Scientific conferences are an opportunity for early career scientists to develop their careers. But in a study combining sociology and quantitative analysis, scientists demonstrate that participants' success can be influenced by their gender.
Although gender diversity drives innovation, women encounter greater barriers to the development of their scientific careers than their male colleagues. The JOBIM conference (Journées Ouvertes en Biologie, Informatique et Mathématiques), held online in 2021, provided three female scientists with an opportunity to characterize these barriers. By measuring the impact of gender on question-asking behavior at the symposium, the scientists revealed an inequality that is often overlooked. "Despite the fact that there was parity among conference participants, women asked half as many questions as men, regardless of their professional experience. Visibility is important for career advancement, much more than simply attending conferences. And it is this subtle difference that maintains inequality," regrets Hanna Julienne, an engineer in the Bioinformatics and Biostatistics Hub at the Institut Pasteur and corresponding author of the study.
Multiple hurdles to career development
To examine the issue from a sociological angle, the scientists also asked conference participants to complete a questionnaire and interviewed some of them. This shed some light on the reasons behind the behavioral differences. "We revealed several obstacles encountered by women and gender minorities during their academic careers. Negative reactions to their speech, discouragement to pursue a career in research, gender discrimination and sexual harassment – all these factors explain why such people tend to have a lower sense of their own legitimacy to speak," explains Rachel Torchet, an engineer in the hub and co-author of the study.
The study, published on June 7, 2023 in the journal PLOS One, was the subject of an article published in Nature Career. On the basis of their findings, the scientists also issued a series of guidelines to promote equal visibility for men and women at conferences. "We believe that everyone has a role to play in encouraging gender equality, at scientific conferences and beyond. It goes without saying that the organizers have a part to play, by encouraging more balanced Q&A sessions and communicating inclusive values, but speakers and attendees also need to pay attention to these inequalities so that they can be overcome in the lab and at home," asserts Junhanlu Zhang, a scientist at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble and corresponding author of the study.
This study is part of the Institut Pasteur's efforts to promote gender equality in the workplace (Gender Equality Plan).
Gender-based disparities and biases in science: An observational study of a virtual conference, PLOS One, June 7, 2023.