Where Are the Women?

February 2, 2018

A study by Professor Virginia Valian shows that female speakers are underrepresented at academic colloquia.

A recent study of gender disparities at academic colloquia has found that women faculty gave fewer than half as many talks as their male colleagues. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study concluded that women professors gave 31 percent of talks compared to 69 percent by men.

Distinguished Professor Virginia Valian (GC/Hunter, Psychology), one of the authors of the paper, who has long tackled the reasons behind women's slower professional advancement compared to men, said that, "The findings didn't surprise me, because I've informally noticed such an imbalance."

The importance of talks like these to academic careers and the gender imbalance at colloquia inspired the study. The researchers examined 3,652 talks given during the 2013-2014 academic year at the top 50 U.S. public and private research universities as defined by U.S. News & World Report. They studied a cross-section of departments, chosen because those disciplines have a greater number of women faculty than other fields.
The study also sought answers to why fewer women took part in colloquia. They found that faculty rank was not a factor. Whether they were full, associate, or assistant professors, men were more likely to be the speakers. The study also put to rest the idea that women either did not value colloquia as much as men or were more likely than men to turn down invitations. The researchers determined that men and women were equally motivated. Valian called that a "very important finding, because one theme is that women are less interested in standard markers of success than men are."

Who organized the colloquia was an important indicator of attendance by women. The study found that 49 percent of speakers were women when there was a female chair. When a man sponsored a colloquium, only 30 percent of speakers were women. The trend held when colloquia were organized by committees. More women on the committee meant more women speakers.

Professor Michelle Hebl, the Martha and Henry Malcolm Lovett Chair of Psychology at Rice University and a co-author of the study summed up the findings, saying, "This calls for us to be aware of who we offer opportunities to, rather than assume that men and women differ in their desire to excel."

Chrisitine Nittrouer, Rice University, was lead author. She was joined by Rachel Trump-Steele and David Lane from Rice, Leslie Ashburn-Nardo from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and Valian.
More information about the study can be found in The Atlantic and Inside Higher Ed.