More Women Participated in Virtual Than In-Person Events

Two separate studies reveal that online events held during the pandemic resulted in increased participation among women as both as attendees and speakers, compared to their in-person, pre-pandemic versions.

Author: Michelle Russell       

female speaker addressing virtual event participants on screen

Separate studies reveal that the number of women participating in virtual STEM conferences, both as speakers and attendees, increased during the pandemic.

As conferences — in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and economics fields —moved online during the pandemic, one silver lining was that far more women participated virtually than in person. That’s the finding of two recent and separate studies reported in The Wall Street Journal (paywall).

One of the studies collected attendance history over a several-year period from three pre-pandemic STEM conferences of varying sizes held in the U.S. and compared them with registration numbers from those same three conferences after they moved online in 2020.

The study’s lead author, Manish Kumar, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said the increases in participation by women were especially noteworthy considering that women tend to be underrepresented in STEM fields.

Here is how the gender makeup of the three STEM events in the study changed when they moved online:

International Conference on Learning Representations — One out of five online attendees were women vs. 13 percent of women comprising in-person participants. Female attendance jumped from 259 to 914, an increase of 253 percent. Male attendance, by comparison, grew by 121 percent.

American Astronomical Society — Women comprised 36 percent of the total online attendance vs. 33 percent in person; the number of women who participated virtually grew 120 percent vs. an 87-percent increase for men.

North American Membrane Society — Three out of 10 online participants were women vs. a 26-percent female share of in-person attendees. Women registrants grew by 66 percent compared with a 35-percent gain for men.

Dr. Kumar’s research indicates that online options encourage attendance by young participants and those who work for institutions with fewer financial resources, considering that online registration is often less than in-person events, which also involve travel expenses. He also noted that women are often primary caregivers, and when they don’t have to travel or pay large amounts to attend a conference, they are more likely to participate.

More Women Speakers

The second study cited in the Journal article, a discussion paper from London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance, collected data on more than 12,000 economics seminars from fall 2018 through 2020.

The analysis found that while the number of daylong events where speakers were invited to present and meet with students and faculty fell by about 12 percent as they shifted online, the composition of speakers changed significantly to include more women. The increase was even more pronounced when participants would have had to travel far distances to attend in person, said the study’s author, Marcus Biermann, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Economic and Social Research at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium.

“This suggests that the requirement to travel before COVID has been an additional barrier for women to accept an invitation,” Dr. Biermann told the Journal.

Acknowledging that in-person seminars offer better networking opportunities for participants, Dr. Biermann recommended that event organizers take a hybrid approach, with a mix of in-person and virtual seminars to increase the representation of women and the diversity of speakers.

Recently, Convene wrote that a Nature report said the journal had made strides in the number of women keynote speakers at its recent conferences and that early research suggests that online formats can be more inclusive than in-person events. “It’s absolutely essential,” the Nature report said, “that these modest gains are not reversed once in-person events return.”

Michelle Russell is editor in chief at Convene.