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Enhancing Conference Participation to Bridge the Diversity Gap

S. Hernandez (sveash[at]stsci.edu), L. Prichard, C. Oliveira, A. Aloisi, J. Roman-Duval, C. Pacifici, I. Momcheva, A. Nota, G. de Rosa, and the Space Telescope Science Institute Women in Astronomy Forum


Conference attendance is critical for a successful career in astronomy. However, many factors limit such attendance in ways that can disproportionately affect women and minorities at a higher level than the majority of the community. In this Newsletter, we summarize the results and findings from a survey sent to a group of researchers at Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) to determine their motivations and limitations when it comes to participating in conferences. Based on the results of this survey, in a recent publication (Prichard et al. 2019) we propose a set of recommendations and best practices aiming to enhance conference participation and achieve greater diversity in astronomy in general.


It is well known that one of the most essential components of obtaining a stable position in academia is being well-established and recognized within the astronomy community. One of the ways to accomplish this is through conference participation. Conferences have become an incredibly valuable resource for sharing scientific results, promoting work, expanding one's network, initiating new collaborations, and learning more about the field. In spite of the critical importance of attending conferences, there are still a large number of factors that limit researchers from participating or contributing to them. That being said, there has been little research documenting the key factors that influence conference attendance. In an effort to better understand such factors, the Women in Astronomy Forum (WiAF) at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) decided to utilize the large number of research staff (164 astronomers at different career stages) at the institute to conduct a survey exploring this uncharted territory.

To do this we launched an exploratory survey composed of 27 questions (which first went through a WiAF pilot program) designed to investigate three aspects of conference attendance: 1) factors motivating science-career staff to attend conferences, 2) factors limiting science-career staff's ability to attend conferences, and 3) practices that have been, or could be, implemented to facilitate conference participation. The individual questions were meant to capture the demographics of participants, i.e., gender, race/ethnicity, age, years since PhD, type of position, relationship status and number of dependents.

The survey was made available to the STScI research staff on May 20, 2019, and remained open for responses for two weeks. We point out that the list of 164 research staff at STScI receiving the survey included staff in the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), European Space Agency (ESA), ESA/AURA contracts, Canadian Space Agency (CSA), as well as postdoctoral and STScI fellows. At the end of the two-week period, we obtained responses from 51% of the research staff (83 people). In Table 1 below, we detail the demographic information of the respondents. It is important to note that the demographics listed in Table 1 only represent about half of the research staff at STScI; these should not be interpreted to represent the whole institute or the worldwide astronomical community. Additionally, the demographic questions were optional and only a subset of participants provided an answer.

Table 1: Demographic information of respondents
Demographic No. of Responses Breakdown
Gender identity 73 Man (68%), Woman (32%)
Years since PhD 71 Postdoc (1–6 years, 17%); Pre-tenure (7–11 years, 31%); Mid-career (12–18 years, 17%); Late-career (19+ years, 35%)
Racial identity 67 White/Caucasian (95%); South Asian (1%); East Asian (1%); Two+races – South Asian/White Caucasian (1%)
Ethnic identity 64 Not Hispanic or Latinx (97%); Hispanic or Latinx (3%)
English as first language 73 Yes (67%); No (33%)
Relationship status 68 Married/civil partnership (76%); in a relationship (7%); single (7%); engaged (4%); divorced (3%); domestic partnership (1%)
# of dependents 73 None (45%); 1 (18%); 2 (33%); 3 (4%)


The results of the survey were analyzed in aggregate form, as well as by gender, number of dependents, and career stage. These constituted the only demographics for which enough data was collected. Given that all of the respondents answering the gender identity question (88% of respondents) identified either as man or woman, the gender analysis only considers binary gender.

What did we find?

  1. Main motivation to attend conferences: Our analysis shows that most of the researchers at STScI attend conferences for multiple reasons including, but not limited to, presentation of new scientific results (94% of respondents), relevance of conference topic to the researcher's work (86%), networking (78%), invitation to give a talk (74%), and to learn more about a given field (70%).
  2. Factors limiting conference participation: We find that the three main factors preventing researchers from attending conferences are the lack of time or other work commitments (49%), travel funds (42%), too many conferences to attend (33%).
  3. Practices to help with conference participation: According to the respondents some of the practices that could have enabled them to attend conferences include remote participation (33%), additional travel funding (33%), gender balance and diverse representation of attendees/speakers (7%), and flexible funding for dependent care support (28 related responses).

What should we do about it?

One of the main goals of this initiative by the WiAF is to provide recommendations on possible practices to help enhance conference participation, which in turn will benefit the whole astronomical community. Based on the survey data and analysis, we devised a series of recommendations to address the diversity imbalance of conference participation:

  1. Offer remote participation: We find that 43% of women (compared to 28% of men) responded that remote participation would have enabled them to attend a conference. We also see that at least ~50% of the women who submitted an abstract for a conference ended up not attending at least one of them, compared to only ~20% of the men (see Figure 1). We recommend for organizers to strive for two-way remote participation at every conference. This will improve the participation of underrepresented groups with less travel funding.
  2. Men 50 Women 22 abstractsGender balance at conferences: Our analysis shows that women are invited to give talks at conferences less than men, but are more likely to accept invitations. We find that diverse representation of attendees would have encouraged 22% more women to attend conferences. Figure 2 shows women are more likely to accept an invitation to give a talk than men. In order to achieve a better gender balance at conferences, we recommend the implementation of the use of existing tools (De Rosa et al. 2019) for selecting a more diverse Science Organizing Committee, speakers, and attendees. We recommend the organizers consider inviting more women to increase the chance of their attendance. Such a practice will improve the participation of other underrepresented groups.
  3. Men 50 Women 22 invitationsFlexible funding for dependent care support: We observe that women with dependents tend to apply to fewer conferences (~6) in spite of their interest, compared to men with dependents (~3), or men and women without dependents (~2). Our recommendation is to allocate flexible funding for any additional dependent care costs incurred as a result of participating in a conference. Some examples of such funding include, but are not limited to, funding for parents, dependents or caregivers to travel with the astronomer/scientist, funding for local/onsite care, funding for support at home during the period of leave. This flexible funding initiative will benefit a wide range of astronomers, from mid-career with young kids, to established with non-self-sufficient elderly relatives.
  4. men 49 women 23 interested Additional funding for travel: We find that the main reason for not submitting an abstract or attending a conference is the lack of travel funds (42% of the respondents). Furthermore, 33% of the respondents said that additional travel funding from grants or organizers would have enabled them to attend a conference. We recommend the allocation of institutional or conference funding to be used by participants to attend conferences. Such funding can be used specifically for underrepresented groups, invited speakers, and for students or junior scientists. These efforts will of course improve diversity overall. 

We hope to stimulate conference organizers, funding agencies and institutions to broaden conference attendance through the implementation of these recommendations. Additionally, we recommend for a similar survey to be conducted on a wider part of the astronomical community to capture responses, experiences, and points of view that have not been covered in our work—given the specific composition of the STScI research staff.