Gender Equality at Conferences

Conferences are an incredibly important academic activity and every year thousands of scientists meet all around the globe to discuss their research, present new findings, and plan future activities. These conferences are an important opportunity to get attention, particularly for younger academic scholars, make a name for oneself, and do some networking. All of which is essential for the advancement of an academic career. But what about gender equality at these conferences? Do women have the same opportunities to express themselves and find the same recognition as their male colleagues?

A recently published study by Aufenvenne et al[1] (link) tries to get to the bottom of these questions by examining to what extent gender influences the participation and communication behaviour at the 61st German Congress of Geography in 2019, which with around 2000 participants is one of the biggest events in Geography worldwide. To achieve this aim, the study analysed the conference program, the number and gender of the congress attendees, and deeply examined the composition, characteristics, and behaviour of the audience of 77 sessions.

First, the study’s results that the audience of the congress was relatively balanced (52% male, 47% female) as were the lecturers, of whom 46% were women. The high number of female lecturers is definitely an important step towards gender equality at academic conferences and recognition of the achievements of female scholars. Especially when we compare it to 1999, when the percentage of female lectures only just crossed the 20% line. And in the first 40 years of the congress’ (which was held for the first time in 1953) the women who presented their work did not even reach 10%. So the congress has shown some significant improvement in terms of equal representation. However, the study’s results also show that there were differences amongst the sessions which showed that equal representation did not lead to complete equality per se. For instance, presentations by men had larger audiences than the ones of women. Men were more likely to attend presentations by other men than by women, while women did not show such a preference. There were less women who served as chairs of sessions and men dominated the discussions held after presentations by talking more often and for much longer – accounting for 60% of the total discussion time.

Conferences obviously reflect the general structures in academia. The increase of female participants and lectures can be seen as a sign that some important steps are being taken towards greater gender equality. However, the participation and communication of attendees at the congress also shows that there is still a lot of o work to do. While self-reflection and awareness of male participants obviously play an important role in achieving gender equality at conferences, changes can also be actively promoted, for instances by organising mixed sessions where lectures of both genders present their work, inviting more women as key-note speakers and appointing more women as chairs. Session moderators can also actively seek more women when holding discussions.

[1] Aufenvenne et al, 2021, Participation and communication behaviour at academic conferences – An empirical gender study at the German Congress of Geography 2019. Geoforum 126, pp. 192-204

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