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[ RESEARCH COMMUNITY ] March 8, 2022

Women's participation rates are 253% higher at virtual conferences. Here's why

The pandemic has completely transformed the way we connect and communicate. Although the hasty online shift that began in early 2020 came with a variety of challenges, nearly two years later, the digital trends propelled by Covid continue to create new opportunities for accessibility and diversity within STEM.

Collaboration going virtual affects everyone in all marginalized communities, so in celebration of International Women’s Day we wanted to reflect on the impact of this shift for female researchers.

Female participation at virtual events has increased 253% when compared to that of previous in-person conferences. Virtual and hybrid events are empowering a global community of women in STEM. So is international collaboration, which, according to the Washington Post, “allows women to circumvent potentially exclusionary networks at home and experience enriching collaborations abroad.” We’re exploring the ways we can improve on these models for even further inclusivity.


Women beginning their careers

By making research and session talks accessible beyond the event, scientists, academics, and industry experts have even more options when it comes to how to access conference content. Additionally, by eliminating cost and travel barriers, virtual and hybrid events are easier for attendees like postdoctoral researchers and female academics, who often have fewer economic means and travel less, to gather. This has led to a pattern of higher attendance and participation rates, which give female ECRs a bigger platform to launch their careers.

Even more, the ability to attend virtual networking sessions and digitize presentations allow junior researchers to connect on new levels and amplify the impact and lifespan of their work like never before. Amidst the crowded halls of in-person conferences, female early-career researchers historically get fewer opportunities to network and share their findings, which lead to gender equity gaps. But with online events, ECRs can position themselves professionally in front of a broader, more extensive audience. 


Women who require tailored assistance

Online events also empower expectant and new mothers by giving them the chance to attend conferences on their own terms. Research has shown that in-person conferences rarely provide adequate daycare and nursing facilities for women with young children. Now, gone are the days when women had to choose between career opportunities and care responsibilities. Virtual formats provide individuals with the freedom to do both from the comfort of their homes. Further, digital mediums also allow women (and indeed all people) with disabilities to access a world of research at their fingertips. The long multi-day events and loud, suffocating poster halls of in-person conferences have not always been accommodating toward  neurodivergent individuals or those with chronic physical or mental illnesses. With on-demand access, captions, and the removal of travel requirements, online events give female researchers with disabilities more control and provide increased engagement with a wider public.


Women across the world

For women living in developing countries, attending an international conference is extremely difficult due to visa restrictions and other potential travel complications. This often means that important work being done across the globe is not given the attention it deserves. Fiona Mumoki, one of the contributing authors of, Evaluating features of scientific conferences: A call for improvements,  has spoken on these inequities for female immigrant researchers, stating, “[w]hen coming from Africa, attending an international conference is really difficult. Conferences are very expensive to attend, but it’s even harder coming from Africa.  Most researchers need to decide whether to use that money for a conference or for your lab.” In a digital context, women from all over the world are given the power to unlock a world that for too long has been practically exclusive to Western researchers. By democratizing access to research and discussions around it, we are helping to move science forward one step at a time.


How can we improve?

While it is clear that online events have been beneficial in terms of equity, there are still ways we can improve on current models to further accommodate women from different backgrounds. The next time you plan a conference, take a look at your organizing team. How well do the groups that put these events together reflect the demographics of the world arounds us? By including more female organizers, moderators, and women of color within your planning committee, you can learn more about the features and facilities that you can include to make everyone feel supported. For instance, the ‘manel’ or ‘no all male panel’ trend is growing as an initiative to increase female participation at public meetings and conferences, and organizations can pledge to this.

Moving events online has also not eliminated some of the obstacles that women have to overcome when gathering in-person, like interruptions from male colleagues. Make sure your event provides engagement features that allow attendees to raise their hands when they have something to contribute to avoid interruptions and ensure that everyone gets their voice heard. 

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