Measuring conference speaker gender (im)balance

Alternate title: I measured conference speaker gender balance using the Internet and Excel, and you can too

Summary: I recently looked at the gender of previous speakers at Society for the Neurobiology of Language meetings, which shows consistently more men than women were invited to speak at past conferences. I hope that sharing my experience will encourage others to do the same, as a first step towards having equal gender representation in conference speakers.

As chair of the program committee for the Society for the Neurobiology of Language (SNL) conference this year, I was interested to see what the speaker gender balance has been at previous meetings. To do so, I went back through past conference programs, entered the data in a spreadsheet, and counted speakers by year. For comparison I did the same for authors in Brain and Language, a speciality journal closely aligned with the interests of SNL members. (For the Brain and Language authors I only looked at 3 months of data—I wanted to do more, but it's very time consuming, and it seemed there was already a clear pattern.) I've posted the data and analysis to github and published the current findings (Peelle, 2016).

What I found was that in no year did women make up more than 38% of the speakers at SNL, and over all 7 years women were approximately 30% of the invited speakers. These numbers contrast with the journal data showing approximately 50% women authors.

One especially important aspect of these data is that as an attendee I was not conscious of this gender imbalance at previous conferences I attended; based on some initial feedback I've received, I'm not the only one. (A common response is: "Wow, thanks for putting that together. I had no idea there were so few women speakers.") So, it's been a great example of how looking at the actual data is more effective than going with our gut instincts in assessing gender balance.

It's worth explicitly saying that the SNL board over the years has been made up of both men and women, a great many of whom have been intentional about having women represented as speakers. The point here is not in any way to criticize the hard work of previous program committees, but to use some data to see how effective past strategies have been in practice. I hope the data can change the conversation from "we care about this issue" to "is 30% women speakers a fair number?".

As a board member or program committee chair, having this sort of data is useful in organizing speakers for this year, and I hope will lead to continued discussions about what future speaker lists will look like.

Other things I like about this project:

  • It's published in The Winnower, what might be called an experiment in new models of scientific publishing. It's not peer-reviewed prior to publication, but it's straightforward for readers to contribute post-publication comments. On the whole I'm a fan and hope to publish more there.

  • This is my first publication where the data and R code are posted publicly. It is a simple dataset, with simple analyses, so it was a gentle introduction. Posting everything publicly encouraged me to be more thorough and careful in my analyses, and lets others verify or extend my work.

  • I managed to include this great quote from Supreme court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, when she was asked about women on the Supreme court: "So now the perception is, yes, women are here to stay. And when I'm sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme court]? And I say when there are nine, people are shocked. But there'd been nine men, and nobody's ever raised a question about that."

By sharing my process and experience, I am hoping others may be inspired to make a similar account of the (im)balance of speakers at other conferences. It's time-consuming to do well, but well worth the effort, and takes no special skills (I used the internet and Excel).

(Of course I focus on gender here, but there are many other lenses through which to view speaker diversity and inclusion, which would be equally valuable.)


Peelle JE (2016) Speaker gender balance at Society for the Neurobiology of Language conferences 2009–2015. The Winnower 3:e145573.38893. DOI:10.15200/winn.145573.38893