Poll: What (if anything) has prevented you from accepting conference invitations?


Update: An apology to Bakka, with whom the poll suggestion originated– hard to keep track of it all sometimes!

In our discussions of all-male conferences, people frequently note the women they’ve invited decline invitations at a higher rate than the men do. Following up on a suggestion from Bakka, Ingrid and Catarina, we think it would be useful to investigate what sorts of constraints may be preventing women from accepting conference invitations. The options we’ve given here are based on our own experiences, those of other women we know, and some of the stories recounted at the What is it Like blog. Since we don’t know whether it’s actually true that women reject invitations at a high rate, we’ve also included an “I’ve never rejected an invitation” option. Next week, we’ll do a post with the results, reflecting on what they tell us about things conference organisers or the profession more generally could do to make women more able to accept invitations.

If you are a woman with a job in philosophy can you take a minute to fill out this poll?

22 thoughts on “Poll: What (if anything) has prevented you from accepting conference invitations?

  1. I’ve never never absolutely never rejected an invitation. And when serving on program committee I’ve always been amazed–and irritated–to get rejections from people who weren’t that big guns and, even worse, to get people asking for a week or three or more to think it over–which invitees should realize is exceptionally disruptive. I’d be interested in learning what motivates this behavior. When anyone invites me to anything anywhere I respond by return email YES and go. I did this when my kids were babies too. Whatever it took–hiring a sleepover babysitter or whatever–I was always hot to trot, always accepted invitations immediately and always went.

  2. Now that I think of it reading my comment, I’m a conference-whore. I will speak anywhere, on any topic, in any circumstances. Thought I suppose conference whore isn’t quite right: I’m happy to speak for free–anywhere, on any topic and in any circumstances. I’m promiscuous.

  3. I share HEB’s procliviity, but I did feel a funny pressure to come up with something. Before I really realize that I felt it, I remembered a wildly inappropriate invitation Inturned down about nine years ago.

    When we look at results we might remember they’l be skewed in some ways, evenif onlly mildly.

  4. I love invitations, but have had to decline a few. One asked for a date that had already been booked with another invitation, and asked just a month shy. Another arrived after I’d maxed out travel funds responding to invitations to speak on other continents. The environmental concerns are more recent, but indeed environmental ethics colleagues have influenced me in this respect.

  5. What about answers like, “going to hard to get to place in the middle of no-where doesn’t really appeal to me”, or “I could do it, but I’d rather spend time with my family”, or “I could do it, but I think I’m likely to get more of a boost to my career by spend more time working on the paper I’m working on than traveling to a relatively minor conference” or “I just don’t feel like it”? All of those seem like quite reasonable reasons to turn down conference invitations, and ones I can well imagine top people honestly saying, but they don’t seem to be clearly covered in the list given above.

  6. Matt, good question. Other people who worked on this may have other things to say, but I think the questions are meant to be about factors conference organizers can address. So, for example, we did not put in anything about acute but transient medical reasons, which must account for some refusals.

  7. I agree with Matt that there are other reasons, but I figured they more or less fit into the category of “Too many obligations” (especially the one about family and the one about working on a paper. We might also add “too much time away from my classes”!). What I was a little unclear on, was why “too many obligations” was seen as implying “more options on dates wouldn’t help.” If the problem is that one has too many obligations *now,* dates that are further off in the future might well be the ticket. I will soon be attending a conference that was set up two (!) years ago. There are few excuses that one could give for turning that down!

  8. Matt– there’s always the option to fill those in under “other”. Just another– I wanted to distinguish the case where the issue is timing of the conference (at a really busy time) rather than constant frantic pace of one’s life. The thought was to distinguish the one conference organisers can do something about from the one that they can’t do anything about.

  9. Jender, let me try to clarify what I meant. There’s the stuff we’re always busy with: family, teaching, writing, etc. Then we schedule ourselves for the amount of travel we think we can handle on top of that. And if someone invites me to a conference, not “very late” but when I already feel I have enough (usually more than enough) that I can handle in that period of time, I’ll say “no.” Whereas if it were farther in the future, when I’ve yet to be scheduled up (and when I always think I’ll have lots of time… ha!) I am more likely to say “yes.”

  10. Yes, anything else can go under “other”, but that’s no so helpful, I’d guess. My suggestions where meant to indicate that these seem like quite plausible reasons, and if they are common enough, you’d want to know, because otherwise you’d get a distorted picture. In particular, if people turn down invitations for these reasons fairly regularly, but they are at most bunched under “other”, you’ll have a worse idea of what can reasonably be expected. For example, it seems that one might well have reasons that are not obligations. So, one might want to spend more time with one’s family, where this isn’t an “obligation”, but could be a perfectly good reason to turn down an invitation. (I know that I’ve decided not to submit to conferences where I’d likely have a paper accepted for that reason, for example.) And I didn’t mean the other options as criticism- simply to suggest some other reasons that seemed likely to me that didn’t seem to be covered.

  11. Somewhat like Matt, I’m curious as to why one obvious option isn’t simply “not interested.”

  12. Most of those just didn’t occur to us. We’re not social scientists, and don’t plan to pretend we’ve arrived at anything grand here. We’re hoping that with the focus we’ve got we’ll at least find something out about what organisers might focus on doing differently– which is our goal. (Learning how many women tick “not interested” wouldn’t help much with that.)

  13. Having read the parts of H. E. Baber’s comments in which she (I assume) explains how difficult it is for conference committees if people ask for some time to decide whether to accept an invitation to speak at a conference, I’m inclined to think that the issue of why women are under-represented at conferences can be added to the list of Great Solved Mysteries of our time.

    If ‘being able to accept an invite within a day’ is a criterion for not being seen as an awkward customer, then I’d guess that people who have caring responsibilities, are more likely to be seen as awkward customers. And obviously, awkward customers are going to get fewer invites. And sadly, in society as it is, the people who are going to be seen as awkward customers are more likely to be women. (It wouldn’t surprise me that much to discover that women are also more likely to get judged as being awkward customers for this sort of behaviour than men.)

    I hasten to add, that I’m not saying ‘this is inevitable, therefore its okay’. Nor am I saying ‘This will improve when society improves’. It isn’t inevitable and we don’t need to change the whole of society to change it. What we need to do is change the profesxsional norm which H.E.Baber is articulating.

    There’s nothing wrong with needing time to think over whether to take on a commitment; any more than there is with (say) being unwilling to attend faculty meetings scheduled at 7 o’clock in the evening. (Which, in case anyone thinks I’m scarecrowing, I have heard described as unprofessional, and as a reason for not hiring people with children.)

    If that means that program committees need to start work further in advance, so be it.

  14. returning commenter, I completely agree. I don’t really have caring responsibilities at this stage, but I still think it would be rude and thoughtless for me just to assume I can go my own way whenever I want..

  15. I am not sure that H.E. Baber is articulating a professional norm. I know plenty of men who take a long time to respond to invitations, too. Academics aren’t known for their responsiveness. I think she was articulating her own view of the matter, which is no doubt shared by some, but I don’t think it’s widespread.

    That being said, I do agree planning should start early and allow for people to make decisions, make it more likely for them to say “yes,” etc. Of course, that makes life more difficult for the planners, but it’s worth it, in my opinion.

  16. This discussion of responses to invitations is an important one, but what about the flip-side: the invitation itself? It’s normal for the invitation to explain why the invitation was issued (“you wrote article X” or “we saw your presentation at conference Y and were impressed” or “you’re a top expert in field Z”). But given that gender is an important factor in choosing speakers, should this be mentioned if it was among the reasons for a given invitation? Should the inviter say, “We think you’d be a good fit for this conference because of your impressive work in the field, and also because so far only 1 of our 12 speakers is female (or male), and we need a better balance in terms of gender representation.” Or is telling speakers they were chosen (partly) for their gender a bad idea? Would women speakers be less inclined to say no if they were told, “We need more women”?

  17. @justanotherfemalephilosopher.

    You may be right – I don’t know how widely shared H. E. Baber’s view is. But how do you take the ‘should’ in the sentence which ends:

    ‘…which invitees should realize is exceptionally disruptive.’

    My point is that if this perfectly reasonable behaviour really is ‘exceptionally disruptive’ to the work of conference organisers, then they’re the people that need to change the way they do things, not the people who are behaving in this reasonable way. I think that’s a differen point from the idea that if people are asked in advance they are more likely to say yes. (although I think that is probably true too!)

    What made me react so strongly though was an assumption which seemed to underlie the comment, that I’ve often seen people make in this and other (often in otherwise eminently feminist friendly fora) that unless your a big-shot in philosophy you shouldn’t really expect to have anything else significant going on in your life that might even conceivably be more of a priority than your immediate professional advancement.

    (see for example – this post:

    http://crookedtimber.org/2009/02/03/should-we-hire-academics-who-are-parents/ )

    I don’t know whether this rises to the level of a professional norm. But I think its the sort of atttitude that can underlie the formation of lots of a local, specific norms. And I think that an awareness of the likelihood of such norms existing can make a huge difference to things that can be of concern to us here – for example, which kinds of people are likely to even attempt to enter the profession. And I think that anything that looks like the articulation of a norm of that sort is worth questioning.

    (Apologies for long, ranty post veering into OTness)

  18. I am, to say the least, not famous nor am I a highly in demand speaker at conferences. I’ve been _invited_ (as opposed to applying) to take part in a conference panel or session a half dozen times at the very most. But I don’t think I’ve ever said anything other than something like, “I’d be glad to take part and think I can, but let me check with my wife and look more closely at my schedule to make sure it will work okay.” No one has ever had a problem with it, as far as I can tell. I do try to get back to people as quickly as I can. (I usually assume that if they are asking me, they are close to the bottom of the barrel and so will need to look hard.) But this isn’t because I need my wife’s permission or the like, but just because it seems like common courtesy. If someone needed to check if they could get someone to watch their kids (or their pets, even) that would be even more of an obvious reason. So, while a week or two might be an overly-long time to ask for, surely a day or a couple of them are perfectly reasonable, and it would be unreasonable to demand answers on the spot in the vast majority of cases. Or so it seems to me.

  19. I’m glad that H. E. Baber enjoyed a family situation that made it possible for her to travel whenever she wished to. Many of us (e.g., parents of kids with special needs) don’t – and others prefer to spend time at home with family, or working on projects that are driven by our own research interests rather than by specific topics we’ve been invited to speak on. I am selective about which invitations I accept because that’s the only way I can manage my professional and personal obligations while keeping my workload manageable. I also take time to respond to some invitations because I need to think over whether I can manage everything I’ll need to do in a given period, and also whether I have anything interesting to say about the topic. (Typically I write to the organizers, let them know I would like to think it over, and ask them when they need my answer.)

    I have served on and chaired program committees, and I have never found such behavior on the part of my invitees “amazing,” “irritating,” or “exceptionally disruptive,” regardless of whether they were “big guns” or not. I think the burden is on the organizer to plan things far enough in advance to allow for the possibility that multiple invitations will need to be made, and that people may need some time to reflect before responding.

  20. […] Our poll is now over and we’ve got some interesting results. The most popular reason for women to turn down conference invitations is a lack of funding to attend. If it’s true that women turn down conference invitations more often than men do (we still don’t know this), a key reason may be that they are less likely to have good travel funds available. Why think this? Well, we already know that women are disproportionately to be found at less wealthy, less prestigious institutions, and more likely to work part-time. They are also less likely to be have reached senior ranks. All these factors are likely to mean that women have less access to travel funds. So conference organisers may want to think about who they give their limited funds to. They might want to think about prioritising the women. Alternatively, and with quite possibly the same effect, they might want to prioritise funding the junior people from less wealthy institutions. I know it’s awkward asking senior/famous people whether they can fund themselves, but unless they’re arseholes they’re unlikely to be offended if you explain that you want to use your limited funds where they’re most needed. […]

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