In which I rant about “we only choose the best conference proposals and we can’t help it if they’re mostly from men” #NewMR #MRX 


I’ve had this post on my mind for many months now but I’ve been hesitant to write it. It seems today is the day. 

If you’ve been following my speaker gender ratio post, you’ll see that I keep adding to the list conferences where fewer than 40% of speakers are women.  Today, I added several to that bucket. On top of that, Ray Poynter just pointed out that the nine new and genuinely deserving fellows of the MRS are all, you guessed it, men. Have women not made any important contributions? I highly doubt it. So today is the day. 

There are many different reasons for conferences to over index on male speakers but I’d like to address one reason in particular. Conference organizers regularly say they choose the abstracts that will be the most interesting and intriguing for their audience.  If that means that most of the speakers are men, then so be it.  Quality wins. As it rightly should. 

But.  

Men do not propose better topics than women.  Men do not have better ideas than women. Men do not propose more innovative nor more important ideas than women. This is truth. 

How do I know? I’m lucky that I get to go to a lot of conferences. I’ve been in the audience for literally hundreds of talks. I’ve seen lots of men give horrible talks. But, as expected, the vast majority of talks given by men are fine. Not horrible, not great, just fine. Most male speakers are awkward or forget what they were going to say or don’t speak loud enough or rush or go over or under time. Most men are basically acceptable speakers.  Such is the law of averages.  

To be clear, most women are also basically acceptable speakers. I, for one, know I’m an awkward speaker who regularly forgets what I want to say.  If the goal of conference organizers is to choose great speakers, well, I’m not seeing it. They could have randomly selected speakers by putting submissions in a hat and the quality of speakers wouldn’t decrease very much. It could even increase because the gems who keep submitting awkward proposals might actually get chosen. 

And when it comes to the topics of the talks, most talks that men give are fairly ordinary.  People like to think that THEIR talk is unique and innovative and offers a previously undiscovered point of view in their field but that’s usually not the case. The vast majority of talks given by men cover material that has already been addressed in twenty other talks at twenty other conferences and in twenty other white papers and fifty other blog posts. New material is exceedingly rare.  Our industry simply doesn’t move very fast.  

To be clear, most women also cover material that has been addressed in twenty other talks at twenty other conferences. Again, the topics I present are rarely truly new and innovative. If the goal was to choose innovative topics, I’m not seeing that either.  Once again, we could randomly choose talks with a magician’s top hat and the degree of innovation would… Well, actually, the talks might be more innovative simply because people who stink at bragging would finally have their papers chosen.  

Even better, random choosing based on top hats would increase the demographic diversity of speakers, and ensure speakers better reflect the diversity of submissions. 
My point is that men and women are similarly generally ok speakers.  Men and women give similarly ordinary talks. If submission acceptances for men outweigh acceptances for women, something is terribly wrong with how organizers identity “greatness.”

Maybe it’s time to completely rethink how conference proposals are reviewed.  Maybe it’s time to use only blind submissions where names and companies are removed. Maybe it’s time to find a way to remove writing style gender cues that unconsciously affect our perceptions. Maybe it’s time to consciously review proposals with the mindset that some people brag and exaggerate the importance of their work whereas other people stick to the facts and discuss their findings within the confines of appropriate generalizations.  Maybe it’s time to give the magician’s hat a chance – remove the obviously horrid submissions and then put every submission in the hat. 

It could only improve things.  Rant done. 

(By reading this far, you hearby commit to submitting to at least one conference this year. Thank you for being part of the solution. )

12 responses

  1. Blind submissions will only increase the ratio if there’s truly a more equal number of submissions from males and females. I’ve heard conference organizers mention (and Seth Grimes alludes to the same) that they just get less submissions from women. If that’s the case, then you’re going to have a lot of uneven conferences.

    I would be interested, however, in a behavioral economics experiment in which people selecting conference speakers see a bunch of submissions with names (no companies), a bunch of submissions with just companies (no names), and a bunch of 100% blind submissions. I’d be interested to see if it’s gender, “sexy” company names, or something completely different that is driving submission acceptance.

    1. Yes, I’ve heard the same. It would be great if conferences were able to share the submission rates.
      There are so many variables involved in submission selections. I have a feeling that men and women write in very different ways, some more aggressive and exaggerating, and others more factual and reserved. If both are equally innovative, the exaggeration will win.

  2. Agree Annie. Great observation. I was encouraged to submit to AMSRS this year and was accepted. Am also seeking other opportunities (both within and outside the research industry). Hoping to help change the gender balance.

    1. I”m so glad to hear that! Many people don’t think they have anything to say or that they aren’t an expert in anything. But, when you look at your experience in more detail, it becomes very clear that there is a very important opinion in there. Share it! I look forward to seeing you on stage in the future.🙂

  3. LOVE this, Annie!

    You’ll be happy to know that at the QRCA Worldwide Qualitative Conference in Vienna earlier this month, WELL over half of the speakers were women. (I could count them up and give you a statistic, but as you know, I’m 99% qualitative.) Every single presenter in Vienna received their invitation to present based on merit, as we began the process with blind reviews, and only added the names of presenters as a “cherry on top” single point out of 5 for each submission reviewed by the 4 independent reviewers. The result was fairness and excellence. It was a fantastic conference on so many levels.

    Here’s my blog post about the process we used, and my thoughts on curation:
    https://sweetinsightblog.wordpress.com/2016/04/25/curation-is-everything/

    I’m working on a couple of ideas for submissions to upcoming conferences (most of them in early 2017) now. Count me in on your challenge, and thanks for not letting this issue die!

    1. I’m so glad to hear this. I’m glad to hear you will be submitting. Make sure to convince a few newbies to submit along the way!

    2. We shared our actual submission and acceptance stats several weeks ago. Men and women were accepted at the same rate they submitted ( gender not a factor in acceptance). However, it would seem that more men submit speaking proposals — they appear to be over-represented relative to their presence in our industry. But that is really just supposition, in the absence of gender statistics for the qualitative industry.
      I do think our method — blind evaluation — should be more widely adopted.

    3. Ah, we are a bunch of data loving people! Yes, I do would love to see conferences share demographics of submissions. At the same time, I will confess that I don’t always share this information myself. I feel that my voice matters more than my demographic. I’m a contradiction. In other words, a regular human being that wants it both ways.🙂

  4. Annie, diversity is hard! If you look at my 2016 Sentiment Analysis Symposium agenda, you’ll see 5 out of 15 speakers are women, that after two accepted woman speakers dropped out. A 1::2 ratio of women to men isn’t good, but it’s twice the 1::4 ratio of unsolicited proposals I received. If I had done blind proposal evaluations, I would likely have had that same 1::4 ratio on the program.

    1. Absolutely, diversity is hard. I agree completely with you there. It just means we have to keep putting in maximum effort to ensure we are the change we want to see. I did a quick, unscientific search for “sentiment analysis” on LinkedIn and it certainly has a male presence. But, there are far more than seven women in the field. There’s hope for the future.

  5. Great post Annie! Couldn’t agree more. Reminds me of a talk that I saw about unconscious bias at a recent event in Sydney – you might find it interesting https://youtu.be/rlQRCmDqjBU

    In that talk, the speaker referenced the blind auditions for orchestras, to help address the fact that men were significantly over-represented in their numbers. http://www.theguardian.com/women-in-leadership/2013/oct/14/blind-auditions-orchestras-gender-bias

    All events should adopt a blind review process, given that sometimes these biases are unconscious, and the most well intentioned will still be victim to them

    1. Ah yes, I recall that orchestra piece. Stunning. It’s hard for people to admit that they are fallible to unconscious biases but that is simply the nature of human behaviour. We are not perfect. We are not vulcan. If we simply accept THAT, then we can work on fixing things so that our biases interfere less. Thanks for the comment.🙂

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