Thursday, November 10, 2011

Numbers game

With the annual meetings of the SBL, AAR, and ETS coming up in San Francisco, I've seen a few posts (here, here, and here) regarding the representation of women in these meetings. I won't argue with the point that the percentages are a bit staggering in comparison (though I wouldn't go so far as to call it "disgustingly low" as one blog post put it): ETS (1%), SBL (29%), and AAR (41%). I am not a member of ETS or AAR, and at this point in my academic career, I don't really have a dog in the fight in any "camp" (if you want to call it that), but there seems to be an unwarranted bias against the ETS without looking further into the numbers.

For example, how many women are actually members of these groups? And how many women tried to present papers? I think to make the case that the one percent is "disgustingly low," you also have to make the case that there are enough women who wanted to present but were not given the chance to do so. The question of whether or not women feel welcome is a different issue altogether, and if that is what is at stake here, in my view, the percentages do not make a difference. To put it another way, if female scholars don't feel inclined to present at ETS, what does it matter how low the percent is? The bigger issue would be to ask why they don't feel inclined to present, why they might feel unwelcome, etc., the percentage doesn't play into that issue since due to the "unwelcome" nature of the society, the number would probably be skewed anyway due to a small sample size. And even if 30% of the presenters were women, that would not negate the fact that they might feel "unwelcome."

Furthermore, to play the numbers game, you could make the case that ETS is just as gender neutral as the other two societies, hypothetically speaking. I don't know how many women are actually members of these societies, and unless someone gave me the actual numbers, you cannot make the case that women members are being biased against. For example, one of the blog posts indicates that 8 out of 700 presenters in ETS are by women. So what if 100 female members applied for presenting and 8 were given a spot? That would be equivalent to 8% true representation of women (I call it "true" because it represents the presence of female scholars against the number of women who wanted to present at the conference). On the flip side, I am assuming SBL is a much larger animal, and if there were 2000 female members who applied and 203 of them were given a spot (as a hypothetical, say 29% of 700 spots), then this would be equivalent to 10.2% true representation of women. In this case, then, the differences in percentage are not as staggering as it first appeared.

Now, I know all this is hypothetical as I don't have access to the exact numbers of membership, spots given, presentations, etc., but the point I am trying to get across is, unless someone were to actually do the math, one cannot a priori state at the outset that 1% is "disgustingly low." I agree, it does sound like a very low number, but it's not really about what it seems or how I might feel about the percentages, is it?

And if we're going to go PC on these societies, then what about other non-white European presenters? What about Latino-Americans? What about Asian-Americans? What about African-Americans?

No comments: