A recent study of scientific research conferences indicates the existence of gender biases towards different presentations styles. At least within the field of primatology, women are more likely to give poster presentations, while men are more likely to give oral presentations. In addition, the ratios of male to female presenters also varied according to the gender of the conference organizer. The results of this study provide some insight into why women are underrepresented in the sciences.
Scientific conferences are events in which scientists from related disciplines meet and present their research findings. At these conferences, researcher’s latest discoveries can be presented either in a traditional lecture style, or as a poster that is displayed. In the case of poster presentations, sometimes a representative is present to offer further explanation for the poster’s content, but not always. In many cases, oral presentations are considered more prestigious than poster presentations.
In addition to posters and talks, research conferences may also include symposia—a collection of talks and/or posters that are focused on an even more specific topic. Because presenters at a symposia are often experts in their defined field and are specifically invited to present, many consider a symposia presentation to be more prestigious than even a general conference lecture.
Since the 1970s, the number of women in the sciences has dramatically increased. But despite this increase in participation, many concerns exist about the lack of retention and advancement of women scientists. Some argue that women are not as assertive as their male counter-parts, and therefore do not promote themselves for advancement. Others argue that many scientific fields are still “stag parties” where males dominate and do not recognize the achievements of women (whether consciously or unconsciously). Evidence exists for both of these arguments, but in most cases it is extremely difficult to discern which (if either) of these forces is at work.
In order to shed further light on the issue, a team of researchers investigated the behaviors of male and female presenters at 21 annual meetings of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. Specifically, the investigators examined research presentations focused on primatology. They chose to examine this scientific discipline because since the 1970s, the field of primatology has had more women than men, and is generally accepted as a scientific discipline where scientists of either gender can excel.
The researchers found that between 1992 and 2012, there has been an overall increase in the number of primatology presentations by both men and women. However women have increased their participation at a faster rate than men.
In addition, it was found that female primatologists have especially favored poster presentations. Over the period of study it was observed that the percent of women presenting research posters increased from 45.8 to 66.5 percent. By contrast, men are significantly more likely to present their research findings through talks rather than as poster displays.
The finding that women are more likely to present their research discoveries as posters may indicate one of the problems that lead to under-representation of women in the sciences. Because posters are seen as less prestigious than oral presentations, it is possible that women are underselling their work.
Furthermore, it was discovered that research conferences organized by men had significantly fewer female presenters. Such conferences only had only 28.8 percent of female first-authors/presenters, as opposed to 58.5 percent of female presenters at conferences organized by both sexes, and the 63.6 percent of women who presented at conferences organized by women.
The discoveries made by this study support both the hypotheses that women are not assertive in achieving recognition from the scientific community (be it knowingly or unknowingly) and that perhaps the scientific community has not been as receptive to the work of female scientists as to male scientists. It is worth noting that this analysis of gender bias in scientific research presentations examined primatology—one of the most recognized equal-opportunity scientific disciplines. It is possible that in other fields such biases would be even more dramatically evident.
By Sarah Takushi