Gender balance of invited speakers at academic conferences

Richard Parncutt 

February 2020


I have organized or co-organized quite a few academic conferences. From this I have learned the importance of achieving a gender balance in invited speakers (or keynotes). I also learned that some strategic planning and dicussion is necessary to achieve that goal. But let me start with some background.

We still have a long way to go before achieving a gender balance among academic full professors. An invited presentation or conference keynote is a good way for academics in mid career to present their research to an expert audience that includes colleagues who might help them get a professorship.

Women are more likely than men to refuse invitations to conferences, because they are more likely to have family caring commitments -- a clear justification for “reverse discrimination”. This central point is often forgotten.

Beyond that, academic conferences should aim to promote academic quality in the long term. That, one might argue, is the main thing. 
Invited speakers can and should be 50:50 women and men. It would be nice to be flexible about that, but experience shows that flexibility usually leads to a male bias. The easy, clear way to avoid male bias is to decide in advance that half of the invited speakers will be women. If that leads to a female bias, no problem -- we need some female bias to counteract centuries of male bias.

A clearly enforced quota has the advantage of clarity, which busy conference organizers will appreciate. It is also possible to be flexible about it. Clarify that the university or responsible organization expects a gender balance among invited speakers at every conference in every discipline. Ask conference organizers to agree to that idea in advance, and/or reward organizers who comply. 

Proposed procedure

The procedure is the main point, and here it is: Start by inviting only women. Do not to invite any men until half of the speakers have been invited and accepted the invitation including any conditions. Decide in advance that this will be the procedure, and stick to it.


One might object that women tend to prefer certain disciplines and men tend to prefer others. It doesn't make sense, one might argue, to invite 50% women to an engineering conference, in which 90% of participants are men. In that case the "quota" should be adjusted to the ratio of men and women at all levels. An even better strategy might be to adjust the quota to the current proportion of men and women among doctoral students, because we are aiming to improve the gender balance in the future, when current doctoral students become professors.

That argument sounds convincing at first. After all, women should be free to choose which academic disciplines they prefer. If women prefer art history to physics, that is their right. But the situation is not quite as clear as that.
There are different opinions on this issue, and the differences should be respected. I nevertheless wish to argue that the best gender balance in any academic discipline is 50:50 at all levels. If we want 50% female and 50% male professors, we should strive for 50% female and 50% male invited speakers at conferences.

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