The academic conferece and the status of woman



Blumen, O. and Bar-Gal, Y.


The academic conference – a site of possible changes in professional knowledge and hierarchy – is an area of academic lifegeographer rarely studied. Through three main concerns this article illuminates this point for the first time with respect to the status of women and gender research at the last 32 annual meetings of the Israeli Geographical Society. First, although men still present the majority of the conference papers, women have increased their share and now constitute a third of all active participants. Second, women’s appearance as chairs of sessions and keynote speakers is significantly lower in proportion to their overall participation in the conference, and they are consistently more involved in its less prestigious aspects. Third, the production of geographic knowledge as reflected in conference papers is gendered, but the pattern differs from that of academia in general. The findings reveal a new facet of the gendered construction of academic life in general, and of Israeli geography in particular, and offer new avenues to revealing the impact of social exclusion on academia.

Key words :

Academia, Conference, Gender, Geography, Israel 


For some time research on the social construction of academia has made known that production of knowledge is mainly by men and that women are marginalized, a circumstance persisting even under an equal opportunity policy (Bagilhole, 2002a,b; Berg, 2002; Caplan, 1995; Haraway,1988; Harding, 1986; Laslett, Kohlstedt, Longino and Hammonds , 1996; Morley, 1999; Overall, 1998 IN REFS; Spivak, 1990; Tanesini, 1999). In various academic disciplines worldwide the numerical proportion and rank of women are lower; they concentrate in particular academic fields and are hardly present in others. Attention has been turned to their teaching, their productivity, their family role, their estrangement from the professional culture, and the marginalization of issues relevant to the lives of women. (For some recent studies on these aspects see Allmendinger, Fuchs, von Stebut and Wimbauer, 2001; Bellas, Ritchey, Neal and Parmer, 2001; Baglihole, 2002a, b; Benschop and Brouns, 2003; Di Palma and Topper, 2001; Elg and Jonnergard,2003; Fox, 2001; Knights and Richards, 2003; McBrier, 2003; Mischau, 2001; Morley, 1999; Nakhaie, 2002.) Notwithstanding the huge body of research, the academic conference has rarely attracted research attention, with respect to gender or to other social attributes.

The conference is an important arena of academic life, a meeting place where people present and receive knowledge; two important components are the topics under discussion and their presenters (Kruger, 1979; Meyer, 1988; Morton, 1987). Its neglect as an arena in the study of academic life is reflected by the fact that Pierre Bourdieu in his nearly 300-page study of academic life acknowledges briefly the important contribution of participation in conferences for the professional capital of academics, but does not develop the issue further (Bourdieu, 1988, 46, 235, 241; see also Baruch and Hall, 2004). The conference is also mentioned fleetingly by others, who seemingly take it as given that its significance is well understood (e.g., Bahrenberg, 1996; Brunn, Dahlman and Taylor, 1998; Konstantinov, 1980). In practice consensus apparently exists about the importance of conferences, as organizations and scholars put much effort into supporting and attending them. We are aware of two studies that focus on the academic conference: one centers on the relationship between conferences organized by social scientific associations and journalists (Fenton, Bryman, Deacon and Birmingham , 1997); the other recognizes the conference as a site of possible changes in professional knowledge and hierarchy (Morton, 1987). Our study illuminates this last point with respect to gender; more precisely, it sheds light on changes in the status of women and gender research over the last 32 annual meetings of the Israeli Geographical Society, from its early days to the present. We trace these changes by looking at three basic issues: the gender composition of the speakers, the status of women speakers, and the gender segregation of knowledge in the various subfields of the discipline. Geography offers an interesting opportunity to study gender division in academia because its interdisciplinary scope provides practitioners with a variety of subfields, ranging from the natural and social sciences to the humanities; this largely connotes the gender labeling of scientific disciplines. Finally, we also refer to the very emergence of gender as a research topic.

Geography has traditionally been, and continues to be, a male discipline throughout most of the world (e.g., Droogleever-Fortuijn, 2004; Hanson, 2000; Peake, 1989). From the 1970s on, a huge body of research from various places across the globe has documented the unfriendly environment for women in geography departments. Attention has been paid to the share of women on the staff, their status, practices of job hunting, hiring, promotion, and networking. All show the discriminatory hurdles women face, and the lack of interest by professional leaders in changing the situation. (For recent studies see Domosh, 2000; Luzzadder-Beach and Macfarlane, 2000; Madge and Bee 1999; McEwan, 1998; Nast and Pulido, 2000; Seager, 2000; Winkler, 2000.) As in academia in general, in geography the significance of the academic conference is rarely acknowledged. In 1980 only one study documented the increase in women’s participation at the Association of American Geographers meetings during the second half of the 1970s (Cutter and Renwick, 1980). While analyzing the status of women in Hungarian geography, Judit Timár and Ildikó Jelenskyné recognize the relevance of conference papers to women’s academic work, without perusing this angle further (Timár and Jelenskyné, 2004: 101). Looking at the history of American women geographers, Janice Monk mentions briefly that the increase in the number of women and changes in the status of gender research are reflected in the annual meetings of the Association of American Geographers (Monk, 2004: 5,11,14). In other studies the importance of the conference is taken for granted, and attention is turned to its potential for exchanging information, building supporting connections, and developing a professional network for women (e.g., Al Hindi, 2000; Hanson, 2000).

In this article we first address the academic conference as a distinct arena, and then we highlight some changes in the representation of women and gender research at the annual meetings of the Israeli Geographical Society since its inauguration. In addition to portraying a new avenue to examine the academic milieu, this study thereby joins the rich body of research on the marginalization of women in academia. Shedding light on a neglected academic arena, it broadens the scope of the various practices that alienate women and gender in geography (e.g., Garcia-Ramon, Castener and Centelles, 1988; Johnson, 1985; McDowell, 1979; McDowell and Peake, 1990; Momsen, 1980a, b; Zelinsky, 1973a,b; Zelinsky, Monk, and Hanson, 1982; see also a special issue of Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 1989, 13 and the symposium in vol. 28, 2004), particularly in Israel (Blumen, 1999, 2002a; Kark, 2000). After reviewing the place of women and gender in Israeli geography and highlighting some key events in the development of the Israeli Geographical Society, we turn to the Society’s books of abstracts of its annual meetings to evaluate changes in the place of women and gender in this arena.


Gender in Israeli Geography

The marginalization of women and the masculine production of knowledge have also been noted in Israeli academia (Toren, 2000; Toren and Kraus, 1987). For example, while women’s share in the Israeli labor force reached 46%, and in academic and scientific occupations 48%, their proportion in senior staff in academia was only 20.4% (Alterman and Toren, 1997; Central Bureau of Statistics, 1996). Statistics show that within Israeli academia, geography is especially male-dominated. Between 1984 and 1998 the number of women geographers on the senior academic staff in the five departments of geography in Israeli research universities increased from four to seven, reaching 8.2% (Blumen, 1999; Waterman, 1985). This proportion is significantly lower than the national average (of all research universities) and than that in the social sciences (20.9%), and is similar to that in science and engineering (except for biology: Alterman and Toren, 1997). As may be expected, the share of women among juniors and doctoral students is higher, and is estimated around 50% (Blumen, 1999; Kark, 2000). 1 At all Israeli universities only two of the three women geographers who are identified with gender and feminist research are currently based in a department of geography, 2 and only a handful of senior Israeli geographers legitimize the study of gender by occasionally incorporating it into their research (e.g., Ben-Artzi, 1995; Kark and Glass, 1993:96-108; Katz and Neuman, 1996; Kellerman, 1989:55-73; Kipnis, 1989:74-6). It is however noteworthy, that two women geographers have made it to the highest academic rank; 3 one of them repeatedly and openly protests against the marginalization of junior women (Kark, 2000). Today only one course on gender is offered by the departments of geography. In 1999, the five departments offered four gender courses: three were taught by two juniors who are no longer in these departments; it is also noteworthy that two of the four courses were in fact on gender and planning (Blumen, 1999).

Planning is very important for the status of gender in Israeli geography. Within geography, planning connects with the powerful nationwide, male orientation of Israeli geography, admitting many academics into the practice of rebuilding the nation’s ancient homeland, positioning some as professional leaders and as powerful executives (Efrat, 1991; Schnell, 2001). The imperative to serve the nation, a heritage of the European spirit that bound geography and nationalism, has been a major keystone of Israeli geography (Bar-Gal, 1999, 2000). In Israel, the national ethos embodies a double message regarding women’s place. While gender equality has come to dominate the modern-national discourse, women have been shunted off into service roles and the private sphere. The national construction of Israeli geography is easily disclosed by its research agenda (Waterman, 1985): Historical and Settlement geography reflect the nationalized man particularly as a peasant and a fighter who regains his homeland; Political geography focuses on the attempts to delineate the territory (see also Golan, 1997); Urban geography acts with Economic and Transportation geographies to implement national goals pragmatically. Social geography has attracted only limited attention, hinging mainly on political geography, while identifying inequality with sectors that have not yet been modernized. Criticism in general is typically avoided, but the disregard of gender criticism is especially prominent (Bar-Gal, 1999). To a large extent gender blindness in Israeli geography results from compliance with the national ethos and its myth of women’s equality – one of its most important keystones. Feminist critique, even in its modest, liberal fashion, is often regarded as invalidating the unifying national identity and as undermining national solidarity in an unending period of acute threats to national security; hence it is usually deemed irrelevant and unimportant. Since most Israeli geographers have been eager to take part in the physical, not social, planning of their homeland, they followed the national imperative and distanced themselves from gender critique, even when some have pursued other critical directions (see Blumen, 2002a for a detailed review).

The early 1990s witnessed the ‘planning turn’ in Israeli geography; each of the five departments recruited at least one planner on a tenure track, and the curriculum included augmented sections of planning. Whereas the emphatic masculinity of the national identity has supported the marginalization of gender issues, the practical path of planning recognized the distinctiveness of women’s life experience. Since geographers looked up to planning, this allowed gender to enter Israeli geography, making women visible (Blumen, 1999, 2002a). An additional effect of the ‘planning turn’ was the increase in the number of women in the departments of geography, as some of these newcomer planners are women – four of the eight women counted in 1999. However, of the nine women in the departments of geography counted by Kark (2000) only two, Ruth Kark and Tovi Fenster, are committed to gender and feminist research; hence the number of women in the departments should not be confused with the intensity of gender and feminist research in Israeli geography.


The development of the Israeli Geographical Society

Geography first became an academic discipline in Israel in 1949, when David Amiran established the department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (Bar-Gal, 2000). During the 1960s the other four research universities, Haifa, Tel Aviv, Bar-Ilan, and Ben-Gurion, founded departments of geography which in their first years were under the patronage of the veteran department at Jerusalem. Through the 1950s David Amiran initiated seminars and excursions to different places in Israel for high school teachers. Based on these excursions and meetings, he founded the national association – the Israeli Geographical Society (IGS) – in 1961. During the 1960s the senior academic staff of the geography department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem were responsible for IGS activities. These were mainly biannual gatherings: an indoor seminar was held, usually in December, in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, and included papers on new research in geography; only a few of the participants presented actual research papers, and no other organizing principle differentiated those attending. Three or four months later the IGS members re-assembled for a field trip to border regions in the north or south of the country. In time a young group of research students started taking responsibility for IGS activities, and later they became the majority of the academic staff at the five university geography departments in Israel.

During the 1970s the academic staff in these departments expanded, and the biannual meetings were united into one conference. The reformed conference had became an annual ritual – a focal point for academics and high-school teachers, a place to exchange ideas, and an opportunity for young research students to meet the entire professional community. Each conference lasted two to three days, and included research papers and field trips. In its new form the IGS conference attracted hundreds of participants, and the number of presentations grew rapidly (see Table 1). 4 The conference is now structured around four to six plenary sessions, from the opening ceremony to the closing evening, and four to six thematic parallel sessions. In addition, participants are invited to take field trips to nearby areas. Since the beginning of the reformed united conferences books of abstracts of their papers have been published; the first appeared in 1973.

Our analysis is derived from these books of abstracts, from 1973 to the present; it relies on the papers’ titles and abstracts, their authors’ gender, and the conference program. When a paper is the product of more than one scholar it is always considered as presented by the author named first; often this tactic grants visibility to research students and to women (whose proportion is higher among research students) rather than their supervisors who are mostly men (Blumen, 2002a; Kark, 2000). The quality of the data varies considerably from the earliest years to the present; our own 32-year acquaintance with the IGS history, the local academic staff, and other practitioners served us greatly in deciphering some of the old IGS files. Still, certain information remained inaccessible, such as the gender composition of the entire IGS membership at any given time, the status of each speaker at a particular conference, and how to distinguish among academics, research students, practitioners, and other guests. Despite this drawback the data hold no gender bias and are of great value for the issue under review, as well as for the history of the IGS in general.


Women at the IGS conferences

From the start, IGS papers have been submitted mostly in response to a call for papers issued by the organizing committee of the hosting institute. The call is conveyed to IGS registered members and to institutions such as departments of neighboring disciplines, ministries of education and housing, the Central Bureau of Statistics, local authorities, etc. Normally, all papers submitted are accepted so that all practitioners can present a conference paper regardless of their institutional affiliation and status. Young research students and geographers from outside academia often depend on the encouragement and support of mentors and tutors who urge them to submit a conference paper. Since the 1973 conference, the number of all IGS papers has amounted to 2,771 of which women have presented 21.4% However, Table 1 shows that these papers are not equally distributed throughout the 32-years period. In the earliest years (1973-1979) women presented less than 1% of the papers. Women presented papers at the first IGS conference in 1973; they were research students specializing in urban geography and planning, and none is currently in academia. Since the 1980s there has been a steady increase in the proportion of papers presented by women, from 8.5% in the first years through 25% at the end of the 1990s to nearly 34% in the last three years.

It is interesting to compare the changes shown in Table 1 with the proportion of women on the academic staff at the five research universities. The earliest figure available on female staff, from 1984, is 2.8%; in the early 1980s women’s IGS conference papers had reached 8.5% – nearly three times more; and in 1999, for example, the proportion of women on the academic staff was 8.2% and of women’s IGS conference papers 25%. This tendency, which has persisted in recent years, indicates a relatively steady and considerable disparity between the number of women who support the professional community with the knowledge they produce and the number of women who are rewarded for that contribution by the acquisition of academic posts. Considering the dichotomy of gender, this tendency suggests that the reverse is true for male geographers. Although this disparity is largely explained by the gender composition of research students, its recorded duration – over 20 years! – indicates that female research students fail to integrate into the academic staff to the same extent as males. 5 In all, Table 1 shows the early 1980s as a turning point for gender in Israeli geography: a higher proportion of women than ever before participated as producers of knowledge at the IGS conferences; although information on tutorial relationships is unavailable, the data suggest that generally women are confident enough to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the IGS conference and to present themselves as producers of knowledge in larger numbers than their number on the academic staff. Consequently, in the last quarter of a century the IGS conference has emerged as a relatively female arena.

As a research topic, gender was first introduced to the 1986 conference of the IGS by a male planner from outside academia; a year later Orna Blumen, then a research student, presented the second paper. Both these papers focused on women’s spatial mobility, one of the first topics that let gender into geography. The path marked by these forerunners was then neglected until 1992, when the first full session headed by a woman, Tovi Fenster, was held; the other speakers were female research students who are no longer in academia. Each of these first six papers was clearly associated with planning, and together they demonstrated the legitimizing impact of the ‘planning turn’ on the acceptance of gender as a research topic in Israeli geography in general, and at the IGS conference in particular.


A women’s place?

The academic conference, however, is not a uniform space. As it brings together many academics it also sorts them into the different structures of the conference. This recurrent assembly provides researchers with the opportunity to make the most of these structures so as to establish and demonstrate their authority. First and foremost, academics substantiate their authority by accepting the responsibility for organizing the annual conferences. Second, this leading position is maintained by their overwhelming proportion among the presenters of papers.

Individually, however, professional authority is facilitated by two major means: chairing a session and presenting a paper in plenary sessions. At the IGS conference the chair of a session is usually decided by the organizing committee: as the committee funnels the submitted papers into sessions – each built around one relatively coherent topic – its members decide on a chairperson; attention is paid to the visibility of each geography department, usually by inviting one of its more experienced scholars to assume the role. Despite wide awareness of such considerations, chairing a session is often described by highly ranked geographers as a “service to the community” rather than an individual aspiration. Occasionally, chairing a session is the consequence of an initiative by one or several practitioners who choose to submit a full session, including its chairperson (but this tactic is less exercised). 6 Both these ways however, require social capital – reputation and networking in academia and beyond – which generally differs between the genders.

All five IGS sessions on gender emerged as a consequence of the second tactic; they were initiated by Orna Blumen and Tovi Fenster and chaired by them and by Ruth Kark. These sessions included most of the conference papers on gender, while other individual papers, mostly by Ruth Kark and her students, were integrated into regular sessions, usually on historical geography. Never in the history of the IGS conferences was a session on gender the consequence of an unstructured submission of individual papers. This is mainly because Israeli gender geography is practiced only by the above three geographers, with a few research students.

The data provide partial, yet sufficient information about sessions headed by women throughout that period, summarized in Table 2. The increase in the number of sessions headed by women is self-evident: whereas in the 1980s it was common for one session at each conference to be chaired by a woman, from 1990 this proportion nearly tripled, reaching 11.5% of the sessions; this increase seems to be continuing. Considerable testimony to this increase emerges from three conferences, in 1994, 2000, and 2004, each with over 20% of the sessions headed by women. At the 1994 conference, held at the University of Haifa, where at the time three women were on the academic staff, each of them chaired at least one session. In this case the relatively high representation of women was fortuitous. The 2001 and 2004 conferences were held at Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa; there the higher visibility of women reflected the policy of the organizing committee. When these three uncommon years are discounted, the share of IGS sessions headed by women in the last dozen years has been steady at about 9% – a proportion similar to that of women in the five geography departments. Still, in 21 (of 32) years only one IGS plenary sessions was chaired by a woman – Tovi Fenster, in 2001 at Tel Aviv University.

Plenary sessions are clearly distinct from the others. They are carefully planned as the time pacers of the conference, signifying its beginning, its close, and other important events. At plenary sessions all the members of the professional community assemble, and key issues of special interest for it as well as for the general public are discussed. Plenary sessions often serve as the community’s salon, where distinguished guests such as renowned artists, intellectuals, activists, and politicians are received and honored by all members. These sessions are the community showcase, and their importance is emphasized by the physical setting of the dais and the hall and by the publicity given to them in the media. Organizers have tended to pay much attention to these sessions which are typically populated by distinguished geographers who have been invited by the committee. Selecting speakers and chairpersons for plenary sessions requires painstaking work since these sessions not only respect each of the five geography departments, they also salute individuals for their professional contribution. Occasionally, the structuring of these sessions yields discontent and tension between departments and individuals, which usually arise from changes of generation and research topics, but individual competition is not absent. 7

Table 3 shows that of the 289 papers delivered at plenary sessions during the 32 IGS conferences, only fourteen – 4.8% – were presented by women. One major explanation for this dearth is the fact that there has never been a women president, vice-president, or secretary of the IGS. 8 Similar to the ordinary conference sessions, women’s participation in plenary sessions has increased with time. In the 1970s not a single paper by a woman was read at any plenary session. In the 1980s women presented 2.6% of the papers at plenary sessions: in 1985 Ruth Kark was the first woman geographer to review recent developments in historical geography in a plenary session, and in 1989 a junior faculty woman, Rina Dgani, who is no longer in academia, read a paper on planning. In the 1990s the number of papers by women in plenary sessions was tripled: of the six women who presented papers to the IGS plenary sessions, half were not employed in any of the departments of geography; three of the papers focused on planning, one brought insights from literature, one was on global migration, and one referred to gender and planning. In the first four years of this millennium the women’s share among speakers in the IGS plenary sessions had risen to nearly 10%: of the six women presenters three are currently not in a department of geography; four of the papers referred to planning from historical, political, social, and ecological perspectives, one centered on climatology, and one on gender. As is the case of women in the regular sessions, 2004 was exceptional due to the special attention paid by the organizing committee to the representation of women. However, of all plenary papers, including the 14 delivered by women, only two gender papers were read in the IGS plenary sessions, both by women: in 1997 at Ben–Gurion University of the Negev, Tovi Fenster called on Israeli geographers to incorporate women and gender issues in their research agenda. In 2001 at Tel Aviv University, Orna Blumen showed how Israeli geography has distanced itself systematically from gender research despite the growing significance of the issue in the international community and the recognition abroad accorded to the work of Israeli feminist geographers. 9

Interestingly, of all 14 plenary papers by women nine focused on planning; the most senior women, Ruth Kark and Nurit Kliot, read only one paper each; and only one woman, Tovi Fenster, read two plenary papers, both at Ben–Gurion University of the Negev. It is noteworthy that in addition to the effect of planning these figures are consistent with the respective proportions of women as chairs of IGS sessions and members of the academic staff. IGS plenary sessions seem to reflect the women’s share in the five university geography departments, reproducing the extent of male hegemony in academia. However, that half of these papers were delivered by women who were not in the geography departments indicates that these figures do represent the women in these departments fairly. This dissonance is especially surprising with respect to the two senior women geographers, since the data indicate that from the mid-1980s most senior men presented three (and more) plenary papers each. Hence, despite being relatively more open to women than the university departments, the IGS conference is unmistakably gender stratified: the ‘excess’ of papers by women is located entirely in the regular sessions, which afford lower visibility and prestige. Considering that a large part of the conference audience is schoolteachers, who participate as auditors only and who are mostly women, the gendered nature of the professional hierarchy is even more pronounced.


Gender and the production of knowledge

The third issue we address here is the gendered production of knowledge. It is well documented that women in academia are relatively concentrated in the humanities and absent from the sciences, while the social sciences and law fall between these two extremes (Toren, 2000:29-32). In geography, subfields which are closer to the physical sciences are more preferred by men and considered less friendly to women (e.g., Garcia-Ramon and Pujol, 2004; Luzzadder-Beach and Macfarlane, 2000; Madge and Bee, 1999). Table 4 shows the distribution of women’s IGS papers since the 1990s by the main disciplinary subfields. More than a quarter of the papers read by women are in areas of a practical orientation – planning and teaching. Another fifth of the IGS papers by women includes two subfields which are usually associated with physical geography; the rest of the list, containing about 53% of the conference papers, lacks a clear gender consistency, presenting a mixed ranking of subfields in physical and human geographies. Altogether 48% of the women’s papers are associated with male domains. A complementary angle is offered by Table 5: based on the women’s share of IGS conference papers since the 1990s, the table lists the main subfields in descending order. Of the thirteen subfields eight attract more women than the IGS average, so they can be categorized as ‘female,’ and two can be described as ‘male’ due to a lower than average share of papers by women. Three subfields – economic geography, settlement geography and geomorphology – seem to be gender-balanced, reflecting the IGS average.

Among the more ‘female’ subfields, gender geography and teaching show the highest percentages of papers by women. The former is almost entirely dominated by women, indicating that they promote research relevant to women’s distinctive life experience, while male geographers mostly distance themselves from this research topic. This is consistent with other studies on the status of gender in geography in Israel (Blumen, 1999, 2002a) and elsewhere (Al Hindi, 2000; Goodchild and Janelle, 1988:22; Monk, 2004:16). Note however that if gender is added to political and social geography, the combined category appears female, with 44% of the papers by women. Considering that the second subfield, teaching, is a female occupation where most practitioners are women, the proportion of papers by women, 55%, verifies the male hegemony that typifies the rest of Israeli geography, not reflecting the concentration of women in this particular subfield. At the other end of the list, GIS appears to be the most male arena. Compared with the female arena of teaching, both these subfields of practical orientation for labor market opportunities seem typically gendered, with GIS more appealing to men, and teaching more appealing to women. Cartography however, has always attracted more men, with only three of the papers by women – none in academia. Thus in Israel, the shift from the more “artistic” cartography to the more “technological” GIS has occurred in a masculine terrain (for a gendered impact see Garcia-Ramon and Pujol, 2004: 117).

It is interesting that in recent years planning – another practical subfield – has turned female, probably in consequence of the research, tutoring, and role model of women planners who had joined the geography departments in the early 1990s. In Israeli geography, ecology and environmental studies are mostly associated with planning and biology, which are relatively female areas. For example, in the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, where the general proportion of women in faculty and among students was 10.3% and 26% respectively, planning and biology account for a fairly high share of women faculty (41.2% and 17.4%) and the highest share of women students (60% and 77%: Alterman and Toren, 1997, tables 5,7). The feminization of these subfields has apparently filtered into geography, mostly due to the incorporation of non-geographers into the geography departments. Altogether, 77% of all IGS papers and nearly 79% of those by women have been associated with gendered subfields, indicating that most women and men produce knowledge in a gendered academic environment. It is interesting that in each of these subfields, regardless of its gender identification, the share of papers presented by women is higher than the share of women on the academic staff. This not only reinforces the more female characterization of the IGS conferences, but also shows that this excess of research papers by women is found throughout the diverse range of geography.

Although academia in general and geography in particular are male domains, it is important to compare this gender division of research subfields with that in Israeli academia. The comparison portrayed in Table 6 reveals that the gendering of the disciplinary subfields cuts across the gender conventions of knowledge production. For example, the physical sciences, which are identified as a male domain, are split among ‘male’ GIS, ‘balanced’ geomorphology and ‘female’ climatology. A similar infringement of the gender conventions appears in subfields closely associated with the social sciences (political and social geography) and the humanities (settlement and teaching). Two of the three subfields that retain their gender identification in both lists – teaching and biology-related areas where women are concentrated – are typical of the local circumstances. Limited comparisons with the ranking of subfields in physical geography in the UK (of academic staff only) and the USA show that Israeli women in physical geography have quite similar preferences for research subfields (Dumayne-Peaty and Wellens, 1998; p.200; Luzzadder-Beach and Macfarlane, 2000: p.414). Altogether, the gendered production of geographical knowledge as reflected by IGS conference papers does not correspond to that in academia. The broad scope of geography seems to provide an excellent instance of how gender stereotypes vary from one academic context to another.

Discussion and future research

In this study we started to explore the neglected area of academic conferences as a gendered construct. We showed that this is inseparable from the local circumstances. During the 32 years of the IGS conferences women have dramatically increased their proportion as producers and presenters of knowledge across the entire spectrum of geography. Although in recent years this proportion has been about 24% higher than that of women in the geography departments at the research universities, it is still about 20% lower than that among research (and undergraduate) students. Scrutinizing this domain of academic life for the first time, our analysis adds three interesting points to the issue of women’s status in the discipline. First, the numbers indicate clearly and persistently that the IGS conference offers more space for professional women than the departments in the research universities offer to women faculty. As many of these women are young research students the conference enables them to make their professional work visible and win personal recognition (see Brinegar, 2001). This suggests that it would be interesting to explore the relative contribution of young research students, women and men, to the knowledge produced in the professional community, and to extend the comparison across several arenas such as conferences, university departments, and scientific publications .10

However, the issue of women’s status is more complex with respect to the second point. Not surprisingly to scholars of gender, the majority of the professional women are clustered in the less prestigious parts of the conference, despite their growing numbers. This reveals the tension stemming from two organizing principles of the academic conference, solidarity and hierarchy. As a professional celebration the conference aims to embrace many practitioners from various areas, but at the same time this solidarity is subject to the professional hierarchy. Our analysis shows that while solidarity does integrate women into the community of professional geographers, hierarchy clusters most of them into the less exalted sections of this professional celebration. At the conference, the hierarchy maintains the ascendancy of the knowledge produced in academia, thereby reproducing the gendered pattern common in the departments which, in some cases, such as chairing a plenary session, even rises high above it. As a result the hierarchy works against the equalizing impression of the growing numbers and visibility of female speakers and dulls the impact of their professional work. This state of affairs has persisted for nearly a quarter of a century, reinforcing the ambiguity enveloping specialist women; they certainly play a professional part, but it is marginalized.

The third interesting point refers to the segregation of knowledge production. As we anticipated, the scope of geography sustains a gendered division of knowledge production: note that this pattern differs from that of all academic disciplines, hence challenges the gendered convention common in academia. The gendered production of knowledge has been amply researched by feminist scholars, but has received only little attention in geography (e.g., Rose, 1993). Regardless of the circumstances of conferences, documenting and explaining the gendering of knowledge production in geography in general, and how this is reflected in different places, is a fruitful direction for future research.

Apart from the status of the speakers, the conference is also important for launching and consolidating new research directions. Gender and feminist research has been known to the IGS conference since the mid-1980s, and in the last eight years it was also discussed twice by feminist geographers in plenary sessions. This indicates that gender has permeated the IGS conferences. However, a consolidation of gender research is barely recognized: from the outset, most IGS papers on gender and all the IGS gender sessions have been the consequences of efforts made by the same three women geographers; only a few research students presented gender papers (most of them are Kark’s students in historical geography), and less than five percent of the IGS papers by women focused on gender; only once did a senior male geographer, Yossi Ben-Artzi, read a gender paper (also in historical geography). This indicates that gender research mostly concerns three women and a limited number of research students.That is why the potential for the consolidation of gender and feminist research in Israeli geography in the near future is modest, even if the number of women researchers increases with the shift of generations (which remains to be seen). Hence, the marginalization of gender and feminist research seems even greater than that of women geographers. This is consistent with the status of women in Israel, where many scholars as well as the general society are often blinded by the deceptive effect of the national myth of women’s equality (discussed earlier in the section Gender in Israeli Geography ). Another important reason for this marginalization is that the gender divide varies dramatically from one social enclave to another so a specific expression of women’s status in each of the various enclaves almost always marks its identity. Consequently, an Israeli woman usually feels, and is perceived to be, closer to the men of her social enclave than to women from a different enclave; this portrays Israeli women as a heterogeneous group apparently divided up by their non-gender affiliations; this in turn conceals women’s marginalization as a common underlying principle.

Finally, we go back to the conference as an unstudied arena of academic life. Since the issue of women’s place at academic conferences, in geography particularly, is analyzed here for the first time, the significance of the points discussed here cannot be judged against other places or disciplines. Similar analyses would help to understand the integration of women in academia; evidence from other places would illuminate the course of women practitioners in academia and in geography, and the distinctiveness of the local circumstances and professional societies. However, this ‘quantitative’ shortage offers only one worthwhile direction for future research. The academic conference undoubtedly offers a valuable variety of directions for qualitative research, gendered and others. In a book about women scientists in America in the early decades of the 20 th century, historian Margaret Rossiter (1992) mentions some patriarchal mechanisms that sidelined women at such professional events; Janice Monk (2004:5-6) goes into detail, describing the impact of the “smoker” social events on the exclusion of women geographers at the meetings of the Association of American Geographers in that period. Many of these past mechanisms no longer exist; however, as a comparison with Al Hindi’s paper (2000) suggests, even at today’s meetings of the Association of American Geographers many professional women feel outside the main professional networks and cut off from the central events of the conference.

Above all, the academic conference is an arena where power relations represent themselves in various ways. Gender power relations, the focus of this study, are seemingly external to the process of knowledge production – a reflection of the structure of the wider society. Still, like previous research, we were able to show that this “external” attribute is interwoven into the structure of one academic arena – and our findings correspond with the rich body of research on women’s marginalization in academia. It is noteworthy that in our multicultural societies such “external” attributes are not limited to gender. For example, in Israel where the society is highly diverse, other divisions refer to nationality, religion, ethnicity, and religiosity; we were fortunate to be able to break down the data by gender, but the same data cannot be broken down according to other divisions to allow a statistical examination of them; they require more creative research efforts. 11

Geographers have paid much attention to the impact of gender on the make-up of their national communities, but they have barely studied the impacts of other social divisions and their intersection (but see Mahtani, 2004; Monk, 2004; Rose, 1993). In this study we relied on statistics to trace the reflection of one social division in one academic arena which has not been studied previously. We also hinted at the structure of hierarchy in academia – between academics and other practitioners and conference attendees, and between tutors and research students. In addition to being a professional assembly, the academic conference most distinctively serves as an informal meeting place of real people; a site of occasional mingling where bodily performances fashion professional and social hierarchies into a mosaic of power relations; it is evidently a mosaic that calls for further exploration.



1. Accurate statistics about the gender composition of research students in geography are not available. The proportion of female students for MA and PhD degrees in Israeli universities reached 50% and 41% respectively in 1989; today it exceeds 55% (Central Bureau of Statistics, 2004, Table 8.41, see However, in 2004-5, the proportion of women among BA, MA (most of them not research students), and PhD students in the geography department at the University of Haifa is 51%, 58.1%, and 45.8% respectively.


2. Prof. Ruth Kark, whose research mainly focuses on historical geography, is in the department of geography at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Dr. Tovi Fenster, whose research mainly focuses on gender geography and planning, is in the department of Geography and Human Environment at Tel Aviv University. Dr. Orna Blumen, whose research mainly focuses on gender geography and home-work relations, is in the department of Human Services and the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Haifa.


3. Prof. Ruth Kark of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Prof. Nurit Kliot of the University of Haifa. They are two of the four women observed by Waterman (1985) in 1984; the other two have turned in other professional directions.


4. There are no records of the numbers of attendees at the IGS conferences throughout the years. Based on the experience of some of the Society’s secretaries and our own impression, it is reasonable to assume that 300-400 people attend the conference each year. The academic staff and research students each account for about a quarter of the participants, and high school teachers make up the vast majority of the rest of the audience; other participants are faculty and practitioners from neighboring disciplines.


5. See note 1.


6. Submission of full sessions greatly varies from one conference to another. Normally submitted sessions account for less than a quarter of the sessions, almost always in physical geography and GIS. For example, the organizing committee of the last conference at the University of Haifa received five submitted sessions – about 15% of the sessions, only one in human geography.


7. This information was delivered in confidential communication with senior geographers from different universities who were involved in organizing some of the last ten conferences.



8. Since the IGS rules reserve these positions only for members with a geographical education, and since many of the women in the departments of geography are non-geographers, the odds for gender changes at the top of the IGS in the near future seem to be low (unless the society modifies these rules).


9. For example, since they first appeared in 1992, progress reports on gender in Progress in Human Geography have cited the work of Israeli feminist geographers four times [Blumen’s articles cited by Bondi (1992), Longhurst (2002), and Rose (1995); and Fenster’s article cited by Longhurst (2001)]. In addition to articles in other reputable journals, Israeli feminist geographers have published two articles in Gender Place and Culture (Blumen, 2002b; Fenster, 1998). In 2000 Tovi Fenster and the department of Geography and Human Environment in Tel Aviv University hosted the international meeting of the Commission on Gender and Geography of The International Geographical Union . In 2004 a special issue of Hagar – Studies in Culture, Politics and Identity (vol. 5 (1) edited by Tovi Fenster, published some of the papers presented in the meeting. Recently, Tovi Fenster was nominated chair of the Commission on Gender and Geography of The International Geographical Union .


10. Two refereed geographical journals are published in Israel; each is edited in a different department and none is an IGS journal. Yoram Bar-Gal (1999) analyzed the professional trends in these journals, unfortunately without regard to gender (see Blumen, 1999, 2002a). An international English-language, geographic journal is edited by Avinoam Meir of the department of geography and environmental planning at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.


11. Academic staff in the departments of geography include only a handful of researchers who do not belong to the local hegemony. The realities of Others have rarely been researched by geographers (with a few exceptions, e.g., Amara and Schnell, 2004; Blumen, 2002b; Fenster, 1998; Gonen, 2000; Hasson, 1997; Shilhav, 1984; Schnell, 2001; Yiftachel, 1996, 1997). Stanley Waterman, Yoram Bar-Gal, and Orna Blumen are the only geographers who have studied the social make-up of the professional community of Israeli geographers (e.g., Bar-Gal, 1999, 2000, 2003; Blumen, 1999; 2002a; Waterman, 1985).


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Fenster, Tovi. 1998. Ethnicity, citizenship, planning and gender: The case of Ethiopian immigrant women in Israel. Gender, Place and Culture 5, 177-89.


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Madge, Clare, and Bee, Anna. 1999. Women, science and identity: Interviews with female physical geographers. Area 31, 335-48.


Mahtani, Minelle. 2004. Mapping race and gender in the academy: The experiences of women of colour faculty and graduate students in Britain, the US and Canada. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 28, 91-99.


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Zelinsky, Wilbur. 1973a. The strange case of the missing female geographer. The Professional Geographer 25, 101-105.


Zelinsky, Wilbur. 1973b. Women in geography: A brief factual account. The Professional Geographer 25, 151-65.


Zelinsky, Wilbur, Monk, Janice, and Hanson, Susan. 1982. Women and geography: Review and prospects. Progress in Human Geography 6, 317-66.





Table 1: IGS conference papers by women: 1973- 2004








per year


average per year

n %