Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Conference of the Men

Today I was looking over the program and participant list for an upcoming international conference. It's not a huge conference, as it is somewhat specialized, but there will likely be between 70-100 participants.

Here are the current data for this conference:

participants: 75% male, 25% female
invited speakers: 95% male, 5% female
conference organizers: 100% male

The imbalance in invited speakers would be annoying in any case, but the organization sponsoring this conference sent out an announcement saying that it particularly encourages the participation of women and underrepresented groups. I think that must mean that we are encouraged to go to this conference and sit and watch how science is really done; i.e., by men. There happen to be women doing interesting and significant work on the topic that is the focus of the conference, so it is actually really amazing that the organizers didn't invite more.

I don't believe that the organizers deliberately excluded women. That is, I don't think they sat in a room and said to each other "Let's not invite many women to give talks", but I think that they must -- to a man -- not think of women as doing interesting or significant research, at least not with the same level of prestige and rigor as men.


Anonymous said...

You should be more careful, and restrict your desired percentage not to 25% (the participation) but the fraction of participants who are faculty (or hotshot postdocs). Grad students don't count.

Susan B. Anthony said...

I don't believe that the organizers deliberately excluded women.

No, of course they didn't. They included a statement in their materials saying that they "encouraged participation" by women and minorities, and then they figured they were done. Now if the women and minorities don't show up, well, that's not the organizers' problem, is it? After all, what more could they possibly have done?


Peggy said...

I'm not sure why grad students shouldn't count. I wouldn't be surprised if the percentage of female faculty and post docs in the field was actually underrepresentative of the field as a whole. Female grad students are less likely than older women to have family and other obligations that might prevent them from attending - at least at conferences I've been to, many invited speakers fly in for only part of the conference to give their talks.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure there is much "thinking" being done. That's the added value of diversity. People like to hang around with people like them. It is natural. It is also not necessarily desirable. Our recent hiring broke down along gender lines, the men arguing for the top male candidate, the women for the top female. Unfortunately with such small fraction of the faculty being female, women were easily outvoted.

Anonymous said...

with all due respect, in most physical science disciplines senior scientists received their PhD at the time when males represented an overwhelmingly large fraction (>95%) of population.

If it's any other conference I attended, the majority of invited speakers are probably senior faculty. How many invited speakers are graduate students? If graduate students are underrepresented among invited speakers, is that a fair claim of age discrimination?

Female Science Professor said...

The speakers are not only senior professors. Age discrimination does not account for the lack of women speakers.

Anonymous said...

Even at 1 female invited speaker, that is at least 19 male speakers... Isn't that a LOT of invited speakers?

Mr. B. said...

Mr. B. would like to put in a little plug for his clan, the crystallographers..

Traditionally they have been inclusive of women in the field and some women (Dorothy Hodgkin) have gotten Nobel Prizes.

No doubt someone will bring up Rosalyn Franklin. Fine, fair game.

I can think of a number of heavy hitters in the field including Jenny Glusker, the late Martha Ludwig, Jung-Ja Kim, Hazel Holden, Judy Flippen-Anderson, Isabella Karle, Helen Berman, Carrie Wilmot, Arwyn Pearson, and the list could go on.

Point: Ladies, if you want to be appreciated and get recognition, think of going into the field.

The American Crystallographic Association also sponsors an annual award in honor of my graduate school classmate the late Margaret Etter. This goes to an early career woman crystallographer. God, how Justice
Thomas and his likeminded colleagues must hate this...

The last winner, Carrie Wilmot, actually had the symposium in her honor invite mostly young women, including if I am not misremembering, post-docs.

Ugly as things might seem they are actually better than they used to be and will continue to improve with a continued pressure.

Vote with your feet.



Quantum Moxie said...

In no way am I defending the disproportionately male speakers list for your conference, but here's just a random thought that popped into my head (and I mean this with all sincerity): could it be that males are simply hard-wired somehow to not think of women?

Here's why I say that. I'm a guy who comes from a family that has literally generations of strong, independent women in it (my great-grandmother muscled her way into a number of men's clubs a century ago and stayed because the men were too intimidated to ask her to leave). So, anyway, I like to think I'm fairly enlightened in that regard (my wife is also strong and independent as is my daughter). Now, I write fiction once in awhile (not that it ever gets published, but I write it nonetheless). And for some odd reason I have to conciously think about adding female characters. If I were simply to write and not think about it, the characters inevitably end up being male unless they have to be otherwise for plot purposes. Meaning the "generic" characters who could be either all end up being men, at least at first until I realize what I've done. Now why is that? Maybe men are just hard-wired that way.

Just a thought. Don't eat me alive.

Lisa said...

quantum moxie, I think that is a part of the problem--I don't think it's always males not thinking of females, I think that for all of us it's easy to automatically think of other people like yourself; so a minority of almost any kind can be unintentionally excluded. It seems admitting that there is a problem is a big part of fixing this, because if everyone realizes there is a problem, they can take care to think about other people who wouldn't have initially popped into your head.

Anonymous said...

Quantum Moxie and other males are not "hard-wired" to not think of females, they are "society-wired" to do so. We need to change the way society views and thinks about females, and that can include "society-wired" females too.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it's an issue of like choosing like, not only on the basis of sex, but also based on skills and strengths.

I counted women at the last "high profile" conference I went to -- it was 20%, and that was including the foundation/press attendees. And, then, in a talk one of the male speakers actually started talking about the "science" showing differences in long-range cortical connections between men and women (I don't want to say that the science is without merit, but don't find it very useful) in a way that touched dangerously on Larry Sommeresque behavior.

I once heard someone talk about how they "accidentally" scheduled the big company picnic feat on the first day of Ramadan. Of course, no discrimination was meant. But, the committee just happened to not have anyone on it who thought about when Ramadan might be. Diversity matters in planning because it is one of the ways that people have access to relevant information.


Suchitra said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chic Scientist said...

I attended a Gordon conference once when there were more male professors from Texas A&M than women!

At another recent GRC, another woman faculty member and I were poster judges and picked 6 best student posters, 5 of whom happened to be women. We were actually ACCUSED by several people of picking women because we were women when, in fact, gender hadn't entered the equation at all.

In any case, this is not an easy problem to solve, as the last thing I want to happen is to be invited to speak at a meeting because I'm a woman. I was nominated to chair a meeting last year because they "wanted a woman nominee". How insulting is that? And how stupid is it for the men in charge to not be cognizant of the implicit insult? I'm sure they were trying to do the right thing, but I'm really at a loss to know how we can be perceived as equal on other grounds, even if we are as equally accomplished...??
Maybe we women should all take up basketball or whiskey drinking or something "he-man" like that?

Quantum Moxie said...

Yes, definitley not an easy problem to solve. And while I do agree that part of it is that we're "society-wired," my point was that, having been raised in a relatively progressive family that has campaigned against that for literally a century, one would think that I would be immune from such things. That's why I thought perhaps it was hard-wired. However, I think lisa had a good point - perhaps it is simply that we instinctively think of people similar to ourselves (e.g. I suppose not only are all the generic characters in my stories male, if I were to imagine them without thinking about it ahead of time, they'd probably all end up as white males by default, which isn't necessarily a good thing).

mayankkewlguy said...

there shud be more women present in universities at the teaching level..its imp..even in india the nos of women professors is on the decline!!

Helen Huntingdon said...

I ran into a doozy this morning -- a couple of researchers at a presentation started talking to me, and one asked what the percentages of women in engineering are. I and the other person in the conversation answered her question, and he (the other person answering) said that there are fewer women as you go up the chain.

We discussed this for a bit, and I made my oft-repeated point that the fishbowl of engineering school life is a terrible ordeal for quiet, geeky, introverted young women, and that those who want the pipeline to stop leaking need to do something about teaching undergrad males to behave properly.

Here was the funny part: While the woman I was speaking to found this an interesting and very important point, the man shrugged it off as impossible to fix. I came right back at him with a clear statement that it's worse than useless not even to try. He continued to chuckle in "boys will be boys" fashion and shrug it off.

He did a lovely job of proving my point -- engineering school is a terrible ordeal because dorks like himself encourage the misbehavior of their younger equivalents instead of giving them some instruction on how to behave like professionals.

Anonymous said...

that is very interesting, helen.

about a decade ago, the computers in the grad labs of the computer science dept at Big U, routinely had scantly clad models as background. Not porn, but bikinis and sexy poses. A Female Professor from another department, who frequently colaborated with people in CS, raised a stink about it and it was changed. The boys got over it. I was mostly shocked that until then, I hadn't even given it much thought. I had learned to move around mostly male classes ignoring the sexism, and it didn't even bother me anymore.

She was right to do something about it. Having those pictures all around creates a hostile environment for women, whether we "let it" get to us or not. It perpetuates the view of women as sex objects and makes men (and women) less likely to think of the women around as colleagues, except for the counted few who seem to just think about women in engineering as non-women.

Anonymous said...

A few comments;
1) As many have pointed out, the percentage of males in the physical sciences is higher than the percentage of woman due to a number of long term societal issues. The disparity is even higher amongst older faculty (the type who are usually asked to be invited speakers).
2) I would also claim that even in the sciences, women are more likely to to share a disproportionate responsibility for child rearing which sometimes makes conference travel more difficult. Yes, this isn't fair, right or good, but I believe it is too often reality.
3) Actually conference organizers can do more than merely encouraging women to attend and submit abstracts - you can actively recruit female speakers in an attempt compensate for the disparities that exist.
4) As one of those awful male organizers of a conference that had a disproportionate number of male speakers at last year's event, I can tell you that myself and other organizers (1/3 of whom were female) went to great lengths to actively recruit the best female speakers we could find and we invited a 50/50 ratio but wound up with a 1:2 ratio of females to male invited speakers. Often times the best females are more busy than the best males precisely because those of us who want to do our best to present a gender balanced conference seek out the same collection of people and to even things up requires more conference participation from the females.

Also, as it turned out, in my particular case, all were invited at the same time but the males agreed more quickly and the names of the invited speakers were originally posted in the order of received confirmation. I received second hand word that one of the females assumed she had been slighted since she (and the other female) were listed last on the header. I quickly corrected the web site to change the list to alphabetical order (which thankfully was not biased toward males by random chance).

My point is, don't read too much into such things. Even well meaning people can work hard to create a gender balanced conference and be stymied by a number of other factors. If one really wants to have an impact on this problem, we need to deal with root causes.

There are many, many root causes but here's a couple that I think are the biggest one's. First girls are not encouraged to be interested in science at an early age. You see this in everything from the typical toys given to girls and boys, to the images kids see on TV and in the movies.

Second, I'm of the opinion that the processes and criteria used for granting a Ph.D. gender biased. For example, the oral exam selects an ability to argue while standing on one's feet. It's not clear that this skill is directly related to one's ability to do good science (I've certainly not seen the data), but it may be correlated with testosterone expression. ;)