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While ever-greater efforts are being made to have equal numbers of male and female speakers at academic conferences, a new study suggests women (at least those in Australia) may choose to maintain a lower profile.

An analysis of the 2013 Australasian Evolution Society conference by five Australia-based academics reveals that, offered the choice of long or short speaking slots, women were significantly more likely than men to opt for the latter.

According to the paper, “Gender Differences in Conference Presentations: A Consequence of Self-Selection?,” published in PeerJ, almost exactly the same number of men and women attended the conference, and male and female scholars were equally likely to request and be granted a presentation by the selection committee of three men and three women.

However, women’s greater preference for 5-minute over 12-minute slots meant that, on average, female academics spoke for 17 percent less time than their male counterparts. The difference grew to 23 percent among student presenters – although the lower likelihood of having a request for a longer slot granted was also a factor in their case.

Overall, only 41 percent of female student presenters and 54 percent of presenting female academics gave a long talk, compared with 75 and 79 percent, respectively, for men.

The paper’s authors, led by Therésa Jones, a research fellow in the department of zoology at the University of Melbourne, note that conference abstracts are not among the factors on which academics in behavioral and evolutionary biology are typically assessed. However, visibility within the disciplines – to which conference appearances contribute – “may either directly or indirectly influence the perceived quality of a researcher,” and have implications for grant and publication success.

“Typically, care is taken to [ensure] equity, if not parity, at the invited plenary level (as indeed was the case for [this] conference). However, if women are less likely to request presentations with a perceived higher value, this is highly problematic,” the authors say.

“By choosing to present short talks, women presenters may be portraying their scientific research and skill sets less comprehensively than men at an equivalent [career] stage.”

They say the fact that only 69 percent of male academic attendees at the conference requested a presentation, compared with 84 percent of female academics, suggests that “women may even consider a short amount of visibility on a less comprehensive piece of research as more valuable than less frequent but more comprehensive visibility, while men may value the opposite strategy.”


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