Knock, knock. Who’s there? People you’re not inviting to conferences.

Dear Prof Manners

My AOS is heavily male, and yet there is a steady influx of really talented women working in the area, in addition to a cluster of senior women who have been doing high quality work in this AOS for a long time.

It is very common for many meetings in the area to feature an all male list of speakers, some of which have drawn the notice of the GCC. My question is, how can I bring up gender balance with close friends and colleagues who feature in all male lineups at these meetings? Close friends of mine speak at all male lineups over and over again, without seeming to notice how bad these meetings are for the women in the area.

Thanks for any advice you can give me!


Locked out


Dear Locked out,

First, apologies for the post title.  Imagination just abandoned me on this sleepy Sunday afternoon.

I think bringing this up is a great idea.  I gather that you are a woman, but I’m going to address this for men as well, since I think there are many men in the profession who may share the same concerns.

If you are a man in this situation, I think there is an oblique but effective way to bring this up.  With friends and close colleagues, one could simply observe to these friends how many all-male line-ups there are, say that you yourself are inclined to mention it when you’re next invited to a conference, then ask if they have ever tried this themselves and seek their advice.  In other words, assume (or appear to assume) that they share your concern and approach them as people you naturally expect to collaborate with you in making a difference.  If they’ve never given it a thought, you might stimulate them to do so; if they’ve just never done anything out of reserve or lack of foresight or confidence, talking together might create a sense of shared resolve and courage in numbers; if they’re opposed to it, I still think your assumption that they’d share the worry will give them pause, at the least alerting them that even while you share a field, you don’t share contentment with how things have been organized.  This latter point might not move them to act, but it will oblige recognition that concern with this phenomenon is growing, that they shouldn’t expect even their own male peers in the field to reflexively accept the status quo.  That’s to the good.

A woman in this situation is in a trickier spot, I think.  I’m going to digress for a minute away from the question itself just to mention a few things that bother me about situations such as this.

I think it’s important that you mention that the people you most want to speak with are friends or close colleagues.  Superficially, this might make it seem easier to speak, but I incline to think not.  Where one enjoys friendship or cordiality with professional peers, one is more likely to want to maintain that, and that’s what makes this trickier.  Part of that concerns worries about how others’ perceptions of you may be altered by your speaking up.

On that score, it might be useful to mentally run down all the internal ratholes that can accompany speaking up.  E.g., if I point out the all-male line-ups, will I be perceived as trying to cajole invitations I wouldn’t otherwise receive?  Will people see me as accusing them of being sexist?  Or of displaying sour grapes at not receiving a particular invitation?  Worse still, will I be discounted as one of Them, one of those trouble-making types who are making everything so much more complicated and politically loaded than it used to be? The worry here is that accumulated good will and camaraderie can be fractured or lost.

Relatedly, and what most bothers me, I like to think well of my colleagues and friends.  Raising this issue means risking being disappointed in them.  It’s already disappointing that they aren’t apparently doing anything of their own initiative.  But talking to them about it risks learning that this is deliberate, that they wish not to act, that they don’t care about the issue, that they are indifferent to the inequities of the profession or perhaps even sanction them in ways that are really pernicious.  Likewise, if they construe my concerns in any of the ways I mention above, that’s incredibly alienating in itself.  So talking to them about it means risking that you’ll leave the conversation thinking less well of them than you do at present.

I mention all this simply because I think it helps to know what about this can seem hard.  To the extent that worries like the above are in play, I’m not sure there is way to approach people that will quiet them.  Still, here are a few ideas, all rooted in the assumption that you want to do this in ways that minimize your own discomfort (there are of course bolder ways but those are likely obvious):

– Consider developing an alliance with other women and men in the area.  It’s extremely likely that you aren’t alone in thinking the status quo is problematic so put out feelers to those you think most likely to share the concern.  Together, you can strategize about how to approach this – e.g., drafting an e-mail you could send to colleagues in the area that lays out the hope that people in the area will raise this when they are invited to conferences.

– Try to craft (ostensibly) casual ways of raising this.  There are all sorts of indirection that can be useful.  E.g., you can chat about how disappointed you are that your area shows up in GCC posts and gets “bad press,” then try to steer the ensuing conversation to what regular participants in all-male conferences might do.  You might also try bringing this up under the auspices of other, related interests, such as concerns that there’s a certain intellectual stagnation where conferences too often default to rounding up the usual suspects and thereby lack fresh ideas and personalities.  Then again try to steer the conversation toward what steps might shift things in new directions.

– Finally, if you are talking with someone with whom you’re friendly, I think being relatively forthright can be good.  Say that you yourself are discouraged by how often your area hosts all-male lineups and, without acknowledging that the person with whom you’re speaking participates in these, simply say that you’d like him to collaborate with you on ideas for addressing this.  As in what I say above, I think there can be great power in assuming that people will want to help.  It’s not that I naïvely imagine they always or frequently do, but that your assuming the best about them can influence what they offer back.  It’s akin to the Jamesian idea that my treating you as if you’re well-meaning can incline you toward increases of well-meaning.  The goal here is ultimately to see if your friends and colleagues will employ their power to effect a change – ideally, I think, by their actively pursuing this when they themselves get invitations to conferences – and drawing them round to this might succeed best where you lead with your own sense that these are indeed friends or at least friendly colleagues, people you can treat as disposed to care about the things you care about.

Professor Manners

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10 thoughts on “Knock, knock. Who’s there? People you’re not inviting to conferences.

  1. I think that if you are male who gets invited, it helps to:

    Ask if the organizers are aware if the GCC and what they are doing about it

    (I just realized I had a hard fail on this and will be part of an all male lineup (2nd year now) at a summer school in CS. CS needs a GCC.)

    You could make your talk about the work of some prominent or up and coming women. Awareness is useful!

  2. Many conferences select speakers on the basis of blind reviews, so it’s hard to see how implicit or explicit bias against women (or anybody) can enter the process. Is the suggestion to reveal the author’s gender to the reviewer as non-merit-based factor? Are reviewers also obligated to accept papers from other underrepresented groups, such as Muslims, lesbians, and Africans? How granular must we go: should we ensure that we accept papers from Ugandan, Nigerian, and other underrepresented African philosophers?

    I get the goal of diversity and support it. But I wonder if there are supposed to be reasonable limits to diversity. It’s also difficult for me to see how to achieve diversity without compromising intellectual integrity, if conferences are concerned first and foremost with selecting the best papers. I suppose one possibility is to solicit papers specifically from women to up their representation in the overall pool of abstracts. Also, gender could be a “plus factor” when two abstracts are equally rated but only one can be picked. (This seems to be a very rare case, though.)

    What are other concrete suggestions that don’t compromise intellectual integrity?

  3. Hi Concerned Ally,

    I think gender can and should come into the selection process but it need not enter into the process in the way that I think worries you. For example, most conferences end up having too many qualified papers to enter into the conference itself (even after blind review). Once you have screened the initial papers for merit, gender can be used as one factor (among others) to select the final roster of speakers. I don’t see anything problematic with using gender in this way and it need not result in ‘less qualified’ persons presenting (and if push comes to shove, I might be willing to prefer a more inclusive conference to a ‘higher blind-review quality’ conference).

    I find it insulting to think that you must compromise intellectual integrity to accommodate gender. If, after blind review, you do not have any women, I would take that as a fault of the conference organizer in advertising the conference (which could, itself, manifest a gender-bias in the way conference calls are disseminated).

  4. Concerned ally is a classic ‘concern troll’ (and really, it is an excellent example of deliberately written concern trolling).

  5. Metamorphic, is your allegation evidence-free? What’s your reasoning (for the first claim, not the second)?

  6. Please let’s not get into a discussion of who is and isn’t concern trolling. That’s really tedious.

    Anyway, the question posed was about the lists of *invited* speakers (that’s the only thing subject to the GCC), so the anonymous review issue doesn’t even arise.

  7. This is the original LW. Thanks Prof Manners for your extremely helpful response! As for comment #2 on blind (or double-blind) review for speaker slots at conferences, we don’t have much of this, especially regarding the main speakers.

    The perception that I am trying to cajole invitations is exactly why I do not bring up gender balance with friends who speak at all-male events. (Luckily I have no complaints about my visibility, my signature notwithstanding—did that in a hurry!). What gets to me is the fact that colleagues with whom I have warm professional relationships, and with whom I thought I saw eye to eye with on issues like this, accept invitations to speak not just at one all-male event but at numerous all-male events.

    Very occasionally I am involved with co-organizing conferences myself. In situations where I am involved with the program I find myself deprioritizing people who repeatedly speak at all-male conferences, all else being equal, that is, given a handful of good alternatives. But I would much rather discuss the issue with them directly. They may not realize the harm all-male conferences do, and in some cases they may actually have spoken up about it.

  8. @metamorphic I’m assuming it is YOU who is trolling here, by failing to engage reasonable questions or to provide evidence in support of your allegation. I see your kind all too often in these “debates”. You’re giving actual feminists and philosophers a bad name, so please go away.

    @ejrd I agree with your suggestions and was alluding to similar things. But please don’t be insulted as it is a common worry that any x will be compromised if we must consider y as a hiring or acceptance factor. As an example, a conference could simply select all women speakers who have applied, irrespective of quality of papers; or a university could simply admit all minority applicants, irrespective of merit. Aren’t those in the realm of possibility, and which compromise intellectual integrity? They aren’t the only solutions, of course, but they are also what many people think of first. We need to make it clear that there are other, better solutions we can offer, instead of leaving it up to conferences to figure out how to increase diversity.

    Your suggestion to focus more on advertising is a good one and also one I mentioned before. But that’s a rather vague suggestion. I was hoping to make it easy for conferences to do this. Can someone please provide the email addresses of listservs in which to sufficiently advertise a call for papers or speakers? Or is posting it here adequate? Left to their own devices, I doubt that conference organizers would take the time to do their own research to find where female philosophers hang out. So why not help them?

  9. Concerned Ally, I believe you’ll find most of your questions answered and discussion of the issues you raise if you’ll just click on the “Gendered Conference Campaign” tab at the top of the page. Since these issues have been discussed on FP many times before, let’s hew closely to the OP’s narrower subject, how to approach friends about participation in all-male conferences.

  10. Hmm. We’re not supposed to discuss concern trolling and yet A concerned ally (Aca) raises it again.

    Let me try to put metamorphic’s point another way while assuming Aca is, indeed, in good faith. FWIW, Aca, I read your first comment similarly. If you do a bit of research into the GCC, you’ll see that there is a clear mismatch between this post and your concern (i.e., diversity failures when the mechanism is arguably surface bias free). If you had segued a bit more straightfowardly (e.g., “Is anyone trying to address diversity issues for post-blind-review all male line ups?”). And your follow up could have been more generous, i.e., acknowledging that your questions even if reasonable are not always *motivated* reasonably and, indeed, they way you inserted them is was not (“perhaps”) the best way. In my book, being an ally means doing some work. Why don’t you organize that helpful list of listservs?

    Turning back to the OP, Locked Out I’ve been reflecting on my own failure to notice that I was in an (from what I can tell) all male line up. First, let me say that I have a lot of anxiety issues about even going to conferences, so I try to think as little as possible about the ones I’m invited to (and I’m not invited to all that many) in advance. For this one, I didn’t interact with many people last year so didn’t have a good feel for it. I could have suggested something (or proposed a topic about gender in computer science) but missed the opportunity. I, personally, though I feel a bit guilty, was really glad to get *this post* which reminded me to do the gender check. Now I can try to do something for next year or, at least, make sure my course has a good representation of women.

    I don’t know that I’m typical, but I think it’s possible to do positive engagement with some of your close friends. Engage them as an ally: “Hey, this conference you were invited too persistently have all male line ups. Perhaps you can help it deversify?”

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