What’s it like trying to avoid a gendered conference?

I had been thinking for a while that it would be useful if we created a space for people to talk about their efforts to improve gender equity at conferences– what worked, what didn’t, what would they do differently, etc. Then somebody wrote to FP because they were so impressed by the gender balance at a conference that Lewis Powell organised. So I asked him what he did. He thinks he didn’t do much, and that it may not even be worth our posting about his efforts. But I think it’s worth showing how easy it (sometimes) is. So here’s what Lewis says:

The short version is that I didn’t do very much to achieve the gender balance. I mean, I invited two women speakers, but that wasn’t part of a concerted effort to ensure gender balance (except in the counterfactual sense that if my initial list had been all men, I would have re-evaluated it in light of my commitment to the GCC). I blind-reviewed the abstracts, and had an explicit plan to re-evaluate those papers that almost made the cut, if it turned out that I had wound up accepting a group that was overwhelmingly male. But this turns out to be merely counterfactual as well, since the gender ratio of accepted papers was 3-3.

With inviting commentators, I was less concerned (since the balance of speakers was already 5 women to 4 men), but the recommendations I got and people I invited on the basis of recommendations wound up being majority women as well (4 women to 2 men).

So, it turned out that I didn’t wind up having to be especially active on the GCC front, and I still have 60% of the participants being women. The gender ratio among applicants was approximately 40% women to 60% men.”

So, readers: tell us your own tales! Do also tell us of difficulties. And a special plea to our readers: do remember the rules of this blog, and don’t assume that someone telling of difficulties is being disingenuous. It IS sometimes hard. In general, I’d appreciate it if comments could be confined to (a) anecdotes about organisation efforts one has oneself engaged in; and (b) suggestions about how problems could be fixed for the future. Let’s avoid second-guessing about past efforts.

5 thoughts on “What’s it like trying to avoid a gendered conference?

  1. Here’s a kind of obvious suggestion that doesn’t require a lot of effort.

    Suppose you are soliciting papers for a conference and these papers will be anonymously reviewed prior to acceptance. Suppose you have slots for 8 papers and receive 80 submissions. Don’t select what you take to be the top 8 papers and stop. Rather, first select the top, say 15 papers. In my limited experience, when there is a sufficiently high number of submissions I have very little confidence that the small subset of papers selected is in any sense “the best”. But I am usually pretty confident that a larger subset consists of papers all of which are worthy of being presented. Once you have selected that larger subset, then de-anonymize them and then narrow the selection further by considering factors like inclusiveness.

    Obviously this sort of strategy can’t applied across the board to every situation (e.g., if the number of submissions is really small), and following it by no means guarantees a good representation of women at the conference. But it is a good procedure to consider doing since it preserves (as far as I can tell) all the virtues of anonytmous reviewing while increasing the chances of better representation.

  2. Jenny, this post was a great idea. Thanks.

    There’s a bit in LP’s narrative that should be stressed, I think:

    .(..if my initial list had been all men, I would have re-evaluated it in light of my commitment to the GCC). I blind-reviewed the abstracts, and had an explicit plan to re-evaluate those papers that almost made the cut, if it turned out that I had wound up accepting a group that was overwhelmingly male.

    This also seems to be close to what mm is saying. I think it is very important, because, if memory serves me correctly, we often hear that organizers of an all male conference say they found all the successful anonymous reviewed papers were by men.

  3. I figured the Gendered Conference idea could and should be expanded to Gendered Edited Volumes. A while ago, I was asked to contribute to a volume (for use by students, among others), which included a list of the authors of all other contributions. I noticed there was no other woman, although there were at least half a dozen women excellently qualified for those topics. I wrote to the editor with my observation and added names of potential female contributors. The editor did not show much enthusiasm in response – no other contributor seemed to have minded. When, some months later, before signing the contract, I asked for the list of contributors, it contained two further woman authors. So: (1) A short e-mail may make a difference. (2) Suggestion: all contributors to volumes (including males, for obvious reasons) should as a matter of course do a quick check about gender balance in edited volumes, and, where appropriate, write that quick e-mail to the editor.

  4. An interesting feature of Lewis’s conference is that it is in early modern philosophy. I don’t want to downplay the fact that this particular conference has such a good gender balance, or the thought that important lessons may be there to learn from what Lewis has achieved. However, I think it might also be worth noting that early modern philosophy seems to be one of the healthier areas when it comes to gender balance in a more general sense. Looking back over the last 40 years or so, I’m sure all those who work in the field would think it obvious that a significant number of the most important contributors (I won’t name names at the risk of leaving people out) have been women. So, in addition, to thinking about what Lewis got right, it might be worthwhile to asking what early modern philosophy might have been getting right such that it has attracted so many talented women philosophers who have also been able to flourish and make seminal contributions.

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