Where are all the women speakers? Too much fast thinking?

Beginning tomorrow here at KITP is a meeting entitled Cooperation and the major evolutionary transitions. It runs for 5 days and has 37 speakers. From the look of the program, there will be more biology than there has been among the physicists in the last two weeks. There are 34 half hour talks with fifteen minutes each allowed for questions. There are sections on conceptual issues; genomics, population biology and molecular evolution; experimental evolution and model organisms; theory, computational biology, and physical considerations; graduate student sound bites; origin of life and ribozyme evolution; and insect sociality. It should be interesting.

But where are all the women speakers? Out of the 34 main speakers there are only 5 women. Is this a field where there are no eminent women? No. Are the organizers all men who never think of women? No to the first point, at least. So why did a meeting on a topic that has plenty of strong women, including women actually attending the conference, end up with such a sorry showing?

I would argue that the most likely reason is explained by work of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, summarized in his great book, Thinking, fast and slow. He divides thinking into System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the fast, subconscious one that makes us grab for the cupcake rather than the apple. It is the one where men come more easily to mind than women when thinking of eminent scholars, for women and men alike, one might argue. With this logic one might argue that the organizers did not think about gender of speakers at all. They simply thought of the best speakers on any given topic and they overwhelmingly happened to be men. This is System 1 acting, unfettered by System 2.

If System 1 is totally in charge, there might be no women at all speaking at the conference. That could be true. Maybe they thought that 5 of 34 female speakers, 14.7% was sufficient. Maybe they thought that if they had more female speakers the quality of the meeting would go down. Maybe they thought that there was balance with one of three graduate students having a 10 minute slot mitigated this imbalance (the woman was added only last week as far as I can see). Honestly, I cannot imagine what they were thinking.

Here is a little more detail on the balance of the sessions. Monday there are 5 men and 4 women. Tuesday there are 8 men and no women. Wednesday there are 6 men and no women, except the short grad student session has 1 woman and 2 men. Thursday there are 5 men and 1 woman. Friday there are 5 men and no women. If you miss Monday, then you will  hear women speak for 40 minutes and men speak for 12 hours and 20 minutes.

Why do I think this matters? I think it matters because it is discouraging to women in the field, particularly to younger women. I think it is unfair, for I think there are excellent women they might have invited. Do I not think there are other groups likely to have been excluded if all the thinking is based on System 1? Yes, no doubt, but this one is easy to point out.

Is it not mean of me to criticize a meeting and a workshop I have voluntarily decided to attend? Maybe. It is certainly painful. Why do I not be quiet and pay attention to the material being offered rather than the irrelevant issue of their gender? Because if I say something, maybe someone will notice. Maybe a future meeting organizer will pause and consider that their System 1 is blinding them to excellent female speakers. This is only one of the many issues women in academia face. Actual concrete examples often hit home more than abstract studies. I have written on other examples of this problem, here, and here for example. I will keep doing so.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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12 Responses to Where are all the women speakers? Too much fast thinking?

  1. I think that’s an important topic, but I have to admit that I find the call to Kahneman a bit far-fetched.

    Considering that the proportion of female authors in E&E is around 23% in the last years (see http://chronicle.com/article/Woman-as-Academic-Authors/135192 ), dropping to 19% when looking only at last authors (which is probably the more experienced pool one would consider for invited presentations), the number of participants seems to me well within the range of what I would expect from 34 random draws with those probabilities, with no sex bias at all.

    I’m happy to say that the organizers should have tried to achieve a more equal share of men and women (i.e. positive bias for women) to counterbalance traditional role models, but I don’t think it’s fair (also to the organizers) to equate the absence of such a positive bias with chauvinism or unconscious sexism.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I am puzzled by it, however. There is only one talk with a co-author and it is one where the male speaker has added his graduate student’s name at the end. Not including the 3 very short graduate student talks, the proportion of women speaking is shy of 15%. I stand by my analysis.

    • My question is whether a ratio of 5 / 34 is significant evidence for the fact that the selection committee was (subconsciously) biased against women.

      I don’t know the exact proportion of women in the field (which is the reason why I looked at the proportion of publications above), but assuming that there are 25% women in the group of all potential speakers that could be considered, the p-value for rejecting the hypothesis that the selection committee was simply randomly drawing from this group is above 0.11, so I feel just based on this ratio one might give the selection committee the benefit of the doubt.

      Thus, what seems clear for me is that they didn’t actively ensure a proportionate share of female speakers, but I don’t find it crystal clear that they were subconsciously biased against women.

    • About the authorship: I was mentioning the last authors above to get a sense of how many women are in senior positions, because I thought it is only those the selection committee would “know”, and thus to which the System 1 argument applies.

      What do you think is the proportion of women in the group out of which the selection committee was choosing, and what would be a fair representation?

      • Thank you for your comments. The one sub area I know best is social insects. They have two male speakers for a field in which a majority of the researchers, I believe, are women. Furthermore, we just heard one woman canceled and was replaced by a man giving a second talk.

      • If the pool is 50/50, I agree, 5/34 indicates a clear bias.

        A ratio of 50/50 is quite surprising though, considering that http://chronicle.com/article/Woman-as-Academic-Authors/135192 lists only 24% (18% last) female authors for the subfield “Haplodiploid sociality”, which seemed to me closest to social insects.

        A comment on the study http://chronicle.com/article/The-Hard-Numbers-Behind/135236/ might explain a part of that discrepancy:

        “Women still are not publishing, though, in the same proportion as they are present in academe as professors. The same year that the share of female authors in the study reached 30 percent, women made up 42 percent of all full-time professors in academe and about 34 percent of all those at the most senior levels of associate and full professor, according to the American Association of University Professors.”

        Another explanation, however, might simply be that the US has proportionally more women in academia than other countries (because the authorship report looks globally). I just looked up the numbers for Germany, and it seems that they are very happy to have increased the number of women in faculty positions from 8% in 1995 to 19% currently (according to the German Ministry of Education http://www.bmbf.de/en/494.php ).

        Anyway, I think it would be interesting to know more about the sex-ratio in the pool of potential participants to objectively asses whether the selection was biased. I observe much lower ratios for faculty positions in my professional environment (I would say 20% sounds about right), but as I said, there might be big differences between the US and Europe (and I don’t know whether your workshop invited internationally or only from North America).

  3. At this point, I would have to say the organizers really don’t care one way or the other, so thinking fast probably didn’t even come into it. One organizer disavowed all knowledge of the invitations, said people just volunteered. But all the speakers I talked to had been invited. Honestly, I’m fed up with the whole issue, fed up more than anything that no one seems to think it is any big deal. The guys seem quite content with the absence of women. I don’t know how Female Science Professor, http://science-professor.blogspot.com/ could stand so much time in physical sciences. I feel like we are just going backwards, that we will never reach the time when women are appreciated, when female postdocs can expect to get a fair deal in the job search and in publishing. I can keep calling out, but right now I feel it is pointless and nothing will change.

  4. Feeling very happy that the director of KITP took my concerns seriously and is thinking about programmatic ways for future improvement. We need to keep talking! There are friends out there!

  5. Noa Pinter-Wollman says:

    here are some alternative hypotheses to the gender bias in invited symposia:

  6. Pingback: Gender bias is terrible at scientific meetings | Sociobiology

  7. All women speakers are available at mypublicspeakers.com

  8. Pingback: The Eloquent Woman’s weekly speaker toolkit – Denise Graveline

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