‘I’m sorry, I can’t hear you’: Simple strategies to allow women’s voices to be heard

Dr Sarah Allsop (she/her), SFHEA, Senior Lecturer in Medical and Anatomy Education at the University of Bristol

Dr Lucy Spowart (she/her), PFHEA, NTF, Associate Professor in Postgraduate Clinical Education and Programme Lead at the University of Plymouth

Dr Greta Bosch (she/her), PFHEA, NTF, Associate Professor in Law at the University of Exeter

A recent article in the Lancet (July 2021) grabbed our attention as female academics from a diversity of disciplines. Said to be the first study of its kind, researchers at Imperial College London published findings on the stark reality of the under-representation of Women in Scientific Medical Conferences.*

We, first individually, and then collectively, mused as to how we might share the findings to leverage further action in teaching and learning spaces. It also gave us the opportunity to collaborate and share, something we perhaps might have been reluctant to do alone. We appreciate this ‘space’ for our own voices to be heard.

So, to the research.

When investigating female participation, the researchers found that despite having a gender-balance in the attending delegates at their 2017 conference, women were underrepresented as Chairs, with nearly half of the panels being all-male. Women were also far less likely to ask questions, with only 24% of questions and comments being raised by women. This influence was even more pronounced if a man asked the first question in a session, as this led to a staggering 86% of follow-up questions also then coming from men. When women asked the opening question, still only 50% of second questions came from a woman. Questions from men were also significantly longer than those asked by women. In short, men were effectively, though not intentionally, dominating the narrative.

In an attempt to redress the imbalance, the researchers employed a simple intervention:

  • An email to the conference organisers requesting more female session Chairs
  • An email to invited Chairs reminding them to offer the opening question to a female audience member
  • A written statement in the delegate pack about the study to improve inclusion at the conference

At the 2018 conference there was some improvement in engaging women, with 34% of chaired panels being all-male, and the proportion of questions being asked by women rising to 35%.

What was particularly interesting was that despite the ‘evidence’ outlined above, 29% of delegates  said that they felt the questions had been gender-balanced, the exact opposite of the evidence. So how do we empower women, when positions of power are commonly filled by men, there is a lack of female role models and there is a belief that women are vocalising their views even when the evidence suggests the opposite? Simply thinking that women can ‘step-up’ isn’t enough.

To remove the acknowledged barriers to female academic progression requires organisational change that supports and encourages women to achieve their career goals and provides an environment which allows women to feel the confidence to speak up.

Have you seen examples of similar situations in your area of academic practice and how can we start to change the narrative? We suggest a few ideas below as to how this research might be translated into other areas for you to consider and we would be really interested to hear of any examples of ‘best practice’ in this area. 

Look at your own networks:

  • Are committee structures led or co-led by women?
  • Can the Chair of meetings be shared rather than being designated to a single role, thus empowering the whole team, improving equality and building confidence and skills?
  • Think about a recent event you attended, how much of the narrative was led by women? Are there ways you could improve the confidence of your peers or the attitudes of your seniors to change this?
  • What do the expert panels look like? If they are not gender-balanced be empowered to ask why not.
  • Are there enough women in positions of responsibility in your discipline to give junior academics visible role models? Could you suggest opportunities for women in your discipline to speak about their experiences?
  • Could more be done to help create an environment of trust where everyone can feel comfortable in expressing themselves? Is there time and space for team members to get to know one another?
  • Would you be able to take on a role of allyship – could you try to advance and promote inclusion such as building confidence in others?
  • What kind of small changes can you include in your teaching to lead change?

*Data from the UK Society for Endocrinology’s annual conference in 2017 and 2018. Published online in the Lancet July 29, 2021,   

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