A recent study found that men made up 69% of colloquium speakers at top U.S. universities, compared to 31% of women. For the study, researchers built a database of every colloquium speaker from six different departments: biology, bioengineering, political science, history, psychology and sociology from the top 50 U.S. universities.

The study estimated the full pool of available speakers by listing every professor in the chosen fields working at the top 100 U.S. universities and even after adjusting for the different number of men and women in each field, found that men were still 20% more likely to be invited. Researchers found that this was not because women declined talks more than men. In fact, women strongly agreed that the talks were beneficial to their careers.

Colloquium talks, where academics are invited to discuss their research, provide opportunities to build professional networks and publicize their work. One study found that women are significantly underrepresented in senior academic ranks in STEM fields and a potential factor in that underrepresentation is lower visibility of female scientists which can be created by excluding women from presenting research. Robin Nelson, an assistant professor at Santa Clara University who studies harassment in science fields, stated that this discrimination “minimizes women’s visible contributions to their fields, validating the idea that the greatest intellectual contributions are made by a few brilliant men.”

Race also plays a part in underrepresentation, as barriers and discrimination in the workforce are worse for women of color. Unfortunately, the study was unable to thoroughly examine the impact of race because they could not find enough professors of color to get a statistically strong sample.

One solution is to give women more positions on the committees who choose these speakers. When committees were chaired by women, half of the speakers were women. When they were chaired by men, only 30% of the speakers were women. Transparency is also crucial. One study which reviewed the “strong and sustained” dominance of men as the majority of invited speakers found that when data about underrepresentation was made known to organizers, it had an immediate impact. The study also concluded that while the four prominent international virology conferences it reviewed had a clear tendency to invite a larger percentage of men than women, the trend was slowly eroding. Although there is still a long way to go, this signals a gradual but persistent effort to create more opportunities for women in these fields.

 

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