EEB seminar series are almost gender balanced

Recently I invited you to guess the gender balance of N. American EEB seminar series external speakers. Here’s the data!

tl;dr (but you know you really should read the whole post, right? Especially if you plan to tweet about it…): In aggregate, N. American EEB seminar series are almost gender balanced. That’s a bit of good news; it represents real progress in this one narrow area, and means that the percentage of women among N. American EEB seminar speakers likely roughly matches their percentage among the pool of candidate speakers. It’s also fairly recent and rapid progress: EEB seminar series gender balance apparently was well below parity as recently as the mid-to-late oughts. As a group, poll respondents guessed fairly well, but their guesses were centered too low, and there’s some question whether many of the good guesses were just lucky guesses.

Methods

I googled to find published seminar schedules in ecology and/or evolutionary biology at N. American colleges and universities. I included seminar series in allied fields such as fish & wildlife and conservation biology. I found a bunch of schedules and ID’d the genders of the external speakers from names and photos. Using a gender binary, and guessing gender from names and photos, obviously isn’t perfect, but there’s no better way to do it, and the error rate should be very low.

I only counted external speakers, not speakers from the institution offering the seminar series. I counted the rare speakers who cancelled, because my focus was gender balance of invitees. In the rare cases that a speaker gave multiple talks in the same seminar series in the same year, I only counted that speaker once.

I did not also look for other sorts of seminar schedules because it would’ve been a pain to read through biology seminar schedules and pull out just the EEB speakers.

Some seminar series had only 2-4 external speakers/year, either because they were annual series (e.g., University of Toronto Atwood Colloquium), or because most of the speakers were internal speakers. The other series had anywhere from 5-35 external speakers/year. Obviously, the gender balance of any single series is likely to bounce around a fair bit from one year to the next, especially the series that only have a few external speakers/year. That’s why it’s important to look at a bunch of series over many years.

I found data on 1666 external speakers from 39 EEB seminar series from 1983-2019, with the majority of the data coming from the past few years and only a bit of data from before the late oughts. That’s just enough data for me to feel comfortable posting it and drawing some tentative broader conclusions.

Note that one of the series was a women-only series with 8 speakers. I counted it, but dropping it wouldn’t change the results in any important way.

p.s. Can I just say that, from my admittedly-biased perspective, universities that put up every year’s EEB seminar schedule on a single webpage, with links to past years, are Doing It Right. 🙂 Universities that put the EEB seminars in a calendar app that only displays one day/week/month at a time are Doing It Wrong. 😦

Results and discussion

Below is a graph of all the data. Each color denotes a different seminar series, and each point gives the gender balance for a different year. Lines connect seminar series for which I had data from multiple years. A few of the 2019 data points are jittered horizontally for visibility.

Slide1

If you squint, it looks like there’s been a general improvement in the gender balance of EEB seminar series since the late oughts, with approximate gender balance over the last few years. But there’s a ton of variation among seminar series within any given year, and across years within the same seminar series. Again, that’s no surprise given the small number of external speakers in any given EEB seminar series in a single year.

To focus on the big picture, I calculated the proportion of women across all seminar series within each year. Obviously, seminar series with more external speakers contribute more to the total. I did this from 2004 on, 2004 being the first year for which I had data from multiple seminar series. Here are the results:

Slide2

You can see the proportion of women still bounces around a lot. That’s to be expected, because we’re still not talking about huge samples of people here: 25 or less every year before 2008, and less than 100 every year but one before 2016. But with that caveat, it looks like, in the mid-to-late oughts, external EEB seminar speakers were only ~30% women. But from roughly 2014 on, they’ve been close to equality: ~45% women. As an aside, that external EEB seminar speakers were that male-skewed as recently as the late oughts really surprises me.

In addition to comparing those data to a baseline of gender equity (50% women), it would also be useful to compare them to a baseline of the gender balance of the pool of potential external seminar speakers. (Aside: yes, many EEB seminar series draw external speakers primarily from their local geographic areas rather than from all of N. America. But any local variations in the gender balance of the pool of candidate external speakers should mostly average out when we consider all seminar series together.) Unfortunately, I don’t have data on the gender balance of all EEB researchers in N. America. But based on knowledge of the gender balance of all full time N. American biology faculty, the gender balance of recent-ish US PhD recipients in ecology and allied fields, and the gender balance of recently hired N. American TT ecology assistant profs (see here and links therein), we can infer that full time N. American EEB faculty likely are more than 40% women but likely a bit short of 50%. Tenured faculty, and faculty at research universities, might be a bit more male-skewed than that. I have no idea about the gender balance of non-academic professional ecology and evolutionary biology researchers, but I’d assume it’s not massively different from the gender balance of ecology or biology profs. So, tentatively, it looks to me like the gender balance of N. American EEB seminar speakers in recent years is similar to that of the pool of candidate speakers. (Aside: yes, a few EEB seminar speakers in this dataset were from institutions outside N. America, but too few to matter for purposes of the rough estimates and tentative conclusions of this post.)

The improvement in gender balance of EEB seminar speakers over time has not been due primarily to improvement in the gender balance of the pool of candidate speakers. Most external EEB speakers are faculty or non-academic professionals. Their careers are long, so the gender balance of the pool of candidate speakers only changes very slowly because there’s not much turnover in the pool from one year to the next. The gender balance of the pool of candidate external speakers did not jump from 30% women in the mid-to-late oughts to 45% by 2014! So my tentative inference is that EEB seminars were quite male-skewed compared to the pool of candidates as recently as the mid-to-late oughts, but that this problem has been rectified in the last few years. That’s a credit to the many people who’ve worked in ways large and small to improve matters on this front, from developing DiversifyEEB to writing blog posts to organizing their own seminar series conscientiously.

It’s interesting that, as a group, N. American EEB seminar speakers are appreciably more male than are recently-hired N. American tenure-track asst. profs in ecology. Recently hired N. American TT ecology asst. profs are 57% women (95% confidence interval is ~55-59% women). And in contrast to EEB seminar speakers, the gender balance of whom approximately matches the candidate pool, women are a bit over-represented among recently hired TT ecology profs compared to their representation in the applicant pool. One hypothesis to explain these observations is that, in aggregate, faculty search committees in ecology and allied fields put a bit more weight on gender diversity than do EEB seminar series organizers.

What did our poll respondents think I would find?

I asked readers to guess the gender balance of external EEB seminar speakers over the last 5 years. We got 207 poll respondents, a mix of mostly grad students (25%), postdocs (18%), and faculty (48%), with a smattering of non-academic professional ecologists and others.

Overall, their guesses were decent, though statistically biased low: mean 39% women, median and mode 40% women, as compared to a correct answer of 45% women. 69% of guesses missed low. 47% of guesses were within 5 percentage points of the correct answer, including 10% that were correct. Some guesses were way off; the full range of guesses was 1-75% women.

But I wouldn’t say that 47% of ecologists guessed well. The distribution of guesses was very similar to the distribution of guesses regarding the gender balance of recently-hired tenure-track ecology faculty. I doubt that’s a coincidence. Rather, I strongly suspect that, when asked to guess any aspect of the gender balance of their own field, many ecologists just default to guessing “40% women”, or something close to 40%. Which sometimes will happen to be close to the right answer, as in this post. But sometimes will happen to be way off, as with guesses on the gender balance of recently-hired TT ecology faculty. Which maybe explains why ecologists’ beliefs about gender balance of any particular aspect of ecology are so hard to shift with data (see that last link for discussion). It’s not that ecologists have separate “priors” about the gender balance of recently hired ecology faculty, the gender balance of EEB seminar speakers, etc. Rather, it seems like many ecologists have one “blanket” prior of “~40% women” for the gender balance of every aspect of ecology. I can imagine various reasons for that. But whatever the reason(s) for it, a “blanket” prior is going to resist being shifted by data on the gender balance of any one particular aspect of ecology.

There were no differences in guesses by career stage, save that the very small number of “other” respondents all guessed way too low.

As always with our polls, I was surprised and puzzled by the extreme guesses, not all of which came from grad students or “others” (whom you might expect to provide some wild guesses due to inexperience with N. American ecology & evolution). If you’re one of the 9% of respondents who guessed that EEB seminar speakers are less than 25% women (!) , or >65% (!), I’m genuinely curious to hear your thinking in the comments. Not looking to criticize, just sincerely interested in learning why you guessed as you did.

Had I completed my own poll, I’d have guessed 50% women, or maybe 48-49% depending on my mood that day. So I’d have missed a bit high.

A final thought: the wide range of guesses on this, even among faculty, should cause you to be cautious in assuming that you, or anyone else, can know about systemic trends in the field of ecology without looking at systemic data.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this is a bit of good news. I interpret it as a sign that, on the whole, gender diversity now is taken more seriously by EEB seminar series organizers than it was even just 10 years ago. Everyone who worked towards bringing that change about deserves credit and thanks.

p.s. Here are the obligatory clarifications, to keep people from reading into the post anything that’s not there, and to forestall whataboutism. It’s rare for readers to badly misread our posts or engage in whataboutism, but I find it super-annoying when it happens. I wish we lived in a world in which none of the following extremely obvious points needed saying, but we don’t.

  • Nothing in this post means that we should stop caring about diversity and equity in the context of seminar invitations. Presumably, part of the reason for the near gender balance of EEB seminar speakers is that many seminar organizers care about diversity and equity. They shouldn’t stop caring!
  • Nothing in this post tells you anything about anything besides N. American EEB seminar series gender balance. It doesn’t tell you about gender representation in any other context, or about women’s lived experiences as ecologists. This post does not mean that everything is now perfect for all women in EEB (it’s not), or that people should stop working to improve diversity and equity (they shouldn’t).
  • The fact that current EEB seminar series are close to gender balanced does not somehow erase or make up for their past male skew.
  • Nothing in this post tells anybody how to feel. Personally, I’m happy that EEB seminar series gender balance has improved, and now roughly matches the gender balance of EEB faculty. Learning that systemic progress has been made, even in one small area, inspires me to work for further systemic progress. But I’m sure that others remain frustrated that this progress took so long, or feel angry about lack of progress on other diversity and equity issues, or etc. All those feelings are valid. Feelings are personal, it’s obviously not my place to tell anyone how to feel.
  • In choosing to compile these data and post on this topic, I’m merely sharing a bit of information. I think these data are worth knowing, however they make you feel, otherwise I wouldn’t have compiled them. But the fact that I posted on this topic doesn’t mean that I think this topic is more (or less) important than any other topic I didn’t post on today. The topics on which I feel inspired to write, and on which I can add some value by compiling data, do not always match up to the topics that I’d consider most important in a vacuum.
  • Nothing in this post devalues or undermine anyone’s individual lived experiences, just as individual lived experiences don’t devalue or undermine systemic data. Individual experiences and systemic data are complements, not substitutes.
  • This post only considers gender diversity in external EEB seminar speakers because other, equally important dimensions of seminar speaker diversity are much harder to compile data on.

8 thoughts on “EEB seminar series are almost gender balanced

    • I’m not complaining about the lack of traffic, by the way. People should read, or not read, whatever they want! It’s not as if we’re entitled to X amount of traffic! Just amused. I didn’t expect this post to go viral. But I didn’t expect it to be a complete dud either.

      Also, so much for my little poll as an curiosity-gap generating mechanism.

      I wonder if it would’ve gone viral if I’d found something very different? Hard to say, of course.

  1. It’s great that there have been increases in seminar invitations for female faculty, including and maybe especially early career female faculty. There has, after all, been an effort to compile a database and promote females for seminar opportunities in our field in recent years: diversifyeeb.com. Who gets fewer seminar invitations now though? I bet it’s not senior, established men, but instead junior men who need seminar invitations for building their careers just as much as early career females. Emphasis on female seminar speakers is great, but let’s not forget about junior males who could use opportunities like this, too.

  2. 45% is probably fairly representative across all faculty, (due to the gender-bias time lag tenure creates). But, in my opinion, if 57% of new TT hires are female, over multiple years, then we should be disappointed with this number. It should be 50% by now. ECRs and MCRs make great speakers, and seminar committees should be selecting them. I know you likely agree with this (as your comments at the end suggest), but I think it is important to recognise that the positive news about the 57% TT gender diversity makes this piece of info maybe a bit more disappointing than we would have been otherwise. I am also happy we have made progress, but just thought I’d explicitly state that representative is kind of more disappointing to me than it might have been 3 years ago.

    • “ECRs and MCRs make great speakers, and seminar committees should be selecting them. ”

      How external seminar series invitations should be distributed with respect to seniority is a question on which I’m sure you’d get different answers. Well-known senior leaders in the field are popular speakers with audience members, and for some good reasons.

      There are also some reasons for diversifying faculty as quickly as reasonably possible that don’t apply to external seminar speakers. For a department, getting to hire a new faculty member is a rare event, and the choice of who to hire has big long-term consequences for the department. In contrast, external seminar speakers often come in monthly or even weekly, and the choice of who to invite for any given slot isn’t a particularly consequential decision.

  3. Would it be weird if I printed out this tweet and hung it on my door? Yeah, it’d probably be weird. 🙂

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