balance of invited speakers at academic conferences
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
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.
are more likely than men to refuse invitations to conferences, because
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.
academic quality is promoted if all those who could contribute to the
content, whether as invited speakers, regular speakers, or poster
treated equally. From an ethical viewpoint, equality is an end in
itself. From a practical viewpoint, it is a means to an end. Both views
main factors that promote the quality of invited presentations are:
field of expertise (the speaker should be an
expert in the right field),
doctorate (invited speakers should always have
publications in good
international journals and/or with good book publishers (ditto),
ability to communicate effectively with an expert
Neither habilitation nor professorship
should be a criterion for invitation to
a conference presentation.
To my knowledge, there
is no consistent, systematic, or significant difference in the quality
of conference presentations given by colleagues with and without
habilitation or professorship. As academics get older, their
performance may improve in some respects but get worse in others.
Habilitation and professorship committees often have
trouble recognizing “excellence”, because most
members are not experts in the corresponding specific area. A lack of
gender balance at the habilitation or professorship level should not
stop conference organizers from achieving a gender balance among
Sometimes, a highly qualified
colleague gives a poor invited presentation. That
can be avoided if organizers work together with presenters to improve
both content and presentation in advance. Colleagues can be invited on
the condition that organizers receive a draft in advance (say, a month
early) and the speaker agrees to respond constructively to suggestions
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
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
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.
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.
are not innately attracted to art history rather than physics. Rather,
this choice is primarily the result of social conditioning that
starts at an early age. This conditioning is itself one of the causes
of the sexism that we would like to overcome.
Mid-career women in male-dominated disciplines (e.g.,
doctoral students and postdocs)
often experience discrimination of different kinds. If those women are
to have the same chance of success as their male colleagues, we need to
increase the proportion of women in professorial positions.
The same idea would have to be applied to
female-dominated disciplines. If 90% of doctoral students in
romance literature studies are women, then according to this rule 90%
of keynotes at romance literature conferences should be women.
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. The opinions
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