Monday, February 26, 2007

On the enforcement of gender diversity

The Internets are much exercised lately about intimations of gender bias among tech-conference organizers, because only a small fraction of the speakers at most conferences are women (the original article; sample responses here and here).

(To be clear: gender imbalance in the tech world does exist, and it is a bad thing. It saddens me to see only three women among roughly 140 attendees—and only one woman speaker in four years—at the annual conference of the database toolkit software I use, or to read that "the percentage of women receiving bachelor’s degrees in computer science dropped from 37 percent in 1985 to 28 percent in 2001, and only 20 percent of computer science PhD recipients are women" (Gruber quoting the Boston Globe): is this where two generations of empowerment and feminism have lead us? What a waste of potential for us males, to hear only the same voices telling the same stories. Diversity works to the benefit of all parties: you get so speak, we get to hear you. Both sides are enriched.)

I think that to base an argument on one number taken in isolation (the percentage of speakers) is fallacious: there may well be gender bias among conference organizers, but the number of women speakers in itself can neither prove nor disprove it. What counts is whether women are being prevented from speaking: whether the organizers reject women applicants in greater proportion than men (it's always the case that more people apply to speak than can be given a podium); and whether the proportion of women speakers corresponds to the proportion of women in the audience.

The organizers could end this particular wrangle (though without resolving the issue) by revealing one number: the percentage of would-be speakers who are female. If 20% of applicants are female but only 10% of speakers, then women are indeed under-represented. On the other hand, if 5% of applicants are female and 10% of speakers are female, then this proves a gender bias in favour of women. I am willing to take any bet you care to place, that exactly this gender bias does exist in many cases: that enlightened conference organizers do try to have as many women speakers as possible. (Going back to my database toolkit conference and that one woman among roughly 24 speakers. Four percent of speakers were female; two percent of attendees were female. One in four years is not a lot, however it's twice as many as one would expect statistically given the population. No under-representation.)

So where do the women speakers come from? Dori Smith talks about (not) being asked to speak at a conference; well, my experience and belief is that unless one's surname is "Gates" or "Jobs" one must apply to speak. Why don't more women apply? (The answer "they have better things to do" would be valid and acceptable, but raises the question "what does 'better' mean?")

May I ask you, yes you dear Reader: most of you are women (judging by the comments I receive); by definition you are all computer-savvy, by inclination as blogwriters you are alert and interested in the world, good with words, and at least marginally geeky. Have you ever applied to speak at a conference (of any kind in any field)? If not, why not; if so, what happened?

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Blogger Antonia said...

now that I think of it,Iam organizing a conference and just have counted, of 50 speakers 18 are women which for philosophy is pretty good, for some strange reason you have more women in physics etc here than in philosophy. However, as for making the choice who speaks, some professors are highly aware of such things as one zillion publications, being employed at the stylish university, having a good resume or 'whom you know' etc and they don't look that much at the abstract the speakes have to sent in for application. Here my professor only looked at the abstracts and dismissed the other shit. We have people coming that also are unemployed which is called: independent scholars, both men (1) and women (1). I know not everyone is that lenient and in general women have more difficulties to fulfill the more strict criteria as seen above, but this does not mean that they produce crap, only just that there are more gaps in the system they can fall through. Now I have a professor who is sensitive to this which signifies a bias in favour of women yet this proportion, 18 men and 32 women, this proportion is also roughly to be found in the number of rejected abstracts, so it is not a strong bias. The topic of the conference is not logic. Am sure things would look awfully different then.

February 26, 2007 at 11:26:00 a.m. GMT+1  
Blogger Udge said...

Hooray for the independent scholars! It takes real guts to put oneself forward in such a forum in that condition. Give them both a shake of the hand from me, please. Holland is indeed an enlightened country.

February 26, 2007 at 8:47:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger brooksba said...

I've never considered speaking at a conference. This is probably because my field doesn't hold many conferences and when it happens, it tends to be upper-level executives speaking. I'm not one of those. Yet.

One point about gender diversity and bias, I would also want to look at the applicant pool to see if it matches the diversity of the entire candidate pool. For example, if the population is 30% women, 70% men and the applicants are 10% women, 90% men, there is a problem in opportunity to apply being communicated. Maybe the advertisment needs to change to intice more of one group to apply.

February 26, 2007 at 10:42:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger zhoen said...

Of the nurses who speak, and are given honors, the men get far more accolades in proportion to their numbers in this female swamped field. It may just be a matter of what motivates men, as a general rule. (And those men are often nurses I would not let take care of me or those I love.)

If true, then women will never fill a proportional number of spots once exclusively for men, especially those highly visible high (masculine) status positions.

The point is that no one be excluded by gender, from entry level on up, because then those ideas and insights will be lost, those voices not heard. Which you already said, but I'm apparently feeling wordy today.

February 27, 2007 at 2:58:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger rb said...

I've never applied to speak at a conference, though I have been 'invited' (read: required) to speak as a token woman for affirmative action purposes. It really didn't matter what I had to say, I was photographed and videotaped and it was thus proven that a woman speaker had been on dais.

February 28, 2007 at 4:49:00 a.m. GMT+1  
Blogger sirbarrett said...

When I think of my friends, the female ones seem to be the most talented and educated speakers and many of them are also more tech savvy, no how to use Excel etc than my male counterparts although I can't think of any that are asked to speak publicly. In universities we have a similar phenomenon. For example, in an article last week it commented that despite the fact that the female to male ratio in unversities is typically 3 to 1, women, for whatever reason are less likely to speak up or share their opinions in lectures. This has given rise to their nickname as the "silent majority".

February 28, 2007 at 6:33:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger Udge said...

Interesting, very interesting. I think the summary would be "you've still got a long way to go, baby" - which is an ad reference that surely only three of us are old enough to get :-)

February 28, 2007 at 11:51:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger Antonia said...

udge it isn't the netherlands, it is just the topic of the conference and my teacher who is making the selection. It is just luck. Other people in my department stick way more to the socalled unwritten rules.
Which is, speaking of attending conferences, is something I utterly despise because it is about all this reputation and whom you know crap. I think even if I would be invited to one I wouldn't go if it wouldn't be very necessary for some reason. This conference business is completely disgusting.

March 3, 2007 at 5:02:00 p.m. GMT+1  

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