How to avoid a gendered conference

(This is a post for conference/workshop/summer school organisers, anthology editors, and anyone else who is putting together a collection of philosophers and finding they’re all male. It’s a part of our Gendered Conference Campaign, the motivations for which are explained here.)

So, you’re trying to think of people to invite to your conference, and all the ones who come to mind are male. Well, there was one woman but she said she was too busy. You’ve read (perhaps here, perhaps elsewhere) about the harms this can do in terms of implicit bias and stereotype threat. So you’d like to avoid an all-male conference. How might you do this?

What follows are some suggestions:

1. Realise that the first names you think of are overwhelmingly likely to be male. This is exactly what work on implicit bias would predict. So if you want some female names, you’ll need to work a little harder. You might ask around a bit. Or you might look at the papers cited by some of the men you’ve thought of to find some women who work in the area. Neither of these is ideal, though, since the same biases will make it harder for others to think of women, or to remember to cite them. Perhaps a better idea is to search for your topic on the Philosophers Index or Phil Papers, and see what women have written on it.

2. Studies have shown that women often need to have done a lot more to be considered successful than men do. There’s a good chance that you’re only thinking of super-famous women, while considering much less famous men. That is, you may well be setting the bar higher for women. So consider inviting some less famous women than those you first thought of. (This will also help redress injustice, since in many cases implicit bias will have been involved in these women being less famous.)

3. Don’t wait till the last minute to invite women.

4. If there really are not that many women in your field, perhaps consult with them first about dates. You have to ask someone first, so why not them?

5. Women are often at lower-prestige institutions, in lower ranked jobs. This means they’re likely to have less access to funds. (In a recent poll, we found that lack of funds was the top reason women declined invitations.) One way to make it more possible for women to attend would be to prioritise funding for those with less resources to draw upon. The super-famous often have super-big research accounts too. So go ahead and ask if they can self-fund. (If they’re offended by the question, they’re arseholes and you don’t want them at your conference.

6. Offer childcare at your conference. It’s not as hard as you think.

63 thoughts on “How to avoid a gendered conference

  1. I think this is really excellent, and practical. It will help me to have a concrete list to refer to whenever I have to think of asking philosophers to participate in anything.

    I have posted it on FB with this remark: “Here you go. Print it out, tack it up, and refer to it often.

    (Generalize to all kinds of things: Compiling an anthologies? Yes, this will help. Planning readings for a syllabus? Some of these suggestions fit, too. Consult it too, when doing targeted job searches, individual speaker invites, etc.)”.

  2. Good stuff! I was saying similar things (but being less comprehensive) when commenting on the results of the poll over at NewAPPS:

    Just a small suggestion: rather than using Philosopher’s Index, which as far as I am concerned is a totally outdated tool, I suggest instead to use PhilPapers PhilPapers has all kinds of useful categories, making it really easy to see what’s been published on a certain topic and in particular which women have been publishing on it.

  3. Great! I’m so glad you’ve done this. Have you put in links to it in the GCC page?

    I wonder if a reference to it should go into the letter? I suppose it might be taken negatively.

  4. It’s on the GCC page, and the letter refers people to that. Hopefully that’ll be enough!

  5. Is this related correctly? The World male intellectuality does not seem exclusive, nor does what you have presented about Conferences seem to indicate male exclusivity or male contextualization – actually it just seems as poor contextualization. Woman as merely an insert here?

  6. How to avoid a Gendered Conference – how about not contextualizing it in terms of Gender?

    What Woman intellectuals are even necessarily interested in Establishment or Field intellectuality?

  7. Wouldn’t it be better to suggest the inclusion of a feminist perspective, rather than women, per se? It doesn’t seem to me like there’s any way to think about this argument except as an essentialist one reliant on ideas about the innate perspective of women.

  8. Benjamin: It’s not a question of the innate perspective of women (I think most feminists would disagree with such an essentialist notion), but rather an issue of fairness.
    Last year, there were two conferences in a small area of philosophy in which I (a fairly junior female philosopher) am one of the few experts, having published extensively in this field. However, in both conferences *all* invited speakers were male, and many of them were less knowledgeable in the domain than me. Some people sent me the cfp of both conferences, encouraging me to submit something since it ‘fitted so well with what I did’. In both cases, the conference organizers knew me and read my work.
    The reasons I wasn’t asked, although I was an obvious choice for both probably were (1) I am not in a tenured or tenure-track position despite my best efforts and good publication record and/or (2) I am a woman. It could also be that (1) and (2) are related – in the country where I work sexism still plays an important role in who gets hired.
    I think the GCC is an excellent initiative to give women the same chances as men. It might be that my perspective is not qualitatively different from those of men, but doesn’t it seem right that everyone gets the same opportunities, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity?

  9. Benjamin, let me sketch out on line of thought:

    1.Women are as capable as men of doing excellent philosophy.
    2.There are relatively few women philosophers and as a group they have an even smaller share of the professions resources (lower salaries, less prestigous positions, less recognition/citation, etc).
    3. Women have disproportionately really bad experiences, including public insults, harassment, denial of tenure, slurring of work, etc.
    4. Gendered conferences contribute to this bad state of affairs; e.g.,because they are not invited, women are less well know, less visible, cited, more “foreign.”

    My conclusion is that the gendered conferences are a bad thing. There are, of course, many places where one could disagree with the premises, but the facts and the empirical research are supporting them.

    Something we/I plan to work on soon is the destructiveness of having outsider status, which adds into the ways in which biases affect women. For example, outsiders tend not to be remembered after conference presentations, their work is not discussed as much, etc. But who get invited just is a mark of the insider class.

    It all seems to me to be grossly unfair.

  10. systemic racism. Neither this campaign or affirmative action (I think it’s a fair, though perhaps not totally similar comparison) are about innate perspectives.

    What I wanted to suggest (but didn’t very well) was that this type of inclusion is a good solution to the problem as it has been defined. If the lack of women is the problem, then demanding inclusion is a good solution.

    But it seems to me that the lack of women is a symptom of the larger (and more serious?) problem – which is the sexism. We could easily imagine that the inclusion of some women (Sarah Palin?) would solve the problem if it were defined simply as the lack of women.

    But if the problem is sexism then the solution is anti-sexist perspectives in conferences. And if we are against essentialism, we can’t assume women will have those perspectives.

    Redefining the issue in this way seems to me to allow us to demand feminist perspectives and to directly address the sexism that keeps women out of them. Why not say “Why does this conference have no panels about women?” or “Why is this panel on ethics ignoring feminist perspectives?”



  11. Hi – apologies – the first part of my comment got cut off accidentally. it was

    “@anon and @jj:

    For all the reasons you’ve outlined and more I agree that all-male conferences are unfair and sexist: qualified women want to participate in conferences, and the unbalanced sex ratio within a larger context of sexism is evidence that they are being discriminated against.

    I think you’re right about seeing this as an issue of unfairness actually and your solution addresses that issue much in the same way that race-based affirmative action addresses….”

  12. Great list of suggestions. You might also include, men who are invited to an all-male conference should entreat the organizers to extend an invitation to a few women who are doing relevant work. It’s the most straightforward way for men who *aren’t* on conference organizing committees to have some influence over the selection process.

  13. Why not say “Why does this conference have no panels about women?” or “Why is this panel on ethics ignoring feminist perspectives?”

    I agree that providing a new intellectual perspective can be very important, but I think it’s also important to have women participate in areas that aren’t thought of as set aside just for them. One doesn’t need to be a gender essentialist to think that it’s possible that women do interesting work in metaphysics or logic or philosophy of science (say) that gets overlooked because they’re female, not at named program, and that wouldn’t be addressed at all by adding the occasional feminist ethics panel to ethics conferences.

  14. But sometimes the laudable ambition to improve the gender balance might add a burden on women – at least, that’s what senior women in my own discipline have told me. Given that women are still underrepresented in most disciplines in academia, and the more so the higher you move up the academic ladder of merit and status, the few women there are at the higher levels are often expected to make up for the general gender imbalance in the profession. Obviously, you can’t have 50 percent women on all committees, conferences, anthologies, etc, if women only make up 20 or 30 percent of the profession…

  15. J, on the other hand, women getting more distinguished chairs, grants, awards, lead places in anthologies and so on probably wouldn’t be very onerous. I’m not sure where getting asked to more conferences goes, and it probably varies with the individual, still,one notices a lot of people accepting more invitations to give talks than one expects they have committes.

  16. Does childcare really help much? For me (a man) its traveling with the kid, not caring for it during the conference, that is hard.

    I just returned from a public meeting around the State education cuts at which one woman introduced SIX men, one after another to talk. About 3/4rs women in the audience. By the third man I was commenting to my wife (a public school teacher whose professional life is defined by sexism) and she said “I don’t think anyone thinks that way”. So its not just us.

  17. I’m pretty sure that in the UK, there would be a legal requirement that the people running the childcare at a conference be “CRB checked”. This doesn’t make things impossible, but it does mean that you couldn’t just call on willing grad students. (I’d be very keen to hear an authoritative answer on this for the UK though, as I’m running a conference in July.)

  18. Justin– we do actually do praise posts, and shall check yours out shortly. Good idea to collect them together, though.

    Benjamin- this campaign isn’t actually about getting feminist perspectives included, thought that is a goal that I also have. It’s about getting women included, which is, as mb noted, different. There’s more explanation here:

    J– All we’re aiming for, here, is avoidance of 0% female conferences. And one of your concerns is addressed by suggestion 2, which (if followed) would bring it about that it’s not just the same women being invited all the time.

    Harry– Personally, I wouldn’t be helped by conference childcare, because I have the luxury of someone else who can care for the kid while I’m at a conference. But we’ve heard from lots of people who really do benefit from conference childcare– esp. single parents and two-philosopher couples.

  19. @markus petz I think the government has declared its intention to ease the checks, but I’m not sure that they’ve legislated yet. I’m going to get advice from my university’s legal people and I’ll post a summary if there’s something suitable and useful to communicate here.

  20. Harry: I like to encourage people to bring their families to conferences if they want to, partly because I think we need to be reminded that philosophers can successfully mix having children with doing cutting-edge research. Plus, it changes the vibe of the conference in a pretty cool way.

    In my experience, breastfeeding mothers and dual-philosopher families are the ones who are most likely to want to bring their kids.

  21. As a female former philosophy grad student, I’m taken aback at the idea that I ought to have provided child care during conferences sponsored by my department rather than, you know, attending them. I experienced my fair share of sexism, but even the oldest and crustiest of the crusty old men I encountered never made such a marginalizing suggestion. This is a new extreme of cluelessness.

    “Willing” grad students you say. How many men will be “willing”, how many parents will be willing to let their children be watched by unknown young men (even removed from the venue to go on various outings about town! what planet are you people on?), and how will the expectation that at least some of them should be “willing” to do extracurricular women’s work in place of the academics for which they enrolled impact morale in the population of female grad students? Do you expect that “willingness” would be evenly distributed among female students, or would you find it concentrated in those from working-class or culturally traditional backgrounds – those most accustomed to traditional roles, those with the least resources to fall back on if the resident faculty find them wanting, those who already need the most encouragement to regard themselves as full participants in the work of the profession rather than as auxiliary helpers?

    Also, what of grad students who are themselves already mothers? At least some of you do have those, I should hope.


  22. Since I was the one who used the phrase, “willing grad students”, I guess the last comment was directed at me. Let me make it clear, then, that I was not assuming that such people would be female, nor suggesting that they be unpaid. Nor did I (or anyone else for that matter) write of anyone that they “ought” to provide anything. As it happens, at least one person I had in mind is (a) male and (b) CRB checked.

  23. You don’t have to personally assume that they’ll be female for it to work out that way due to cultural influences beyond your control. Do you really, once you take the time to think about it, suppose that a system where some grad students are at the conference, while others are performing domestic labor, would have no disparate impact whatsoever?

    I didn’t say anything about your not paying them. In fact I assumed you would. But that’s only relevant if you think that’s it’s OK to ask anybody to do anything, as long as they’re paid.

  24. Well, no I don’t think it is OK to ask “anybody to do anything” but then nothing I wrote implied that I did. You clearly have a picture in your head of a conference where some grad students are attending and some are relegated to childcare. I agree that would be invidious. As it happens, the conference I’m organizing is on a topic of no interest to any grad students in my department. But various tasks around the conference, such as, for example, registering participants, etc might well be of interest to some of them as potential sources of income.

  25. But do you really think that, as a general suggestion for how to do things, it will tend to work out the way you imagine rather than the way I imagined so overwhelmingly often as to make my concerns irrelevant? In a discipline where things are already so gendered that we have to have repeated discussions of how to avoid making conferences 0% female? Really?

    It’s all well and good that it works out just so in your particular case – you have interested males, you’re absolutely certain your conference holds no interest for any of your grad students – but I don’t think you can offer broad assurance that other conference organizers, as they undertake to temporarily convert some subset of students into babysitters, will never fall prey to the same kinds of blind spots about gender and power that make them need explicit instruction on how not to make their all panels exclusively male.

    It seems like an idea that would go well in the hands of a nice person like yourself, but would have ugly consequences when exposed to the pressures surrounding gender relations in philosophy generally. It’s not such an incredible stretch to imagine the kind of department where, if this was the practice, it would instantly turn into “oh, we’ll just have some of the girls babysit! The conference is no interest to them anyway! In fact, there aren’t even any women working in this field!”

  26. I had the some of the same concerns as emg; “willing grad student” has ended up meaning, in my (limited) experience, “can any of the female grad students babysit?”, for some of the reasons that emg mentions: young women are more likely than young men to have had babysitting experience, visiting speakers tend to be more comfortable permitting unknown young women watch their children, department chairs are perhaps more likely to think of the young women when suggesting sitters.

    (In my case, I declined, saying “I’d rather attend the talk”, and there were no negative repercussions. But it’s not hard to imagine a situation where I felt marginalized or pressured.)

    So I think it’s prudent to keep that potential complication in mind, and that might be a reason to prefer seeking grad student sitters from departments other than the one hosting the conference or talk or to find a reliable sitting service.

  27. I just came upon the original post and thread by way of Crooked Timber, and I wonder if Jender could (or would mind if I tried to) modify the ideas in the post so that they can be more easily applied to other disciplines. I’m a biochemist, and we seem to be far ahead of philosophy in realizing that if we don’t make particular efforts, then our ‘by invitation’ events will have a dearth of XX’s. Despite this, I think there’s room in my field for the clear commonsensical notions of this post. Thanks.

  28. L.A. Paul
    Ok,I can see that. Allen Buchanan once lauded me for teaching an entire graduate seminar session with a 6 month old baby on my arm, for the effect it had on the classroom (several women in it, no-one bothered by the baby). I’d love to bring my family more often if my wife and older kids would come, but they tend to be reluctant. But for male professors, bringing the entire family puts the wife in the position of doing the basic childcaring. In my family, in fact, I would feel ok about that, since it would reverse the usual division between us, but doing it in a strange place can be more difficult than otherwise.
    Still annoyed about the meeting I went to yesterday.

  29. Harry, the seminar story is great. I take your point about in effect putting the female spouse in charge of childcare. The situation I like best is when dual-philosopher couples come and publicly share the childcare (when not using sitters). At some of the metaphysics conferences I’ve attended, we have had kids toddling along in the back of the room (quietly) or babies being held by a parent in the audience. It adds a bit of fun to the paper and discussion, and tears down the totally stupid idea that somehow you can’t be serious about philosophy and have kids too.

  30. Manuel, I am heartened by the idea you think other fields could get ideas from this post. I can’t believe Jender would mind your adapting the ideas.

    I am struck by your comment, “I’m a biochemist, and we seem to be far ahead of philosophy in realizing that if we don’t make particular efforts, then our ‘by invitation’ events will have a dearth of XX’s”. “Far ahead” seems right, unfortunately.

  31. Manuel– I’d be very happy for you to modify this and to pass it on as you like! It’s really nice to think that it may be useful in other fields as well. (Though unfortunate that is needs to be.)

  32. thanks. I will copy them and give full (nicknamed) credit. If I and my students ever get around to writing up the rules of our favorite seminar-game, “Spot the Misogynist”, I’ll post them. It’s great sport, much more fun than BuzzWord Bingo.

  33. oh yeah, one more thing. ever notice how XY’s get credit for doing childcarey things while XX’s lose points? I love watching male colleagues make a big deal of their having to leave early to go pick up the kids, take them to the dentist. We have another game in the lab, “Spot the Sensitive Family-Friendly Man (who is likely just as sexist as his mouth-breathing knuckle-dragging colleagues, only he hides it better)”

  34. As a primary parent to three kids (for inordinate years its been roughly equal or me as primary: eldest 14, youngest 4), manuel’s assumptions piss me off. If you don’t want men being primary parents, just say so. There’s actually a reason, in a male-dominated department, to make something of it — which is to embarrass colleagues who might be disposed to frown on women (who, with kids of the relevant age, will often be junior) doing it (thus diminishing or perhaps eliminating the points they lose), and to provide a model for male graduate students.
    Of course, if you have actual evidence that said men are, actually, sexist, that’s fine.

  35. I agree with the post’s excellent points, but I do not understand why the authoress has omitted the most practical solution: ask a few of the male participants to dress in drag. This has been shown to greatly alleviate the gender stereotyping and other issues mentioned in the post.

  36. I entirely sympathize with what Harry @ 37 said regarding Manuel @ 36. People like Harry are making it easier rather than more difficult for mothers to be mothers and professors with as little conflict as possible between the two, for reasons he spells out.
    I am a female professor with two small kids in a male dominated environment, and don’t recognise any of Manuel’s descriptions in my particular location. And I have no evidence at all that my husband has an easier time or earns more (or loses less) ‘points’ if he leaves early or stays home because a kid is sick. It is as much of a balancing act for him as it is for me, and we both feel supported by men (or women!) who do not hide that they are also primary caregivers. But I should add that from having studied/worked in 4 European countries, I think that as far as finding it normal that workers also have children, the Netherlands may *culturally* be an accommodating country (as an indication, the Netherlands has the highest percentage of fathers working part-time). So I shouldn’t generalize from my (possibly relatively favorable) situation, but I think we also shouldn’t generalize from Manuel’s situation and observations.

  37. at the risk of being serious for a moment, sorry if i offended, but my experience has been that the SNAG’s (Sensitive New Age Guys) are even more likely be sexist than MBKD’s. Of course, this discussion is argument by vigorous anecdote, but I’d rather be on a long plane trip to a meeting with one of my redneck colleagues who calls me “hun” and takes my work seriously than one who is sensitive to my needs and can’t find the time read my draft grant proposal.

  38. Manuel and Harry– I’ve had experiences which could motivate both sorts of claims that you’re making. I know plenty of men like Harry and they’re *great*. But I’ve also encountered men like those Manuel describes– who insist that they are making life better for women by showing off their commitment to family, for example by always getting home for dinner at 6. (!!) It’s important to realise that we’re talking about two very different groups of people here. I think criticism like Manuel’s needs to be carefully directed, because it really doesn’t apply to men like Harry.

  39. To back up the claims made by Manuel, here’s an informal observation at my institution (large European philosophy faculty). All tenured folk there are men, and almost all have children. Several of them have 3 or even more children, and make a big deal out of getting home early for them, having a child with special needs, etc. They are praised for being great dads.
    On the other hand, women do not get opportunities because the perceived view that the childcare might conflict with their duties. One of my female colleagues, mother of four, who is in a non-tenured TA position was interviewed for a tenured position only a few years ago. The SC asked at one point during the interview “are you sure you can be a professor, you have four children?” She did not get the job. Needless to say, they don’t ask that sort of question to men who come for interview.

  40. I think we need to be careful here about who’s claiming what, and where the problems are. Anon, your story is egregious. But the villains of the story are the people denying opportunities to women, rather than the men who do a lot of childcare.

  41. Right, all we have here is anecdote, and of course there’s lots of variability. I really don’t care much whether anyone thinks I am sexist — but anything EXTRA discouraging or disparaging men for spending time with their kids and managing their families’ domestic arrangements is really not very helpful. We have plenty of that. I am curious whether my one junior (former) colleague whose kid went to my kid’s daycare thought that my visible status as primary parent helped or hindered her (Laurie, you can ask her, and she’ll tell you straight no doubt). Even if she does, she may be wrong. I have several other male colleagues who are full parents to their kids — the main difference is that I’ve been doing it so bloody long.

    I am definitely not a sensitive new age guy, I should add — nobody but nobody would call me that (I hope). Somewhat insensitive past-middle-aged man, maybe.

  42. All of the advice above on how to avoid a gendered conference presumes that the organizer is inviting all of the speakers. But of course there is another major kind of conference: one where only the keynote(s) is(are) invited, and all of the other speakers submit papers. Typically (one hopes, at least), the submitted papers go through a process of blind peer review. I think it would be quite useful to add to the above advice some additional suggestions on what to do when the blind review of submitted papers turns up all or mostly male authors.

  43. James, you’re right that we should separately sort the strands of discussion about inviting speakers and, relatedly, strategizing conferences that are entirely (or almost) anonymously reviewed. However, we did not presume the above only applied to conferences in which the organizer invites all the speakers, since that would mean the GCC applies to almost no conferences. We really intended the above to apply to conferences in which high-profile keynote, invited, or plenary speakers enjoy a status and pride of place that other speakers are presumed not to have (by virtue of not being invited, and having to compete for the remaining places). So the above should be applicable to conferences like the recent and much-discussed Feyerabend conference, to which a dozen speakers were invited.

    One could argue that invited speakers don’t necessarily have higher status than the peer-reviewed in a blended conference, but a glance at most invited speakers’ lists would seem to contradict that. (And as a regular organizer, I know that I decide invitees first, offer them their pick of days and times to talk, then open the CFP to everyone else.)

    Food for thought, though, thanks!

  44. In order to attract a desirable mate, men must compete with other men for their rank in the male dominance hierarchy, and among academics this translates directly into men contesting each other for positions within academia. In contrast, women are judged according to youth, beauty and chastity/fidelity, so are less motivated to do what it takes to become successful academics. This is the reason that more men than women participate in scholarly conferences, there is no unfair discrimination against women.

  45. I just came across a link to your post, Jender (two years later!) — many thanks for writing and sharing it. We’ve come across similar problems in IT/tech-related conferences, i.e. a dearth of female speakers. I sought suggestions about addressing this last August ( and created the #ITwomen list: The #ITwomen list is now crowd-sourced and still actively shared and used. It contains the names of potential women speakers in Ireland, the UK and beyond, as well as a list of resources for those organising conferences. I’ve just added this post to the list of resources — thanks :)

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