I’m back from yet another whirlwind week of conferencing, since the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting (this year in scenic Salt Lake City) just wrapped up last weekend. I’ll share some photos of the conference and welcome reception at the Utah Museum of Natural History soon, but today I’d like to talk a bit about who is giving talks at SVP and how we can increase speaker diversity. I hope you will share this with your colleagues and students!
This year at SVP, as in previous years, I was one of only a handful of female speakers talking about research on dinosaurs or other archosaurs. In order to delve into this phenomenon in greater detail, let’s just do a quick recap of how SVP structures its abstract submission process and conference schedule. SVP includes a couple of different formats for presentations:
- Technical Sessions (oral presentations): competitively scored abstracts submitted by society members; some abstracts are submitted for talks and are given posters instead because of the limited number of slots for talks relative to abstract submissions
- Poster Sessions: competitively scored abstracts submitted by society members; the vast majority of presentations at SVP are given in this format with about 150-200 posters presented each day.
- Podium Symposium (oral presentations): symposia topics are proposed about a year before the conference and presenters are invited by the symposium conveners; the abstracts are still competitively scored
- Poster Symposium: similar to the podium symposia but in poster format
- Romer Prize Session (oral presentations): senior grad students submit a special application in addition to their abstract in order to be considered for a talk slot in this session; highly competitive and requires extra work
When authors submit their abstracts for review for the conference, we’re given a couple of options for what format we prefer: consider the abstract for a talk but if a talk isn’t possible then a poster is ok; only consider for a poster; consider for a talk but if not then withdraw abstract. The abstracts are then reviewed by (I think) 5 reviewers, scored numerically, and the top-scoring abstracts get talk slots and other acceptable abstracts get posters.
It’s impossible to go to every talk at SVP given that there are four concurrent sessions each morning and afternoon, and invariably I don’t get to sit through all sessions because there are lots of other things occupying my attention at SVP. The talks are usually grouped by taxon, so similar groups of animals are covered in a morning or afternoon session. I usually manage to sit through the bulk of the dinosaur presentations and either keep notes on the presenters or recognize the names of the people presenting. How many women were first authors (and therefore, typically, the presenting speaker) in the dinosaur talks this year? Let’s take a look:
- Sauropodomorpha Technical Session: 0 women, 8 talk slots
- Theropoda Technical Session: 0 women, 10 talk slots
- Ornisthichia Technical Session: 2 women, 10 talk slots
I have to be honest, this is both pretty dire and also par for the course. And those two women in the ornithischian session? One of them was me. Over the last 5 years or so I’ve informally kept track of how many women presented in the dinosaur sessions and it has rarely (never?) been more than 3. Where are my female colleagues?
Let’s take a look at the breakdown for three of the Podium Symposia, one of which I attended in nearly its entirety (the molecular symposium); I checked the names of the other symposia by hand to see who presented:
- Molecular Symposium: 11 women, 16 talk slots
- Paleo-Evo-Devo Symposium: 5 women, 16 talk slots
- Endothermy Symposium: 0 women, 8 talk slots
Here’s where things start to get interesting: the
endothermy and evo-devo symposia were convened by men [update: I goofed on the conveners for the endothermy symposium, which included 2 women; blame my late-night brain for missing this and my apologies to the conveners! See also M. Silcox’s comment at the end of this post], but the molecular symposium had a woman on the organizing team. I am not alone in noticing that a symposium with a female convener had more women presenters.
SVP abstracts are reviewed in a double-blind fashion, meaning the authors of the abstracts don’t know who their reviewers are, and the reviewers aren’t given the names of the authors for the abstract. In theory (and in practice), double-blind review helps reduce gender bias in the acceptance of scientific papers, so I would hope that we can safely rule out bias from the abstract review committee as a reason there aren’t as many women presenting talks at SVP. My working hypothesis for the past few years has been that the absence of women as oral presenters is because women are not opting to be considered for oral presentations at abstract submission time. If women don’t put themselves forward to give a talk, double-blind review won’t solve the problem. As such, we probably need more women to request oral presentations in order to increase the number of female speakers at SVP. I think the high proportion of female speakers in the molecular symposium and the low numbers in the technical sessions suggests that, broadly speaking (broadly! speaking! please don’t get upset at this generalization!), when women are invited to speak, we speak. But we don’t invite ourselves. And men need to get better at inviting us.
This hypothesis is supported by some recent discussions around trends in job applications, where women tend to apply to positions only when they match a high number of the listed qualifications, whereas the threshold number of qualifications is lower for men to submit an application. There’s also this example of an evolution conference where women were less likely to ask for the longer, 12-minute talk option vs the 5-minute talk slots. And don’t forget the link I mentioned before between women on the organizing committee and the number of women presenting.
While a bit discouraging, there are several concrete actions we can take (right now!) using this data:
- If you’re convening a symposium, invite more women to speak in your symposium. Make an effort to seek out female researchers on the symposium topic, especially people who maybe don’t often get up to speak. Here is a great blog post with concrete suggestions for increasing diversity in your symposium. Women in video gaming are also making good suggestions for how to increase diversity in what is currently a very, very skewed environment.
- If you’re a supervisor of female grad students or in any kind of mentoring capacity for female colleagues, encourage them to tick the box for oral presentations. Find ways to boost their confidence in public speaking, and teach them to write punchy, data-rich abstracts with strong narratives that are likely to score well with the abstract review committee. Make it really, really normal for everyone to request a talk. Take steps to avoid unconscious bias (we all have it!) that might influence your mentoring style with different groups of people.
- If you’re a woman, TICK THAT BOX THAT SAYS YOU WANT TO DO A TALK. TICK IT. DO IT. YOUR PROJECT IS GOOD ENOUGH FOR A TALK.
I cannot keep count of the number of times I have heard something along the lines of “Oh I’m not sure this project is ready for a whole talk” from my female colleagues. And while I agree that some topics (e.g. descriptions of new specimens) might be better suited to the discussion-rich format of posters, I also believe that you can find an interesting narrative for most projects that make them suited to the oral presentation format. I also cannot understate the importance of getting up in front of a crowd and being *noticed* for your work. Being noticed has benefits: you get feedback, you get collaborators, you get respect. And so, I just feel like I need to shout this from the rooftops: fellow ladies, your projects are good. Your projects are good enough for a whole talk. MAKE your projects good enough for a talk. Let the abstract review committee decide if your project isn’t the right fit for a talk. You will not get a talk slot if you don’t ask for one. I want to see more of you up on the stage with me when I’m invariably moderating the ornisthichian talks again in the future. Let’s make a promise to ourselves that next year you’ll tell yourself that your project is awesome and you’ll just tick that little box that says you want to do a talk.
I can’t invite each and every one of you to a symposium, but consider this a personal invitation from me to present in the technical sessions. There. You’re invited. See you in Calgary.
Thanks for sticking around all the way to the end of this post even though there was a catastrophic absence of fossils. Your reward is this Dyoplosaurus tail club, enjoy!