Why More Women Aren’t Invited to Speak at Conferences

Unconscious bias might be to blame

7 May 2018

Colloquium talks give academics the opportunity to publicize their research, build collaborations with new colleagues, and boost their reputation. Women are seldom invited to speak at such events, however.

Researchers from Rice University, in Houston, analyzed more than 3,650 talks during one academic year in six academic disciplines at 50 top U.S. universities and found that men gave more than twice as many such talks as women did, according to an article in The Atlantic. The research has been published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.

Michelle Hebl, a professor of psychology and management who conducted the research at Rice, interviewed 186 female professors who hadn’t given colloquium talks but were in the same department as those who did. Their answers showed that women didn’t decline colloquium invitations more than men; they felt just as strongly the talks were important to their careers; and they were no more likely than men to decline such opportunities because of family obligations.

One way to reverse the trend, Hebl says, is to give women more power over inviting colloquium speakers. The Rice researchers found that when search committees were chaired by women, half the invited speakers were women, compared with just 30 percent when the committees were chaired by men.

“I’m not sure if it is explicit bias, where male chairs are saying they don’t want women,” Hebl says. “It’s more about the people they think about, who are in their networks.

“Ultimately the burden falls on male allies. We need to train men to be aware of these biases.”


IEEE Senior Member Arti Agrawal, associate vice president of diversity for the IEEE Photonics Society, agrees with Hebl’s observation. She told The Institute she doesn’t think that it’s a conscious decision to keep women out, but that it’s a combination of many factors.

“If the search committee is headed by a man and he gets two recommendations for a speaker, one male and the other female, more likely than not the man naturally thinks a male is more competent,” Agrawal says.

Similar unconscious bias happens for recommendations of people whose names are difficult to pronounce, such as those from other cultures, she says: “The likelihood of accepting that person as a speaker is low.”

Related: Why You Shouldn't Shy Away From Diversity Efforts

Another factor is the researcher’s potential to be a good speaker. “When the search committee is looking for younger people or those who aren’t well-established, my personal view is that younger men are given greater opportunities than women,” Agrawal explains. “They want the woman to have proved herself 10 times over. She could be as good as the male speaker, but it’s easier to accept the potential of a young man because he looks like those on the committee. I don’t think they are thinking about it; it’s just happening automatically.”

She points out that all conferences want highly rated speakers, so the tendency is to go for those who are well-known, and they are usually men.


Agrawal says the IEEE Photonics Society has had far more male than female speakers, but the society’s diversity committee is taking steps to change that. It is educating committee and conference chairs about unconscious bias through training sessions and related education. “The goal is to educate leaders on how to recognize gender inconsistencies,” she says. “It is the first step to having an awareness of the obstacles one may face in the field.”

Another important step is recruiting more women at the committee level and during the decision-making and speaker-invitation processes.

To make it easier to find female speakers, the committee has created a database where women and members from underrepresented groups from the photonics and optics community can sign up to serve as experts in technical subject areas. Groups can use the database bureau to recruit people for talks, panels, conferences, or to serve on committees.

“Everyone wants the best science presented—which can come from those who have different ideas and perspectives,” Agrawal says. “If you have the same people presenting all the time, you’re not getting ideas that spark something really innovative. Those are being left out.”

We have a diverse workforce today, she says, adding that if you want everyone to be engaged in your talks, “diversity has to be reflected in the speakers as well.”

The society’s diversity committee believes that gender equality is not a women’s issue but a societal issue, Agrawal says. “It’s not just women that have to fight for equality; it’s as much in the men’s interest,” she says. “Just as women are being forced into certain roles, so are men. A more equal society means men can break out of their roles as well.”

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