Post provided by Alison Johnston
The Methods in Ecology and Evolution Symposium was an excellent conference with dynamic and interesting speakers representing a wide range of topics which have been published in the journal over the last five years. It was an unusual conference for a couple of reasons:
- It wasn’t all in one place. Talks were relayed between London and Calgary (during convenient times!), a couple of speakers presented via Skype from neither location and it was watched via livestream.com by hundreds of other participants
- There were equal numbers of male and female presenters. In my experience this gender balance of invited speakers is unusual and notable
The gender balance of the speakers encouraged me to look around the room and write down a few figures for other gender dimensions of the London section of the symposium. As well as equal gender representation of speakers, there was also a good gender balance in the attendees – 42% of the attendees were female at the time I wrote down the numbers. These two figures suggest that it was a good conference for gender equality. However, I think these headline figures hide a number of more tricky aspects of gender equality.
There were a total of 23 questions asked of the 12 speakers presenting or livestreamed in London and only 3 of these were from women (2 out of 22 if I exclude my own question to reduce any investigator effects). These data points are not independent, as some people asked several questions, but I didn’t keep a record of individuals. Twitter revealed a similar reduced female presence compared to attendance: of those people tweeting to #Methods5th only 37% were women.
There were also some notable spatial patterns in the distribution of men and women throughout the London seminar space. Men were distributed fairly evenly throughout the room, with 53% in the front half of the audience and 47% in the back half. However, women demonstrated a very different pattern – only 25% of women were in the front half of the room, with the majority in the rear section.
Blame the women?
So despite female presence at the symposium and at the podium, women were not speaking up, tweeting up or sitting up. It is tempting when we see these figures to blame women. We clearly just need to pull our socks up, sit near the front and ask more questions, right? However, I think this viewpoint ignores the causes of these patterns and behaviours. To authentically and properly redress these imbalances we need to address the causes. Why do women not speak up more? Why do we sit at the back?
There are a lot of studies examining the position of women in science from a variety of different angles, but overall there is very strong evidence for substantial implicit gender bias in the scientific community. Men and women have implicit cultural stereotypes towards thinking men are better at science, so our natural response is to listen more carefully and give greater credibility to ideas from men. Women are often interrupted when speaking or their ideas ignored. The transgender neuroscientist Ben Barres said that since becoming a man “I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted”. Female scientists have often had years of interruptions, dismissed ideas, sexist comments and being overlooked. It’s no wonder that we do not speak up and ask questions as often as men!
To encourage more women to speak up, it is important we should address these underlying causes. We need to be more aware of this bias and accept that it exists. We should be enthusiastic and ruthless in eliminating as much bias and discrimination as possible, both personally (yes, women included) and institutionally. This is already occurring in many universities and research institutions* (as well as in other areas), but we should also seek many more opportunities. It is clear from the statistics from this symposium that equal gender balance does not always reflect equality, but it’s certainly a good place to start! We should deliberately give women equal opportunities to men (which was well demonstrated by the symposium organisers in the balance of invited speakers). We should encourage all scientists (male and female) to speak up and share their views. We each have a responsibility to change these attitudes in the scientific community. To women I suggest we do not berate ourselves or feel guilty when we do not speak up. But I do suggest we do our very best to be courageous and …
Speak up! Shout from Twitter! Sit near the front!
*For more information on the Athena SWAN Awards, see this blog post from