Do role models matter? And if so, in what kind of situation are they most important? Two papers, coming from very different parts of the scientific spectrum, were brought to my attention last week which brought these questions into focus. In particular, building on the earlier post on this site I wrote about selection of speakers for conferences, it is worth considering the complexity of who slots into the slate of speakers who actually appear on any given scientific programme.

There have been various attempts to highlight the problems associated with conferences ending up with a non-representative group of invited speakers. Non-representative, that is, in terms of the relevant community’s gender make-up. As I wrote in my previous post, the Royal Society specifically requires conference organisers to identify their speakers when submitting their proposals for consideration, so that the Hooke Committee – which assesses and approves suggestions – can check that the speakers are appropriately diverse. That simple step (possible because of the need for approval to be given for events such as Royal Society Discussion meetings) is an easy check.

More generally, last autumn a petition was instigated which committed signatories (I for one have signed) to the following:

We therefore undertake to make our participation in conferences – whether as an organizer, sponsor, or invited speaker – conditional on the invitation of women and men speakers in a fair and balanced manner.

Subsequently, a more specific ‘pledge’ was started following an article by Becca Rosen dealing in particular with ‘tech’ conferences, which asked men to pledge not to speak on all male panels or as one of an entirely male list of speakers. But are such steps all it will take to solve the problem of non-representative conference speakers?

The first of the two papers I want to discuss comes from researchers in the field of Evolutionary Biology. The group, led by Julie Schroeder from MPI Seeweisen in Germany and Hannah Dugdale from Sheffield in the UK, had analysed the make-up of speakers at the European Society for Evolutionary Biology Congress. Although the number of women invited was more or less in line with the numbers of fairly senior women in the field, about half had declined; this was a noticeably higher proportion than amongst the male invitees. Thus the actual number of women who spoke in these prestigious slots was far below any appropriate benchmark. A priori, this looks as if the conference organisers cannot be blamed for the low numbers of female speakers. If women choose to decline such invitations it’s their look-out. Isn’t it?

Well, maybe, or maybe not. For many women, small children may be felt to be a significant barrier to travel. It might be reasonable to query why this is more of a problem for women than for men, but the reality is that the expectation of society (if not of the individual couple) remains that childcare is primarily the mother’s problem. So, while we are waiting for society to catch up, perhaps the conference organisers can be a bit more proactive about finding additional funds to facilitate childcare at the venue or (along the lines of the action I mentioned in an earlier post that my university is already doing) funding travel for some child-minder – relative or employee – to accompany the woman they have invited.

Childcare is of course not the only reason why people will decline invitations and the Schroeder, Dugdale et al paper identify other possible causes. These include women feeling less confident/able to imagine themselves in such a slot (see also below) and so not wanting to expose themselves to what they perceive as a risk; or not having sufficient funds to feel able to spend on the necessary travel (a report in last year’s Lancet suggested on average women asked for smaller grants than men using Wellcome Trust data so that this factor too could disadvantage women invited to speak).

Possible solutions conference organisers could come up with to this complex problem include offering travel funds; maybe this could be done by asking female invitees if money is likely to be a barrier to acceptance and then acting accordingly. A different solution would be for the organisers to try harder to find an equally high level and appropriate speaker who also just happens to be a woman to fill the slot declined by their first choice. Or even perhaps take a punt on a slightly less senior woman; we all know of conferences where the invited speakers are what one might term the ‘usual suspects’ and some less familiar up-and-coming star might just liven up the meeting. Here again the Royal Society’s protocols are interesting because, not only do the forms submitted to the Hooke Committee require naming the intended speakers, they also require an indication of whether those named have accepted the provisional invitation. Of course, there’s many a slip and all that, so the intention written on the piece of paper is not equivalent to the deed, but it is one step further than just naming names in pious hopes that they will accept.

As I have said before, in the context of all-male shortlists for high powered jobs, and as this recent study makes very clear, the absence of women does not mean that no one has tried hard to find them. But there is clearly more that can and should be done to ensure that a degree of laziness and/or lack of initiative or money don’t perpetuate the problem. Why does it matter?

That brings me to the second interesting paper that crossed my desk, from the field of medical education and specifically surgery. The authors (Elspeth Hill and Suzanne Vaughan) of this paper introduce the idea of ‘paradigmatic trajectories’, those career paths that are commonly trodden by a particular community and which those coming next see as acceptable and the norm. For women training in medicine who participated in this fairly small-scale study at Manchester, they could not see women ahead of them in the surgical speciality; this lack of senior women then meant they found it hard to imagine themselves succeeding where apparently others had not. Their involvement in training was literally less ‘hands-in’ (they were not, unlike the men, apparently invited to hold the insides of patients while they observed surgery on a one-to-one basis) and the conversations with senior surgeons were discouraging because they too saw surgery as a male field. The authors’ conclusion was that, for all these different reasons, the women therefore deselected themselves from this field and chose other areas where there were more women to model themselves upon. They could not see a surgical career trajectory that looked plausible for them; there was no paradigmatic trajectory that took them to the rank of consultant surgeon.

This paper exemplifies, albeit in a very different situation, why having women visible on conference platforms matter. Without such obvious role models, those women setting out may see only a sea of unrelentingly male faces and be unable to imagine themselves breaking the pattern. In turn, this may affect their willingness to pursue their own career aspirations with the consequent danger that the dearth of women propagates down the generations.

  • Emma Flynn

    As a mother of 3 children and an academic I found this really pertinent. Another thing that may help would be for females who turn down invitations to recommend female ‘replacements’. Women academics tend to be networked with the other females in their field, so this may also help with the issue of more diversity in female speakers.

  • Athene Donald

    The comment stream seems to be developing on my personal blog with its related post Feel free to comment there too. I’d be particularly interested to hear from men who’ve declined invitations, and what reasons they’ve given.

  • Bev Mackenzie

    This is a really interesting article- as a mother of a toddler and a husband with a highly stressful and busy job that doesn’t allow for much flexibility – the provision of childcare is the biggest barrier at the moment for participating in conferences (and that’s just conferences close to home let alone overseas!)

  • Pleuni

    Thanks for interesting blog. I think it may also be the case that a few very well known women get all the invitations and cannot accept all.