Results: What (if anything) prevents women from accepting conference invitations?

UPDATE: I just wanted to note something epistemically interesting. We’ve had endless discussions over the years here about why women might be refusing conference invitations, but the number one reason from our poll was *never* suggested in any of those discussions.

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.

Reason number 2 is having a clash of obligations for which more options on dates would help. The fourth most common reason is being asked very late. Both of these point to the thought that conference organisers should try to invite women as early as possible, perhaps giving them first choice on a range of dates. After all, somebody has to be asked first. If women in your field *are* really hard to come by, then perhaps make them the first ones you ask. At the very least, don’t wait until two weeks before!

Tied with the above reason number 2 is having so many obligations that more options on dates wouldn’t make any difference. It’s hard to see how conference organisers can help with this, but one commenter has noted that she has turned down conferences due to simply having too many obligations rather than a clash– and that asking her far enough in advance would help. So, another reason to ask early.

The third most popular answer was “I have never turned down a conference invitation”. We can’t take this to show anything about relative numbers of women and men saying yes to conferences, but at least it’s some indication that women aren’t just serial turners-down of invitations.

Reason 5 was invitation outside my area of competence/current research, and reason 6 was lack of childcare at the conference. So: do be sure you’re asking someone to do what they actually do, and do think about help with arranging childcare.

A few women said they’d turned down conferences in order to avoid harassers, help the environment or because there was a lack of accommodation for their disabilities. Even though the numbers here are low, the issues are significant, and there are things an organiser can do. Don’t invite known harassers (I very much like a “no arseholes” rule at my conferences); offer the possibility of speaking by video; and work harder on accommodating disabilities.

17 thoughts on “Results: What (if anything) prevents women from accepting conference invitations?

  1. Very interesting results!

    For those who are wondering just how limited the research funds at less wealthy institutions can be:

    The travel allocation at the public university I work for is (on paper) $1000 per year. But this comes from union dues, and the annual fund typically dries up by December. We can’t put requests in before the first day of the academic year – so there is a very narrow window of about 12 weeks in the fall to get requests in. Funding for travel between July 1 and the first day of the academic year (at the end of August) is prohibited. Requests must be submitted at least 30 days prior to the date of travel. This means travel in September is effectively unfunded, too. Attending conferences with less than a month notice would be out of the question.

    Occasionally the Dean will find a little bit of extra funding for faculty who have a worthwhile travel proposal, but this often comes with strings attached.

  2. Re: the remark in the ‘update’: I consider ‘conference INVITATIONS’ those for which you are invited as a keynote/plenary/workshop speaker, not those for which you send in a proposal and then this proposal is ‘accepted’. From what I know, the former almost always comes with ticket and accomodation funded (sometimes even a honorarium added), the latter is almost always something you have to pay for. So I wonder how respondents have interpreted the term ‘invitation’ – if this includes having gotten an abstract/paper accepted – yes, then no wonder this comes out as a result. If, however, it concerns lack of funding for keynote/plenary/workshop papers, then I find this truly odd, and also incredibly surprising.

  3. Ingrid: From personal experience, I can tell you I’ve been invited to conferences as a plenary speaker, where I was still asked to foot all travel and accommodation bills. “Sorry, but we did not obtain sufficient funding to reimburse all invited speakers, and we limit those to overseas invitees” was one of the excuses I got, another one was “Sorry, tried to obtain funding for this, but the proposal was rejected”.

  4. I have *many* times been an invited speaker with no funding offered. That is absolutely the norm for conferences in the US, where the assumption is that one’s own department will pay. And it’s not at all uncommon in the UK.

  5. I’ve three times been invited where I was asked to cover travel while all the rest was provided, and those were from the UK and Ireland. Within continental Europe, and the few times I’ve been invited to the US, it was all funded. So interesting to learn this, and I wonder whether this is pure coincidence, or whether this is a (roughly) EU/USA difference.

  6. It might be worth asking if lack of funding is a problem for a person because that person is already committed to other non funded conferences. If a lot of the same people are being invited, they are going to use up travel funds quickly

  7. This is a fabulous start on much-needed research. I would love to see a detailed survey of conference organizers as well. For example: though my own experience alone hardly says anything, I’ve been an invited (rather than submitted) speaker probably 20 times and have never been invited without an offer of expenses. In a couple cases the organizers sent a general not around asking if any of us could cover our own expenses since they had insufficient funding. And in I think 2 cases, only partial funding was offered. But never none. In terms of advise on this, I would think that a general principle would be to give funding to the lesss famous, less well employed. Holders of major chairs – regardless of gender – typically have research/travel funds. Average faculty, increasingly, don’t. Perhaps a discipline-wide commitment to not being offended when you are in a position to, and asked, to help out in this way.

    Another question I’d love data on is how often the female invitations are to the same small-ish group of women. I have this suspicion that in addition to being invited less, the invitations to women are more concentrated than the invitations to men. This would, of course, partly explain the too many obligations reason. Lots of conferences want to have a woman, but the only one’s who work they have heard of are the handful most famous in the area. Of course I don’t know if this is what’s happening, but it is worth pursuing.

    Finally my strongest endorsement to the “no assholes” policy, esp re harrassers, which I would so love to see consistently employed. It would make life better in so many ways for all of us.

  8. My experience has been almost like Ingrid’s and Mark’s, but not quite.
    I can think of two times I’ve been invited to speak without any offer of expenses, and two other times when the organizers could only pay some. I’ve only had a few invitations to speak outside of North America, but those have always come with offers to pay all expenses.

    Come to think of it, though, this doesn’t count APA meetings — they don’t pay their invitees (although the Eastern division will pay some expenses in special circumstances). And I’m pretty sure Mark Lance forgot those, too.

    I also generally share Mark’s impression that among women a smaller percentage get a larger share of the invitations than among men. I wonder if this has to do with the fact that organizers looking for a ‘headliner’ will tend to choose an older person, and in that generation the representation of women is really tiny. (At least this is plainly true in my field, which is metaethics.)

    Oh, and I actually came down here to the comment box, before I read other people’s comments, to say: thanks for doing this, it’s very illuminating!

  9. I also generally share Mark’s impression that among women a smaller percentage get a larger share of the invitations than among men. I wonder if this has to do with the fact that organizers looking for a ‘headliner’ will tend to choose an older person, and in that generation the representation of women is really tiny. (At least this is plainly true in my field, which is metaethics.)

    From 12 above

    I think this is an important observation, and probably accounts for part of the problem in having women speak. With senior women, you are looking at a generation of women who were often acting without precedents or guidance, who encountered often very adverse circunstances that included a denial of resources available widely to men. And now it seems that only those who’s careers look like mens are worth inviting.

  10. Wouldn’t it be good to have men’s reasons for turning down invitations, to compare?

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