Scientific conferences: are we missing the point?

Recently, I witnessed a drastic difference in the ambiance between a group predominantly composed of women and a group predominantly composed of men. It was at a very big scientific conference in Material Science. This research field is mostly male-dominant, even though the intersection with chemistry and biology attracts more women, while mechanics, physics and engineering tend to gather mostly men. Generally speaking, I would stay we are doing not that bad in comparison to other fields such as computing or electrical engineering.

During the conference, I attended, by interest and curiosity, a symposium on Material Issues in Art and archeology. The room, really tiny with 20 or so seats compared to the 100 or so seats in other symposia, was full of women, at least the 3/4. And the ambiance so different!

It might have been the size of the room or the research field at stake, but nevertheless, it was much more relaxed, with a lot of smiling, passion, friendliness, laughing, talking and discussion. You could directly feel the enthusiasm of the speaker, of the audience, and immediately you felt welcomed in the group.

If I had to summarise the feeling in one single word, I would say: equality. You were considered as an equal to the speaker and to the other people in the room. And this is quite a difference in comparison with other symposia, where the speaker is the “master” and is trying to convince you that he/her work is new, innovative, challenging, with a broad potential impact. It is almost like defending a talk, not presenting some work and sharing.

In that sense, we might be missing something. Research conference are not about advertising your work or defending your hypothesis, but more about sharing and discussing issues.

Back to gender equality issues, I can’t help noticing that men usually (big generalisation here) are urged to be in a dominant role, to show power in a confrontation mode. Women, not really, and that might be one of the causes of these observations.


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