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My institute is creating an annual list of invited speakers and solicited suggestions from staff. It was at pains to point out that although only "n" 18% of suggestions received were female, they made up "n+1" 31% of the speakers selected to talk. As a female student, this makes me feel uncomfortable that women seem to be getting preferential treatment - is this normal practice in academia, in the UK or elsewhere?

Edit: I didn't mean my question to sound insulting, I'm sorry if it sounded that way. Everyone invited is perfectly qualified and I didn't mean to suggest otherwise. It just seemed a little strange all the women on the shortlist made it through whilst quite a few men didn't. And that the email took on an apologetic tone and emphasized this so heavily. I was just interested in whether this is common as it makes me feel a little uneasy that gender plays such a prominent role in the organizers' thinking. Thanks.

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I am pretty sure women in academia are anything but getting a free pass. The reason initiatives exist, and there are many, is to try and close the gap. –  StrongBad May 18 at 20:49
We understand your intent was not to insult, but there is a lot of history of people saying "women/minorities who are not really qualified get a free pass in STEM fields" :( –  ff524 May 18 at 21:05
Re: And that the email took on an apologetic tone and emphasized this so heavily. I would also be uneasy at an email emphasizing the gender of the speakers, rather than their contributions to research. Yuck. –  ff524 May 18 at 21:28
"Gender" is a grammatical construct. "Sex" is the appropriate tag here, regardless of the boundless humour made possible by it. –  l0b0 May 19 at 8:12
@l0b0 no it's not! Gender is perfectly appropriate here, think of "Gender studies", "Gender issues" etc. Gender is not just "a grammatical construct", that is simply one of the many meanings of the word. In any case, it is doubly not so in English, a language that does not actually have genders! –  terdon May 19 at 13:57

5 Answers 5

up vote 42 down vote accepted

First of all: if the women who were invited to speak are in fact highly qualified for this invitation, they are not getting a "free pass". A "free pass" implies that they are invited only because they are women, and are not otherwise qualified. Qualified women are at best getting a "priority pass" to make up for being often overlooked (especially when the organizing committee is all male), and possibly not getting any kind of special pass.

It is a bit insulting (although I am sure this is not your intent) to suggest that these women were invited to speak because they are women, and not because they are doing quality, competitive work. I can see why you were uneasy when the organizers sent an email emphasizing the gender of the speakers, instead of their contributions to research; I would also be.

Second: depending on the sample size, it may not be entirely significant that 31% of invited speakers were women when they made up 18% of the list of suggestions.

In answer to

Is this normal practice in academia:

Yes, sometimes a conference or workshop organizer will look at the list of invited speakers, see that women are heavily underrepresented, and think carefully about whether there is a qualified female researcher doing excellent work who could be added to the roster.

This is done as a deliberate response to counter a known bias. We know that we (as humans) are very bad at evaluating people based on merit alone; we tend to let our cognitive biases get in the way. (See, for example: Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students.) Deliberate attempts to increase the representation of women in underrepresented fields exist to counter this known bias.

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@user15422 It's also possible (though I have only anecdotal evidence to suggest that this happens) that all of the women who were suggested were "superstars" (because the "ordinary" female researchers were overlooked) and so all of the shortlisted women were invited. –  ff524 May 18 at 21:34
I agree with this answer except that I think it is a bit strange to impute the insult to the OP rather than to the organizers. Indeed, your link for "a bit insulting" talks about a male faculty member saying that his department "'went out of their way to accept more women' that year," which seems more analogous to the e-mail that prompted the OP's question than to anything that the OP said. –  Trevor Wilson May 19 at 7:48
"Sometimes there are deliberate attempts to even things out when they are imbalanced. Does this constitute a "free pass"?" No, it constitutes full blown sexism. –  Davor May 19 at 11:51
"Underrepresented"? 18% already seems *over*represented to me. We have a far lower ratio of women among students (which may differ between locations). –  Raphael May 19 at 13:02
@SteveJessop - Discrimination remains discrimination, no matter your motives. You might believe that it's OK to discriminate certain people just because some other groups were/are discriminated, but I don't and never will. –  Davor May 20 at 13:47

This sort of positive discrimination is fairly common, in a number of areas, not just academia. For example All-women shortlists and for a less severe but more academic example women only scholarships.

The ethics of positive discrimination is a complex issue. Personally I agree with you that I find it a bit distasteful, mainly as it encourages the incorrect stereotype of women being less valuable researchers. Although, in this particular case I suspect if it hadn't been explicitly pointed out no one would have noticed or cared.

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My worry is that it creates resentment and backfires - some research seems to indicate it's a common reaction (although mostly involving race rather than gender). –  user15422 May 18 at 22:21
There's such term as 'the ethics of discrimination'? –  Lukasz May 19 at 10:06
What is "positive" discrimination? Anything that fits the zeitgeist? –  Raphael May 19 at 13:03
@Raphael I think this sums it up quite nicely. It is a fairly objective thing where one group of people is favoured or given special opportunities due to discrimination (perceived or real) against them. It is not really affected by previewing views beyond what groups are viewed as being discriminated against. –  nivag May 19 at 13:55

Even though suggestions were solicited, that by no means binds the department to selecting only women who were suggested—the organizers who choose the speakers are free to augment that list however they choose, or completely ignore it, if they feel the choices are inappropriate or inadequate.

The real question to ask is:

Are the speakers who were chosen qualified?

So long as the speakers merit inclusion in the seminar series, it shouldn't really matter what the gender balance is (particularly in the small sample size of a single year!).

The only way you could argue that women were getting a "free pass" to speak is if unqualified women were being given an opportunity to speak.

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Why is this the real question to ask? It seems like you are saying that there can be no objections to discrimination on the basis of sex (or any other attribute) so long as all the invited speakers are qualified. Would you still say this if the organizers had bragged about selecting disproportionately many men? I don't mean to say that situation would be analogous, only that this answer seems a bit simplistic. It also seems misleading to talk of "small sample size" when the question clearly suggests that the discrepancy was deliberate on the part of the organizers. –  Trevor Wilson May 19 at 7:09
The question was not if it is OK or if it should (or shouldn't) be considered a free pass, but [I]s this normal practice in academia, in the UK or elsewhere?. –  Piotr Migdal May 19 at 8:58
I'd argue the better question is "Of the topics, expertise, and people available, which ones will provide the intended audience with the most value?" In some academic situations having a specific representation of women might be of value to the audience. A lot depends on what you want the audience to gain from the experience. –  Adam Davis May 20 at 15:07

About 10 years ago, I was on the organizing committee of a fairly large conference in the US. At one point, a society that was providing us with some funding told us that we didn't have enough women among the keynote speakers, and that we ought to go get some more. The society is a well-known one with a good reputation -- it's not ACM or IEEE, but some group like that. We told them to go pound sand. Several prominent members said they would resign from the organising committee if we had to follow this decree. The society eventually backed down, but not without a bit of a fight.

So, in this case we did not give preferential treatment to women, but we were certainly encouraged to do so.

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NO, in all likelihood you were being encouraged to make sure you actively recruited the best female speakers and then gave all who applied equal treatment. –  StrongBad May 20 at 13:39
Well, I was there, and you weren't (as far as I know). We were told to get more women to make the numbers more balanced. BTW, people don't "apply" to be keynote speakers. –  bubba May 20 at 13:43

The only thing that matters is qualification based off of merit. Unfortunately, in school and infesting its way into corporate culture, it's more about filling quotas than worrying about who is most qualified or who deserves it the most.

"Free pass" may not be the correct term for all 31% of those women, but it's more than likely the case for at least some of them. The organizer is sexist, plain and simple. People can bat words around and pretend that any particular group of people "have it harder," but in the end, it's just sexism and discrimination. Who's to say whose upbringing was worse and why that entire group of people should have more rights than another group? You don't see any of those same groups of people complaining about the lack of males in nursing or the lack of females in hard manual labor jobs.

If you feel uneasy about it, that's good. It means you have a fair mind and don't like one group having preferential treatment over another.

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It's nice to assume that society functions as a true meritocracy, but there is so much overwhelming evidence demonstrating that hidden biases play a huge role in virtually everything, from promotions to awards to opportunities to <insert thing here>. –  eykanal May 19 at 12:25
So it's okay to give some a preferential treatment because you think an entire group of people have it harder than others? You can make up any excuses you want, it's still sexism and discrimination. –  Jackson May 19 at 12:27
There's sexism, and then there's "I will make a deliberate effort to overcome my own unconscious bias and invite some people who don't look just like me" –  ff524 May 19 at 13:09
@Jackson I don't think you're giving enough consideration to the possibility that the bias actually exists. A quick google search found this Science paper on the topic, I suggest you read it and consider your viewpoint. –  eykanal May 19 at 15:40
If qualification is the only thing that matters, then it seems that the percentage of qualified women was higher than the percentage of suggested women speakers, right? What's really wrong is that due to a missing penis presumably, fewer qualified women than qualified men were suggested. Since there is a discrepancy, what reason do we have to believe that the number of women invited was too high, and not that the number of women suggested was too low? –  gnasher729 May 19 at 18:43

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