). Despite having a nearly equal ratio of women and men attendees, we found that women spoke for ~20% less time than men of an equivalent academic level. Furthermore, this difference was not because men were more likely to present, but because men were nearly 3 times more likely than women to opt for a long talk. What was most interesting was that this pattern was true for both academics and students. Our observations are broadly in line with other studies on gender disparity in conferences (e.g., Isbell et al 2012, Schroeder et al 2013). In each of these examples, the end result was that women gained less exposure within their respective academic communities compared to men. The question is, does this matter? We advocate strongly that it does, because the impact of a conference has the capacity to stretch far beyond the time spent in front of the audience.