We hosted a session at EAGxRotterdam during which 60 participants discussed potential reasons why there are fewer women in EA and how this could be improved. The main categories of solutions people came up with were (1) adjusting outreach strategies, (2) putting women in more visible positions, (3) making EA’s atmosphere more female-friendly, (4) pursuing strategies to empower women in EA, and (5) adjusting certain attributes of EA thought. The goal of this post is to facilitate a solution-oriented discussion within the EA community so we can make tangible progress on its currently skewed gender ratio and underlying problems.
Some notes before we start:
•Whether gender diversity is something to strive for is beyond this discussion. We will simply assume that it is and go from there. You could for example check out these posts (1, 2, 3) for a discussion on (gender) diversity if you want to read about this or discuss it.
•To keep the scope of this post and the session we hosted manageable, we focused on women specifically. However, we do not claim gender is binary and acknowledge that to increase diversity there are many more groups to focus on than just women (such as POC or other minorities).
•The views we describe in this post don’t necessarily correspond with our (Veerle Bakker's & Alexandra Bos') own but rather we are describing others’ input.
• Please view this post as crowdsourcing hypotheses from community members as a starting point for further discussion rather than as presenting The Hard Truth. You can also view posts such as these (1, 2, 3) for additional views on EA’s gender gap.
EA & Its Gender Gap
It is no secret that more men than women are involved with the EA community currently. In the last EA survey (2020), only 26.9% of respondents identified as female. This is similar to the 2019 survey.
Graph source: EA Survey 2020.
The goal of this post is to get a solution-oriented discussion started within the wider EA community to take steps towards tangible change. We aim to do this by sharing the insights from a discussion session at EAGxRotterdam in November 2022 titled "Discussion: how to engage more women with EA". In this post, we will be going through the different problems the EAGx’ers suspected may underlie the gender gap. Each problem will be paired with the potential solutions they proposed.
This post summarises and categorises the insights from group discussions from a workshop at EAGxRotterdam. Around 60 people attended this session, approximately 40 of whom were women. In groups of 5, participants brainstormed on both 1) what may be the reasons for the relatively low number of women in EA (focusing on the causes, 15 mins), and 2) in what ways the EA community could attract more women to balance this out (focusing on solutions, 15 mins). The discussions were based on these prompts. We asked the groups to take notes on paper during their discussions so that this could be turned into this forum post. We informed them of this in advance. If you want to take a deep dive and look at the source materials, you are welcome to take a look at the participants’ written discussion notes.
This project has some considerable limitations. First of all, the groups’ ideas are based on short brainstorming sessions, so they are not substantiated with research or confirmed in other ways. It is also worth mentioning that not all attendees had a lot of experience with the EA community - some only knew about EA for a couple of weeks or months. Furthermore, a considerable amount of information may have gotten lost in translation because it was transferred through hasty discussion notes. Additionally, the information was then filtered through our lenses before reaching you in this post which, again, may skew it. We also likely influenced participants’ responses through the prompts that we gave them. It is also worth mentioning that in this post it is not visible which views were held more widely or were less common amongst participants, though we give some vague indicators such as 'some participants mentioned' sometimes.
EA outreach strategies
One of the participants' main suspects for EA's relatively low number of women was EA community building outreach practices. They suspected the founder effect could be a potential cause for the skewed gender ratio (i.e. because there are already more men in a certain local group, they tend to bring in more men resulting in a ratio that is even more skewed than before). Participants also considered that this effect might be worsened by the study background of members of local groups (especially university groups). They reasoned that many people in EA have a STEM background and STEM is known to have an overrepresentation of men compared to women. So, reaching out to students with STEM backgrounds might contribute to an unbalanced gender ratio.
The participants brainstormed a couple of ideas of how to improve on outreach to involve more women:
- Have more diversity in outreach officers.
- Engaging more women as community builders.
- Outreach in groups with higher ratios of women.
- Learning from other fields with similar issues (don’t reinvent the wheel)
- For example, STEM programmes at university might have strategies for how to increase the percentage of female students compared to male students.
- Find best practices from other conferences with more women as speakers.
Women in visible positions
The attendees noted that there seem to be fewer female keynote speakers at EAG(x) conferences, which they linked to a lack of women in visible places in EA. Some solutions participants proposed were:
- Prioritising getting more women in leadership positions.
- Emphasising more female role models.
- Making an effort to mention women-led initiatives when talking to people.
- Writing a forum post highlighting some projects that women are working on within EA.
- Having more women in prominent and visible places, such as on the websites of EA organisations.
- Inviting more female keynote speakers at EAG(x) events.
Creating a Female-Friendly Atmosphere
Participants discussed the presence or absence of a female-friendly atmosphere in EA. They felt that, sometimes, women are not taken seriously (enough). Additionally, participants perceived men to be dominating discussions and hypothesised that they might feel a lower bar to speak compared to women. Another factor brought up by participants is flirting and/or asking women out in inappropriate contexts. Some attendees in the workshop also talked about it being intimidating to join a group of men which may withhold them from engaging. Moreover, someone described that there can be a sense of a ‘best epistemics competition’, that can be experienced as off-putting.
Possible solutions they proposed were:
- Publishing rules or a code of conduct to prevent sexual harassment. Some participants suggested the rule that men would not be able to ask women out but that women would be able to ask men out.
- Raising awareness about the bad experiences of women such as being hit on in inappropriate (professional) settings.
- Making clear that everyone is welcome at EA events, no matter their gender, ethnicity, class, physical capabilities etc. and to explicitly encourage women to apply for conferences, vacancies and the like to reduce self-doubt.
- Hosting workshops on the unequal gender ratio and how certain behaviours might contribute to this.
- Training facilitators to be aware of the unequal gender ratio and deal with this in appropriate ways (sensitivity training).
- Welcoming and onboarding people in a smooth, friendly way to make them feel included, especially if the rest of the group consists of mostly men but they are a woman.
- Setting up or improving feedback loops related to unwanted behaviour. So, in the case that something occurs, e.g. comments that make someone feel uncomfortable, the person who made the comment knows how that made the other feel and can learn from the situation.
Empowering women in EA
The attendees discussed a few potential actions to engage women with EA more strongly that are related to ‘empowerment’:
- Coaching/mentoring women. (Tip for women and people from other underrepresented groups: Magnify Mentoring)
- As local group organisers, setting the tone or offering resources specifically encouraging women to take more space in group settings and be more unapologetic.
- Women in EA forming small groups which get together to support and empower one another (sharing experiences, network, tools, tips, encouraging one another to apply for things, etc.) inspired by the book ‘Feminist Fight Club’ by Jessica Bennett.
Adjusting attributes of EA thought
There were a few topics attendees discussed that we categorised as ‘attributes to EA thought’. One of these topics is how EA does not focus specifically on gender inequality issues in its thinking (e.g. ‘the patriarchy’ is not a problem recommended to work on by the EA community). Another topic is the idea of one of the groups that women connect more to ethics of care (see footnote for definition). They suspect that this type of ethics is not emphasised in EA and that that could be one of the reasons why EA is less popular among women compared to men. A third topic some groups mentioned was that the ‘high stakes’ in EA (lives depend on your actions) might lead to more self-doubt in women. Additionally, a group of participants discussed that it might be less clear how women-dominated fields (e.g. social sciences) can be useful in EA compared to a background in STEM.
Solutions that were mentioned in this theme were:
- To be more open to scholars of feminism, queer studies and gender studies.
- To be more open to EA cause areas ‘apart from AI’ and also target the topics that are generally more women-dominated.
- Giving more attention to issues such as the gender income gap.
We would encourage you to use these prompts to start a conversation in the comments about how you think we could bridge the gender gap in EA.
- How could EA outreach be adjusted to attract more women?
- What EA cases/groups/events have you heard about or been a part of that had relatively more women? Why do you think this was the case? How could this be recreated elsewhere?
- What barriers have you experienced/heard of for women to join the EA community? How could these be lowered/taken away?
- What aspects of the EA community may make it less attractive to some women to stay? How could these aspects be improved upon?
- Do you think something about the EA philosophy or the way it is presented may discourage some women from engaging with it further? What exactly? (How) could this be adjusted?
- Bonus question: what could be concrete steps towards realising the proposed solutions in this post, and/or towards realising the solutions you would propose?
Discussion guidelines: We know that themes discussed in the post can be sensitive, so we would encourage everyone in the comments to be open to one another’s ideas, try to understand each others’ points of view and to give one another the benefit of the doubt. We would also encourage taking a constructive and solution-oriented approach.
Call to action
If you have any actionable ideas for projects or changes you can get moving to improve EA’s gender ratio, we encourage you to take the step to make it happen! This can range from inviting a woman to join you to an EA event, to adjusting your own behaviour or encouraging others to do so, all the way to setting up a new project or organisation.
Let’s work on solving this, (aspiring) change-makers!
Many thanks to Catherine Low for helping with shaping the discussion session, to all of the participants for sharing their views, and to Amarins Veringa & Stan van Wingerden for feedback on earlier versions of this post.
Ethics of care, according to Wikipedia, is “a normative ethical theory that holds that moral action centers on interpersonal relationships and care or benevolence as a virtue. EoC is one of a cluster of normative ethical theories that were developed by some feminists and environmentalists since the 1980s.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethics_of_care