CEU Professor's Online Petition Prompts Academic Conference Gender Equity Policy

Panelists at the 8th European Feminist Research Conference discuss the conference theme: The Politics of Location Revisited. Image credit: CEU/Daniel Vegel

More than 40 years after the Women's Liberation Movement, it's still unclear by looking at lists of keynote and plenary speakers at academic conferences that female academics are abundant and extremely accomplished. This gender inequity led CEU Philosophy and Cognitive Science Professor Dan Sperber and his colleague Virginia Valian, psychology professor at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, to start an online petition to encourage balance. Prompted by their efforts, CEU Provost Katalin Farkas, a commitment signatory, spearheaded CEU's role as a leader in academic gender equity.

“Part of it is bias but a lot of people who may not be biased don't realize that when they think of who to invite, they first think of men because they are louder, have better positions, better-looking CVs, and are more visible and, thus, more often invited. It's a vicious cycle.” Sperber said. “You have to be aware and to make a bit of an effort just to be fair – we are not talking about positive discrimination here.”

Sperber insisted the aim is not parity but equity. He gave the example of developmental psychology where female scholars make up 70-80 percent of the field. However, invited speakers are typically 50 percent male/50 percent female which, in this case, is not equitable.

In January, CEU adopted an official policy on gender equity at academic events and summer schools with the objective of promoting equal opportunities and counteracting occurrences of gender bias. All applicants for University funding must show a concerted effort for gender balance and, if that's not possible, they must explain the reasons for the inequity. If speakers haven't been identified when applying for funds, applicants must submit a gender equity plan. “We don't know of any other policies such as this,” Sperber said. “It's clear that it's a pioneering move.”

Valian, whose 1998 book “Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women” has been a landmark in the fight for gender equity, recently wrote a piece called “Invite Women to Talk” in the prestigious scientific magazine “Nature.” In it, she chronicles her own experience as a female scientist and gives concrete advice on how to aid gender equity at academic conferences.

“For one, organizers should seek out women in relevant fields to speak at conferences and keep looking if the first woman they ask says 'no,'” Valian wrote. “Other examples include extending invitations early so that women have time to make arrangements and offering child-care services at meeting sites. But efforts should go beyond the individual. Conference funders should be mindful of gender equity for invited speakers. Similarly, universities should follow the example of the CEU.”

While attending a Sigma Xi scientific-research society event that honored scientists’ achievements, Valian began to wonder about the gender of previous speakers. After conferring with an older male scientist who had been attending for nearly 40 years, she discovered that she was the only female scientist to ever speak at the event.

“That doesn’t send an optimistic message to young female chemists,” Valian wrote. “The blog Feminist Philosophers lists nearly 20 recent philosophy conferences – many of which focus on science – featuring only male speakers.”

CEU’s policy is realistic and doesn't put up obstacles but makes a reasonable demand, Sperber noted. “You want the people you invite as guest speakers to reflect the state of the field. We hope that the CEU policy will serve as an example and will be adopted by other institutions, including grant-making institutions.”

Sperber and Valian's petition has nearly 500 signatories who have committed to accepting talk invitations only from conferences that have made good-faith efforts to include women in an equitable way. It is available in eight languages. Sperber and Valian hope more and more scientists, especially senior ones, will sign. To sign, click here: http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/commitment-to-gender-equity-at-scholarly-conferences/sign.html.