Women participate less at conferences, even if gender-balanced – study

Women are less likely to participate in proceedings at medical and scientific conferences, even with gender-balanced delegates, although simple interventions in conference design sparked a significant improvement in female inclusion, a study has found.

Medical and scientific conferences are imperative to the professional visibility of clinicians and academics, and researchers conducted this latest analysis based on data gleaned from the Society for Endocrinology’s annual national conferences.

Over the last few decades, women have comprised roughly half of undergraduates in medicine, but remain distinctly underrepresented in medical faculty positions. This imbalance should have been corrected by now, said the study’s lead author, Dr Victoria Salem, an endocrinologist and senior research clinical fellow at Imperial College London.

“There’s inertia in the system … and a part of that is about role models. If we don’t have more women talking and acting as spokespeople and expert voices, then the next generation just doesn’t aspire to that.”

Salem and her colleagues analysed questions and comments from multiple sessions conducted at the Society for Endocrinology conference in 2017 and 2018. The conference was attended by approximately 1,000 delegates – of which roughly half were women – each year. For the 2018 conference, the authors carried out interventions intended to improve female inclusion.

Despite the even gender balance of delegates, the researchers found that women asked fewer and shorter questions at the 2017 conference – about one out of five questions or comments came from women. Questions from men lasted a combined total of two hours 54 minutes, versus 56 minutes for women over the course of both conferences.

“There are still clear differences in male and female behaviour. Whatever the cause, whether it’s social engineering or biology, we need to somehow address that and take that into account when we are delivering platforms that are about equal access to science,” said Salem.

“There’s a lot of talk about women needing to ‘lean in’, but actually … we’ve kind of created the scientific culture that might make it more difficult for them to participate,” added senior author Kevin Murphy, professor of endocrinology and metabolism at Imperial College London.

“Lots of men are perfectly happy with that … but it’s incumbent on us to have a look at our behaviour a bit,” he said, adding that endocrinology is considered a fairly “female-friendly” speciality, and it was thus likely that men were hogging the limelight even more in other specialities.

For the 2018 conference, the researchers worked with the organisers to ensure more sessions with at least one woman in a chair position – and found that more female chairs resulted in an increase in female audience questions. In addition, if a woman was the first to ask a question, that increased the odds several times of subsequent audience contributions from a woman, according to the paper, published in the Lancet.

The findings suggest that simple tweaks can make a big difference, the authors said. “We tweak conferences all the time to make them more accessible,” said Murphy. “So if we think that it’s a good thing that there’s more diversity and equality, then we should be tweaking things to make it easier to get diversity and equality.”

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