Gender balance at SVPCA

September 17, 2014

I’ve always thought of SVPCA as a pretty well gender-balanced conference: if not 50-50 men and women, then no more than 60-40 slanted towards men. So imagine my surprise when I ran the actual numbers.

1. Delegates. I went through the delegate list at the back of the abstracts book, counting the men and women. Those I knew, or whose name made it obvious, I noted down; the half-dozen that I couldn’t easily categorise, I have successfully stalked on the Internet. So I now know that there were 39 women and 79 men — so that women made up 33% of the delegates, almost exactly one third.

Official conference photo, SVPCA 2014, York, UK.

Official conference photo, SVPCA 2014, York, UK.

2. Presentations. There were a total of 50 presentations in the three days of SVPCA: 18 on days 1 and 3, and 14 on day 2, which had a poster session in place of the final session of four talks. I counted the presenters (which were usually, but not always, the lead authors). Here’s how the number of talks by women broke down:

Day one: 2 of 18
Day two: 8 of 14
Day three: 3 of 18

In total, this gives us 13 of 50 talks by women, or 26%.

3. Presenter:delegate ratios. Since 37 of the 79 attending men gave talks, that’s 47% of them; but only 13 of the 39 attending women gave talks, which is 33%. On other words, a man attending SVPCA was 40% more likely to give a talk than a woman.

I’m not sure what to make of all this. I was shocked when I found that only one ninth of the first day’s talks were by women. It’s a statistical oddity that women actually dominated day two, but day three was nearly as unbalanced as day one.

Since SVPCA accepts pretty much every submitted talk, the conference itself can’t be blamed for the imbalance. (At least, not unless you think the organisers should turn down talks by men just because they’re men, leaving blank spots in the program.) It seems that the imbalance more likely reflects that of the field in general. Maybe more disturbing is that the proportion of women giving talks was rather less than the proportion attending (26% vs. 33%) which suggests that perhaps women feel more confident about attending than about presenting.

It would be interesting to know how these numbers compare with SVP’s.

15 Responses to “Gender balance at SVPCA”

  1. Matt Butler Says:

    It would be interesting to know the distribution of men and women with age. Did more senior folk tend to give talks over junior level people, and if so, is the population of the old guard skewed more towards men? At least a portion of the male:female imbalance in some fields is attributable to historical proportions and will gradually resolve over time.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    I was just discussing this offline with Matt. We both have an intuitive sense that among grad-students, the male:female ratio is much closer to 1:1, and that the stronger-than-expected male domination of the talks is indeed largely a historical hangover. But we have no numbers to back up that intuition.

  3. lizgmartin Says:

    I’m happy to say that I was one of those 3 on Day 3! But really, it is sad. I did something similar at my first SVPCA in Oxford 2012. It was my first comment and I was very surprised by how lopsided it was. It was my first conference ever, and I remember sitting in one of the talks thinking how male-dominated it was. I think what I find very interesting is the difference in different topic. Although you didn’t look specifically at it, I’ve taken a look. If you break it into groups, there were 9/18 mammal talks done by women. Both here and in my quick analysis from 2012 I found that the more “reptile”-dominated groups (dinosaurs, marine reptiles, etc.) had a much more pronounced gap between males and females, with women being much less common. However, mammals seemed to be more similar between the sexes.

    Similar trends appear to be the same in birds (this year was 2/4, 2012 was 2/5).

  4. Matt Wedel Says:

    Thanks for that info, Liz. I confess, I am surprised. If you had asked me beforehand which groups, if any, were male-dominated, I would have said mammals, and I would have thought reptiles were more gender-balanced. But (a) I may–may, I say–have a tendency to tune out during mammal talks that aren’t about champions like sloths, and (b) my perception of how many women are active in the reptilian groups is probably thrown off by memorable talks at recent meetings by Emily Rayfield, Stephanie Pierce, and yourself, among others. It may also be that because the specific research problems I am interested in have been addressed by women like Daniela Schwarz and Nicole Klein, the work of the female minority looms larger in my mind.

    So, the first point is, subjective impressions are useless. We really do need data.

    I do wonder how much of this is generational, and will even out in time. I think the year after I left the Padian lab, it was at least briefly 60/40 women to men among the grad students. Admittedly, we need a lot of cohorts like that to offset the current imbalance, but it is at least a welcome sign. Someday it may not even be remarkable.

  5. Matt Wedel Says:

    Erp, I just remembered that Stephanie Pierce’s talk at Oxford was on basal tetrapods. I was thinking of her poster on croc skulls (specifically, pneumatic croc skulls) at Lyme Regis.

  6. Chiming in to say I have noticed a similar pattern at SVP, although the conference is so much bigger that I cannot really back it up with super rigorous numbers. For the last few years I’ve kept track of how many men and women were the primary presenters in the SVP sessions I’ve gone to. Since I’m a dinosaur person, this means I’m mostly in the dinosaur sessions, although I’ll pop into other sessions as I feel like it as well. For the most part I now recognize most names on the docket in the dino sessions, and if I miss a talk and don’t know the person (and can’t intuit from the name) then I just don’t count it. But regardless, it has been consistently about 10-15% female presenters in the dinosaur sessions at SVP since 2010, the first year I kept track. There are lots of female names on multi-authored abstracts, but in terms of who gets up to speak, it’s usually a man.

    It’s interesting that the numbers are not so different for SVPCA where it sounds like most people can get a talk slot if they desire one, since that suggests that it is women who are self-selecting out of the oral presentation pool. That’s been my hunch for a while now, especially now that SVP’s abstracts are blind reviewed. I think that maybe in a very broad, very generalized sense, women are not as socialized to get up in front of a crowd and become an authority on a topic. I think that’s an easier problem to fix than if there were unconscious biases that were resulting in women not being selected to give talks.

  7. anderov Says:

    I thought your initial perception of 33% women as “nearly half” was an interesting manifestation of the following factoid that I’ve seen making the rounds:

    “We just heard a fascinating and disturbing study, where they looked at the ratio of men and women in groups. And they found that if there’s 17 percent women, the men in the group think it’s 50-50. And if there’s 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.” (

    Aggravatingly, while many blogs re-quote this (including a number of skeptic blogs), no one seems to point to an actual study. Interesting thought, though, even if there turns out to be no study.

  8. Matt Wedel Says:

    I think that maybe in a very broad, very generalized sense, women are not as socialized to get up in front of a crowd and become an authority on a topic.

    …which is essentially a gentler restatement of Clay Shirky’s hypothesis, that men are more prone to fronting and BSing.

    I wonder if that effect–if true–will have left detectable tracks. Like maybe papers by male authors are more prone to being retracted. Probably someone has already done that work, and I’m just ignorant of it.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    Not sure why this is noteworthy. It’s common for male animals to behave differently from female animals, why should humans be an exception?

  10. I haven’t seen too many non-human animals give conference presentations.

  11. Rob Schenck Says:

    Who runs the SVPCA? The Host Committee for 2014 had 2/7 women on it. A host committee is going to be limited to the host institution, so proactively recruiting women might be limiting. How many women and under-served groups are on the overall committee for the SVPCA? If an organization wants to address a gender imbalance at meetings/events/participation, then that’s the place to start I should think.

  12. Mike Taylor Says:

    In theory, yes, Rob. In practice, I imagine it’s hard enough getting anyone to volunteer to be on the committee. I can’t readily imagine male volunteers being rejected in the hope of getting more female volunteers. Not sure what to suggest, given that organising conferences is such a demanding and thankless task.

  13. Phil Cox Says:

    Hi guys – you’ve all been doing what I meant to do a while ago, which was crunch the gender numbers at SVPCA. As 2014 organiser, I can confirm that everyone who requested a talk received one. I think what is particularly interesting is that although the talks are so skewed, the ratio of posters was 9F:7M – are women more comfortable giving posters than talks? The sample size is probably too small to draw many conclusions.

  14. Having a more equal balance of women:men on organizing committees is always a good thing, but keep in mind that women are just as prone to biases against other women as men are! Not all women may prioritize gender equality in their professional lives to the same extent, and it shouldn’t be on women only to fix this problem.

    Examples: there’s a study in PNAS investigating gender biases in science that’s pretty relevant here. The application materials for a student applying to be a lab manager position was randomly assigned a male or female name, but was otherwise identical. BOTH male and female faculty members were significantly less likely to hire the female applicant than the male applicant, and gave a higher starting salary to the male applicant. Lesson: gender biases run deep in North American society, despite major advances over the last century.

    So, I think the big picture is that we all need to be really aware that we all individually carry these biases, and try to be aware of how that influences our interactions with other people. For conference talks, blind reviews are an excellent way to minimize potential bias. If the problem is that women are self-selecting out of giving talks, then maybe that points to a broad need to encourage all people to become proficient public speakers.

  15. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks for the poster numbers, Phil. (And indeed for running the conference!) 14 people is not a big sample, and a 9:7 ratio is not a huge difference from what the number of attendees might indicate, but at the very least your observation is suggestive.

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