A conference being held next year in a certain country is making an effort to attract scientists from around the world to participate and therefore to make the conference as international as possible. I am on the organizing committee, though my role consists only of helping organize one small part of the conference. In fact, my role thus far has consisted of having my name on some lists, as all the text I have written has been ignored in favor of text written by two men with whom I am supposedly working on some organizational tasks. (My text was better, but whatever..)
Last week I was reading some of the conference literature, which makes an eloquent case for science not knowing political boundaries and how we should all come together and talk about science and learn from each other and it will be wonderful and so on. That's all nice, but in the midst of the glorious prose about science and scientists knowing no political boundaries was a phrase that went beyond using "he" as a convenient pronoun. The phrase stated without ambiguity that we the scientists are men.
I wondered what I am doing on the organizing committee of a conference that explicitly states that scientists are men.
I decided to investigate the origin of the statement. That men-are-scientists/scientists-are-men statement was in the English version, but the same sentence in the conference information provided in another language didn't specify gender and referred to scientists as "people". It was only in English that we scientists were men.
I emailed one of the main organizers of the conference, a long-time colleague with whom I don't always have the best working relationship but with whom I communicate on a semi-routine basis, and asked him about it. I said that it looked strange to me that, in a paragraph whose main purpose was that science knows no borders, there was an explicit statement that scientists are men. Science knows no political borders but it knows gender borders? Didn't this undermine the conference philosophy? Was that really the intention of the organizers?
My colleague wrote back immediately to explain that the text had originally been written in English, and he had translated it into the other language and had changed "men" to "people" in that language but not in the original text. He said that since I called his attention to the issue, he would change the original English text, which had been written by someone else who will probably be annoyed at having his words altered, and he would make sure that the conference literature was modified accordingly.
It wasn't a big deal, but I'm glad that science will know no gender borders in the conference literature.
9 months ago