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Mathematician Finds Odds Against a Coincidentally All-Male Panel Are Astronomical

This is mathematic proof that there's always subconscious biases at play.

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Mathematician Greg Martin just analyzed how astronomical the odds would have to be in order to end up with a panel or board consisting of all men. According to him, the chances of not having a single female speaker at any conference with over 10 speakers are less than 5%. Female representation in academic circles is lacking at best. The biggest example of this is in how most (if not all) panels at academic conferences are filled entirely with men, despite the odds. According to Martin’s analysis, the chances of that “accidentally” happening are incredibly, incredibly slim.

Something you and I both know is that this tendency towards male panelists for these events never “just happens.” Often times, there’s a subconscious bias playing into these decisions, resulting in what may feel like “an accident” to the panel facilitators. But now, given Martin’s analysis, there’s statistical proof that no, these all-male panels are never accidental, and that there’s a very serious problem with the way we think about who’s best suited to talk about a topic.

Martin spells it out in an interview with the Atlantic:

If conference speakers were being chosen by a system that treated gender fairly (which is to say, gender was never a factor at all), then in any conference with over 10 speakers, say, it would be extremely rare to have no female speakers at all—less than 5 percent chance, depending on one’s assumption about the percentage of women in mathematics as a whole.

Turning that statement around, we conclude that any such conference without any female speakers must have come into being in a system that does not treat gender fairly.

The negative impact of constantly having all-male speakers at a conference is immeasurable. It reinforces this idea that only men are capable enough to speak on a subject in an authoritative manner. More than that, it suggests that women aren’t worthy of having their contributions recognized, as speaking on a panel often functions as a validating moment that confirms someone’s expertise on a subject.

Again: being conscious of our biases and thinking critically about who we select for anything in any manner (job selection, panel selection, etc.) is absolutely crucial. The message we send in making these decisions is one that can be either damaging or inspirational–let’s make sure we pay attention.

(image via Shutterstock)

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Jessica Lachenal is a writer who doesn’t talk about herself a lot, so she isn’t quite sure how biographical info panels should work. But here we go anyway. She's the Weekend Editor for The Mary Sue, a Contributing Writer for The Bold Italic (thebolditalic.com), and a Staff Writer for Spinning Platters (spinningplatters.com). She's also been featured in Model View Culture and Frontiers LA magazine, and on Autostraddle. She hopes this has been as awkward for you as it has been for her.