Why do top US universities invite far more male speakers than women?

Women contribute to academic too. Source: Shutterstock

Men give twice as many talks as women: 69 percent versus 31 percent.

A team of researchers led by Christine Nittrouer made the above finding through a database her team built, which contains every colloquium speaker – where academics share their research to network and boost their career – at top 50 US universities, as reported by The Atlantic. They focused on six departments – biology, bioengineering, political science, history, psychology, and sociology – and excluded those with either a very low or very high proportion of women.

According to Michelle Hebl of Rice University, this finding usually elicits several “yeah-but” responses, such as:

“Yeah, but men outnumber women in many fields so that would naturally lead to more male speakers.”

“Yeah, but science has historically been skewed towards men hence colloquia committees have no choice over whom to invite, but male speakers.”

“Yeah, but maybe it’s the women turning down speaking offers or choosing to spend time with their kids instead.”

Turns out that these responses don’t hold up.What Hebl and her team found was that even after adjusting for the above biases, there is still a gender gap.

“We can account for all the yeah-buts,” Hebl says, “but we still have this bias, and we need to do something about it.”

If nothing is done, what this results in is a downplaying of women’s visible contributions to their fields, according to Robin Nelson, from Santa Clara University who has studied the prevalence of harassment in science.

“Despite their presence in departments, women are not being asked to contribute to the intellectual development of their fields in the most coveted ways.

“This gendered discrimination minimizes women’s visible contributions to their fields, validating the idea that the greatest intellectual contributions are made by a few brilliant men.”

But what exactly is behind this huge gender gap among academic speakers? Herb posits it could be due to who the people behind the invitations to speak at these colloquia or seminars are.

When the team looked at invitations committees that are chaired by women, they found that half of the invited speakers are women. However, when they are chaired by men, only 30 percent of the speakers invited are women.

“I’m not sure if these are explicit bias, where male chairs are saying we don’t want women,” Hebl says.

“It’s more about the people who they think about, who are in their networks. And maybe women just know other women in the field.”

At Princeton, the Psychology department is required to nominate a minimum base rate of women as possible speakers in their bid to avoid an all-male colloquia.

“In this way, we encourage everyone to think a bit deeper about their nominations, and cast a slightly wider net,” Yael Naiv, an associate professor there, says.

“The results have been colloquia with equal numbers of men and women in recent years, and a wider, more interesting array of scientific ideas that we’re exposed to.”

Ultimately, it’s a problem that goes beyond the disproportionate number of male speakers compared to female – it’s an issue that pervades academia and society as a whole. Think of the gender pay gap that exists in many other professions and the lack of representation in boardrooms and across governments worldwide.

Co-founder of 500 Women Scientists, Kelly Ramirez thinks getting more women colloquium speakers won’t actually solve the whole problem, given the myriad of other factors that can make science a “toxic or difficult environment for women”.

The solution, Ramirez says, lies in building “a strong and large network so whatever the challenge, women scientists will have a network to turn to. And we need to speak up, set examples, and hold people and institutions accountable.”

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