Research project: Conference formats

Research project: Conference formats

Can we level the playing field at conferences for all delegates, regardless of gender? Can we obtain equal opportunities for everybody attending without putting anyone at disadvantage?

Can we tackle the reasons behind the inequalities of conference outcomes?

In this conference research project, we’re trying to find out which effects non-standard conference formats can have on scientists’ conference experiences. We’re looking for collaborations with conference organisers, who are interested in trying out avant-garde formats.

We are curious to find out how the playing field of a conference can be levelled (see also our opinion article in Chemistry World). Our research project aims at examining scientific conferences as an area in which female scientists’ positions can be improved effectively and efficiently. We are aiming at creating interventions to established conference processes by introducing a modified conference design. We ask: What needs to change so that female scientists’ attendance at scientific conferences, in numbers, in talks given, presentations held, and in the networking outcome, improves? Ideally, measures would not force either gender to (not) do anything, but create a more conducive and open environment for interaction. We focus on leaning in for structural changes of the conference set-ups. In accord with behavioural economics and gender equality expert Iris Bohnet, we are convinced that better design is the way to set impulses for a cultural change towards advanced gender equality. It is “through behavioral design [that] we can move the needle towards creating equal opportunities […] for everyone” (Bohnet, 2016, p. 7). The central idea of our project is that if we are able to improve female scientists’ networking experience at conferences, we might be able to increase their visibility by improving their positioning, reach and exposure at such meetings. We believe that this, in the long run, can become one of many steps towards narrowing the various gender gaps in academia.

We believe that this, in the long run, can become one of many steps towards narrowing the various gender gaps in academia.

Scientific conferences are key points in every scientist’s academic career. It is at conferences that experts of a certain field get together and one’s work is shared and commented upon. Certainly, this process is crucial for any scientist’s academic development. Specialists’ feedback though isn’t the only aspect that makes a conference worthwhile attending. Another central facet proves to be the opportunity to ‘meet and greet’ one another in person. That is, the networking opportunities for personal exchange and potential future collaborations make regular conference participation a must for every career-oriented scientist.

Unfortunately, recent studies show that science conferences yield different outcomes for male and female participants. Jones and colleagues (2014) analysed gender differences in conference presentations. Their study shows that male delegates earn greater visibility through conference participation. Other studies point in a similar direction: Male academics continue to obtain a big part of conferences’ spotlights (Isbell et al., 2012) and women are often significantly underrepresented among invited speakers (Schroeder et al., 2013).

Starting in spring 2018, we are conducting first hands-on inquiries into how the design of a standard science conference setting could be re-structured so that it provides a ‘better fit’ for all delegates. At the International Conference on Spatiotemporal Organization of Bacterial Cells taking place March 14-16, 2018 in Marburg, Germany, we are evaluating the impact of private one-on-one mentoring sessions and round-table discussions. The Biochemical Society is providing reference data for our project from their conferences. The IBB Netzwerk has provided us with data on their conference in March 2018 and extended their conference questionnaire to include some of our questions.

In March 2018, a research team from NaturalScience.Careers attended an international conference on the Spatiotemporal Organisation of Bacterial Cells in Marburg, Germany. In collaboration with the organising team, we complemented the existing conference structure of panel talks and poster presentations by introducing a participatory and collaborative format — the round-table discussion format. We were curious about gaining a better understanding on how this format could change the conference experience regarding communication and networking, especially for women attending. In our research we asked: How can conferences become events that suit all participants, i.e., especially female scientists, better? How can conferences be re-designed to counterbalance structural discrimination patterns? How would a rearranged conference structure look like, one that could enable an improved networking experience without barriers for female participants?

With the central goal of measuring the format’s impact on the overall networking experience of participants, we compiled an empirical dataset for analysis. This happened through guideline-supported interviews, a questionnaire survey and participatory observation. First results indicate that especially younger scientists are responsive to new conference formats, such as the round-table discussion groups. The networking experience in the round-tables was reported to be similar to other formats, potentially due to beginner´s mistakes in our contribution to the organising team´s work. We have compiled our learnings into tips for organising team on how such interactive formats can be organised (Section 2.5, page 29 of our report). For more detailed results, get in touch with us (

So what’s next? We are planning on attending the conference next year — this time the conference will be held without round-table discussion groups. Furthermore, we’re happy to provide our dataset to anybody interested (>100 questionnaires, 5 interviews). We’re happy to be collaborating and sharing insights and expertise on creating gender equality by design.

We are looking for collaborators from social/ gender/ communication studies, who are interested to take our initial research further.

Meanwhile, we are looking for additional partners who are interested in collaborating. You are an aspiring conference organiser looking for new formats to break up your standard conference setting? Or do you organise a conference that uses the standard formats and are willing to add a couple of questions to your evaluation sheets to help our conference research? Or you’re a researcher from the social– gender or communication sciences and are keen on evaluating the impact of the new conference formats? If that is the case, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us ( who is coordinating the project. For anybody interested in detailed information on how we’re imagining the study to look like, see the attached preliminary Study Design.

Bohnet, I. (2016) What works: Gender equality by design. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Isbell, L., Young, T., Harcourt, A. (2012). Stag parties linger: continued gender bias in a female-rich scientific discipline. PLoS ONE, 7(11):e49682. DOI 10.1371/ journal.pone.0049682.

Jones, T., Fanson, K. Lanfear, R., et al. (2014). Gender differences in conference presentation: A consequence of self-selection? PeerJ, 2:e627. DOI: 10.7717/ peerj.627.

Schroeder, J., Dugdale, H. L., Radersma, R., et al. (2013). Fewer invited talks by women in evolutionary biology symposia. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 26(9), 2063-2069.

Read our full Study Design

Read the report from our first study


Interested to learn more about various conference formats? Many of our workshops and talks deal with these topics, e.g. Scientific posters: Design and pitching

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