Thursday, June 13, 2013

Guest Post: Men, Women and Self-Promotion in Astronomy

This is a cross-post from Rob Simpson's blog Orbiting Frog.

We’re running the fifth .Astronomy conference later this year in Boston. .Astronomy is a small (and awesome) conference for astronomers, where you must apply to participate. Although the tone is relaxed, spaces at the event are in short supply (there are only 50 places). You don’t have to talk at .Astronomy, and there are only a few speaking slots, but it’s a pretty friendly crowd and you can talk about a wide variety of things. So why did only 2 women submit an abstract (out of 27 female applicants) versus 30 men (out of 65)?




We would like to create a broad group of speakers but it’s hard to select talks that don’t exist. Did we inadvertently create a bias toward male speakers by soliciting abstracts on the sign-up form? If so, that’s a worry because it’s how a lot of conferences do this.

To be clear: on our simple conference registration form, almost 50% of men submitted an abstract, but only 7% of women. Holy moly.

There has been a great deal written about the fact that women lack self-esteem, relative to men. This explains some of the gender gap in pay, promotions and even published op-eds. This isn’t news, really. In fact the 7% and 50% figures above are eerily close to the percentages for each gender who negotiate starting pay after getting an MBA – and that study is more than 10 years old!




What is news to me is that we committed the same error at a progressive conference in 2013. Does this mean that conference registration forms like the one used for .Astronomy are an example of unwitting bias against women in astronomy – and who knows: science, academia, conferences in general?

I’d be interested to know how this plays out at other conferences and events. Do the UK National Astronomy Meetings see a similar gender gap? Do AAS Meetings? Does anyone else have anecdotal examples of similar or contradictory things happening?

I realise that there are women with plenty of self-confidence – and also men who lack it. I also realise that self-confidence does not correlate with academic ability and so perhaps we need a better system for selecting people for talks, promotions or jobs. I’m not proposing any solutions here – that would be extremely self-confident of me. What I do know is that whatever system would improve the situation, it will also be important for the women of academia to boldly go where statistically fewer women have gone before: and submit more abstracts.

As for .Astronomy: if you’re coming to the meeting in September and you’re a woman who didn’t submit an abstract (there are many of you!) then feel free to email one to me now. The SOC are still picking a range of speakers and talks, so we’d love to hear from you.