Men, Women and Self-Promotion in Astronomy

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)?

.Astronomy 5 Signup Gender Ratio

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!

.Astronomy Signup Gender Gap

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.

[There’s a follow-up post to this here]


7 thoughts on “Men, Women and Self-Promotion in Astronomy

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  1. Rob, this is fascinating. I applaud you for bringing this to our attention and for giving us all an opportunity to submit new abstracts. Can you remind us how the talk solicitation was worded on the application form? I’m new to .Astronomy, and I recall interpreting the solicitation as saying something along the lines of, “talks slots are scarce, and they aren’t as important a part of .Astronomy as the unconference/hack day sessions anyway.” The promise of unconference/hack sessions, with rich give and take from many participants, is partly what motivated me to apply for .Astronomy in the first place. I chose not to submit a talk abstract because I felt there were other forums where I would be able to make a meaningful contribution. I pretty much always propose talks at other conferences I attend.

    1. You’re quite right about how the form was phrased; and that’s still true. .Astronomy is about collaboration, unconference and the hack day. What intrigued me was that men and women saw the same form but responded so differently.

      I just wanted to make sure I’d given everyone another shot – and I’ve had several abstracts email to me already.

  2. I recall organizing an astronomy conference about 5 years back, where it was made clear that financial support would only be available to students. Despite this, a number of faculty applied for financial support – all of them men. As the conference had around a 60:40 male:female split, the odds are low that this was a coincidence

  3. I’m not super familiar with the astronomy world, but given the wording that Pat mentions, I’d guess that this isn’t so much a lack-of-confidence thing, but a cost-benefit tradeoff thing. Given that women are underrepresented in astronomy, they likely have a higher intensity of demands on them. The conference wording makes it clear that the effort to put together an abstract has a low payoff (few slots, talks aren’t very important anyway). So it makes more sense for them to take the time they would have spent writing an abstract to do something more productive.

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