Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Man Boy(cott) 2011

This is a repeat topic, but it's something that keeps happening, so here it is again.

There is a conference that is of some interest to me. It's not a super-major conference and it is not urgent for me to attend, but it will be an interesting group of people, and I expect the level of intellectually stimulating conversation and exchange of ideas to be high, making the trip worthwhile. I think that I will go to the conference.

And then I look at the list of keynote speakers: all men, no women. I won't specify the exact number of speakers, but let's just say it is in the vicinity of 10, so it's not as if there's just one or two.

The conference topic is one that involves many women researchers worldwide. I can easily think of several without even trying. By "without even trying", I mean that without specifically trying to think of women researchers -- when I just think of people doing interesting research in this field -- many of these people are women.

[Note: I am rather peripheral to this topic, so am not implying that I think I should have been invited; I do not think this.]

Sometimes when I encounter these all-men slates of keynotes for a conference that I'm not sure I want to attend, that fact tips the balance for me and I do not go. If, however, I think the conference will be overall worthwhile anyway, I may go, and I will likely speak with the conference organizer, asking about the lack of women speakers.

Last time I wrote about this, I asked for comments on whether an all-men slate of keynote speakers would be a non-issue, a maybe-issue, or a deal-breaker for readers in their decisions to attend conferences. There were many interesting comments, with of course the usual wide range of opinions. Today I am asking the same question, but in poll form. This tends to increase the number of responses, but of course we lose a bit of the nuance, so feel free to leave a new or repeat comment on the topic in addition to voting. 


Does an all-men speaker slate influence your decision about whether to attend a conference?
No, it is always a non-issue for me.
It can be a deciding factor.
Yes, it is a deal-breaker for me.
  
pollcode.com free polls 





44 comments:

Anonymous said...

This seems a somewhat delicate topic, one where actual injustice, perceived injustice, and random chance all are involved as the reasons across the spectrum of reality... Wouldnt contacting the organizer before making a decision based upon the gender of the speakers in the case of a conference you would otherwise attend sort of be a type of due diligence?

It makes me a bit sad to think that perhaps people are not attending conferences they otherwise would attend (and probably enjoy) in the cases of random chance and perceived injustice. Perhaps I am out of line with my feeling that way though.

Anonymous said...

"The conference topic is one that involves many women researchers worldwide"

Please answer the following:

1) What is the percentage of women in your field?

2) How many women would be int the top 10 of the field?

Anonymous said...

I tried the 'write to the organizers' approach a couple of times, but it is unsatisfying and a bit humiliating. I did not get back any useful responses. I think we are on our own for deciding whether an all-men slate of keynote speakers in a field in which there are obviously many interesting and highly qualified women is reason to boycott the meeting.

Kea said...

This often happens in my field. The 'excuse' is that there are 'no' women in the field. But really there is no excuse. It is completely unacceptable. And the reason there are 'no' women in the field is entirely due to discrimination.

There are always women who could be invited, given that most conferences are not overly specialised. And for the most specialised conferences, I feel they have even less 'excuse' because (in my field at least) these small events tend to be about the same old, same old group of old boys getting together for a chat.

Anonymous said...

In philosophy, people have become more aware of the problems with all-male workshops and all-male keynote speakers, due to this initiative:

http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/gendered-conference-campaign/

Anonymous said...

Good morning,
I voted that it was a non-issue for me because there is not an overwhelming number of women in my field, and I have become accostomed to seeing very few (if any) keynote speakers who are female. The only reason it may be an issue would be if (as seems possible in your case) obvious leaders in the field have been left out BECAUSE they are women. That might signal that it would not be a place where i could have meaningful conversations anyway. If I were to take the time to ask the organizers why I would make it specific "Why was Dr XX not invited? She has made a seminal contribution in the field and seems to have been overlooked."

I still would not expect a useful response, but I might feel better!

physicist said...

I recently came across an initiative from female philosophers (who are apparently suffering the same kind of all-male-conference problem). They've put together this effort, called Gendered Conference Campaign, where they publicly list the names of such conferences, they send an email to the organizers, and hope to raise awareness on the issue. Sometimes they've seen females added to the list of speakers as a result of their advertising a particular all-male conference.

Here are their goals and FAQs:

GCC FAQ

Anneliese said...

In response to Anonymous at 12:54, the answers to your questions are irrelevant.

1. In physical chemistry women professors are about 12%.

Total numbers of professors in p-chem? Let's be conservative and say 10,000.

Women then number about 1,000. That is certainly a large enough pool from which to choose to get at least 1 woman speaker.

2. It doesn't matter who is in the top 10% of the field because invited speakers are taken from more than just the top 10%.

The fact remains that even in the most male dominated fields there will always be at least a few women on this planet qualified to speak. It's only a question of numbers.

Anonymous said...

I wrote that it is a non-issue, but I am male. I imagine my vote would change if I was non-male. Perhaps my vote should change even though I am not non-male. I will think about it next time. In my field, with my specific sub-conference, it is probably 75% male, but the organizers do a good job trying to find representation from different organizations (industry, national labs, academics) and with reasonable attempts at gender and racial balance, and it has improved in the last decade.

FemaleGradStudent said...

This would likely not affect my decision to attend a conference, BUT it WOULD likely negatively affect my opinion of the conference/session organizers, unless balanced by other information demonstrating that they are not sexist (overtly or covertly). I would take this as a warning sign that they might either (1) not have good working relationships with female researchers, and/or (2) underrate/devalue research when it is done by a woman (consciously or subconsciously). I might put them on my mental list of people to be cautious about, for example I might be less likely to consider trying to apply for a job with them in the future or approach them about a collaboration. This is similar to how notice and remember how people talk about other women and their work in my presence, or whether academic departments I have contact with have any/many women on the faculty, and how those women seem to be doing (in terms of support/productivity/happiness) relative to the men. It is just common sense to notice such information and try to use it to avoid possibly difficult people.

Of course, if others respond to them the same way, these individuals may never come into contact with smart female researchers, because smart women are avoiding them, which may reinforce their perception that "there are no women". Hmmm....

Anonymous said...

I would contact the organizers. Either they are sexist, and your inquiry brings this to their attention or they have a good explanation.

In my field invited speakers are taken from the top 10%. This means that you have a rather limited set from which to choose from.

I organized a conference and issued about a dozen invitations to female speakers. All of them declined. What else can I do? I was contacted by a colleague asking about this and I was able to explain the predicament we were in. I'm happy to report that she attended the conference.

Anonymous said...

MOSTLY OF-TOPIC: Just read your piece in the latest incoming online Chronicle today (11/16/11). Thank you, Signed A Man who thinks that there is more to the maintenance of civilization than strategic misbehavior to drive that something we call 'change.' The best change is most often that which comes about because self-motivated, able, competent individuals show up day upon day to do what it is they do, whether they have chosen to do that specific task or not. What develops is what some folks call discipline, and under that rubric stands the discovery of simple dignity, integrity, and decency, all of which are complements that bolster that much-sought after "progress" others will stomp the feet to demand. Stand firm. Put up with neither male-source slights nor female-source sniggerings. Most of the time not only do 'people change' but also find they must change or be swept aside by real history.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I wouldn't "boycott" a conference for this reason. However, when I have attended conferences--or sessions in conferences--with poor representation of women I have made it my business to ask the organizers what the fucke their problem is.

Anonymous said...

Interesting question. As a woman, I will say that I tend to *notice* when all the speakers are men, but I have never made any decisions (about attendance, about possible sexism in choice of speakers) on the basis of that. Maybe that is because I have turned down quite a few talk invitations due to family reasons -- I have young children -- and I know that quite a few of the women doing interesting work in my field also have young children, so I figure that they could easily have been asked and declined.

Andrea said...

This is not an issue in my field - there usually are women on the slate. But I wrote that it is a nonissue for me because I rarely attend the keynote talks. I usually just go to panels. However, I think I would feel differently if my field was male dominated at talks.

Interesting that some commenters see the lack of women overall in a field as a good reason for them not to be on the conference agenda instead of a cause for even greater concern. (why aren't there more women in the field)

a physicist said...

I'm reluctant to vote. My gut tells me "non-issue" because I have never seen it happen in my field that there's been such a severe tilt toward men (during my career... I certainly know things were worse in the past.) But yeah, it clearly still happens, and that's not a good thing. Honestly I'm not sure what I would do in this situation.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous @ 12:18:00 wrote:

"This seems a somewhat delicate topic, one where actual injustice, perceived injustice, and random chance all are involved as the reasons across the spectrum of reality... It makes me a bit sad to think that perhaps people are not attending conferences they otherwise would attend (and probably enjoy) in the cases of random chance and perceived injustice."

Random chance certainly *could* produce an all-male lineup if n ~10.

But that is utterly irrelevant because keynote speakers are not chosen by random chance. They are invited through a purposeful, active selection process by the program committee members. Probability doesn't enter into it.

Anonymous said...

"This would likely not affect my decision to attend a conference, BUT it WOULD likely negatively affect my opinion of the conference/session organizers..."

Exactly. As another commenter posted, statistical support matters too. In my field, if five/five plenary speakers were male, I wouldn't infer sexism. (It would still make me a little sad.)

Anonymous said...

I can not even remember the last time I looked up who is going to give talks/keynotes at conferences. If I think I may learn something or connect with other researchers, then I will go.

GeogJen said...

Just today in the UK Guardian there was a letter from a group of women saying that they will not attend all male panels: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/nov/15/men-only-policy-debates-must-go

The organisation responsible for organising the major conference I go to each year has been asking all conveners to consider gender balance in co-conveners and presenters (alongside considering young scientists). It seems that this gentle nudge has made some impact.

Anonymous said...

Given that I know that my field has many women in it, when I see a slate of all male speakers, I feel confident that I will not feel welcome at that particular conference.

I attended one such conference, once, as an early faculty. Based on that experience, I now watch the speaker list and make judgments about whether I will attend based on it. The isolation of the speaker list spilled over to "boys will be boys" in other conference behavior as well, in ways that were not typical for that conference on a year-to-year basis. It is just not worth my time to put up with that bull, when I can hear most of the speakers some other year at a different conference in a comfortable environment.

My time, grant money, and emotional energy are all too valuable to contribute (even passively) to that kind of setup.

ChemGradStudent said...

it doesn't make a difference make a difference to me. If it makes a difference to you, then you are a bigot. We should be gender blind when it comes to science. Not going to a conference because of the gender of the speakers is nothing but bigotry.

Anonymous said...

I am a woman and I choose first option, partially because I think at my stage of career, I choose to go to conference to increase my visibility in the field. I don't care if there are all man keynote speakers or all women keynote speakers.

Doc said...

This is interesting to me. I'm a chemist, which is typically a male-heavy discipline at this level, but my two major sub-fields are both represented well by women. However, where I see lack of diversity is in where they were trained. We have a couple 'networks' of bigwigs who churn out and market their post-docs heavily. While I'm pleased that these people are so supportive of their trainees, the problem is that they all think about things the same way, which leads to an overbearing 'groupthink' mentality. If you have an alternate viewpoint or a new idea, you have to work against the 'machine' to get it out there.

Anonymous said...

This is a topic that I (a postdoctoral biologist) have been thinking about, prompted by a recent all-male speakers departmental seminar series. Having given it a lot of thought, I draw parallels with the Bechdel test for assessing movies (to pass the test a movie has to 1) have at least two women in it, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than a man - a surprisingly large number don't pass).

In a perfect world it wouldn't matter if any one movie passes the test or if by shear random chance the keynote speakers for any one conference are all male or indeed all female, but when women continue to be under-represented in science to have only male speakers is not ok. On a personal level I'd still go, but it would be noted and as FemaleGradStudent said it would make me cautious. I don't want to have to wonder if the lack of women is deliberate on behalf of the organisers or if they are just clueless, when I could be concentrating on the science.

Aisling said...

I voted that it was a non issue for me, but that's not entirely true. I only go to one or two main conferences in my field every year, so the gender of the speakers will not affect my decision to go (especially if I have a paper to present myself). But as pointed out by FemaleGradStudent, I would definitely notice, wonder how that situation came about and how it might be changed.

EliRabett said...

There are two issues here. a. Should you attend and b. should this be brought to the attention of the organizers. Yes on b. YMMV on A

Anonymous said...

Ironically I just received an invite to an all male speaker symposium in honor of a recently deceased older male in the department. What to do, what to do?

Phillip Helbig said...

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2011/11/12/all-male-conferences/

Anonymous said...

I don't see how quietly boycotting a conference would make one iota of difference to the organizers. I think it's true that organizers don't sit down and think, "okay, let me pick 10 men for the slate; definitely no women." If there are no women it's because it's an unconscious bias. So the only was to have any impact is to draw attention to this fact. If you simply don't go, no one knows why you didn't go -- and probably no one cares that you're not there. If you make a *big deal* out of not going and try to make it as public as possible -- to the organizers and to the attendees -- then you're actually making a statement. But, I would argue that statement might be misplaced exactly *because* the omission is likely an unconscious bias and/or women were invited and couldn't come. So the only reasonable response, in my mind, is to communicate directly with the organizers before the conference. Ask bluntly, "why are there no women?" You might get the answer, "we invited 7 men and 3 women and none of the women could come, so we invited another 1 woman and 2 men, and that woman couldn't come and so we filled the slot with a man." Or you might get an embarrassed and/or defensive "oh, gosh. Well just because." That's the response you'd expect if there's an unconscious bias. But now you've done what's right. You've alerted the organizer to his (or her -- women do this too!) unconscious bias. Next time s/he's much more likely to be aware of that bias when making choices. If the organizer is a dick about it when replying to you, then go for Plan #1 and make a *big deal* about boycotting it and making sure everyone knows why you're boycotting it. Otherwise, go. Talk nicely to the organizer at the conference and say something like, "I'm sure next time there will be women speakers" so that the organizer understands that this is an expectation.

Anon at 01:05:00 AM, you said that writing to the organizers is unsatisfying -- I'd expect that if the organizers are being defensive about their realization of their own bias -- and humiliating. Humiliating?!? Please explain.

Anonymous said...

To anonymous at 12:54:

The real question you should ask is:

How many of the invited speakers are not in the top 10% of the field and are there any women that are more accomplished than the list of all male speakers?

Anonymous said...

I think this is a great question. I am an established female professor and I am so used to seeing men at the top of the ticket that I don't even flinch anymore. This post has encouraged me to get off my behind and start proactively sending names of qualified female speakers to conference organizers. If I have provided names ahead and then we still get an all-male lineup then I will pretty much know, definitively that that was a choice-particularly if I confirm that the women were not asked. I think it is better to be proactive than reactive. Thanks for the action-inducing post FSP!

just saying said...

I am in computer security. There are a handful of women. What I decide upon is if there are women on the program committee. An all-male PC signals a narrow perspective, possibly a PC built on closed social ties. So I decrease my expectations for the quality of the event (and thus the attendees). Thus it can be a fairly major factor in my decision to attend.

Elizabeth said...

In the example given in the above comment by Anneliese, if 12% of 10000 possible speaker candidates were female, and we assumed simple random sampling of 10 speakers, there would be a 72% chance that 1 or more speakers were women and a 28% chance that 0 speakers are women. Therefore, statistically speaking, we should not be surprised to see 0, 1, or 2 female speakers at the event. In a field that is even more male dominated, these numbers would statistically change accordingly, and may reach a point in some subfields where it would be statistically improbable to see even 1 feamle speaker. Again this is based completely on assumed random sampling

So then the nuanced question is should conference organizers weigh the sampling of women more heavily than the sampling of men to ensure that there is at least one (or more) female speaker at the event, regardless of the proportion of females in the subfield? My personal opinion is on this question is no because I cannot justify how that would be fair to potential speakers.

Anonymous said...

I appalled myself by voting "No", and I am a fellow FSP who is reasonably aware of these things. Yet I don't parse the conference line-up by gender very often -- sometimes I do. And I simply don't ever remember having this be a factor in deciding whether to attend. Maybe it's because in my field this isn't a big issue?? We are about 25 - 30% female, and conferences that really do not include female speakers are rare. I know that I've been annoyed by this once or twice in the past, but I can't remember which conferences they were. I think I used to care more about this particular issue in the past, but I think I've let this one go.

Peter said...

I think it's important to look at how many women are actually in the field. It's definitely a problem that there aren't more female speakers, but perhaps the way to fix this is from the ground up and get more women involved science.

MamaRox said...

Honestly, it never occurs to me until I get to the conference and sit through the talks. So, no, it's never influenced my decision to attend.

However...

I can remember many times in the last 15 years that I've listened to talk after talk by balding white men. Yet, the audience is filled with all kinds of people... including, young, non-white, women with full heads of spiky pink hair, etc.

"No," you say, "I can't choose my panel just for diversity." But, in fact, conference organizers must think of the BROADER IMPACTS of their choices, beyond just which of their friends will feel slighted if he is not invited to speak.

Anonymous said...

What about a related situation? Suppose I am organizing a conference (it doesn't matter if I'm male or female) and I invite many women. What is the right approach when morons tell you you're doing some sort of "affirmative action" for them, and instead you should invite the best in the field (and by best they usually mean old white guys)?

Anonymous said...

Its a non-issue for me (I'm a man), but I always think poorly on the organizers when this kind of embarrassment happens.

Anonymous said...

A few points:

* Sometimes you just have to go to a conference because of the subject, and you don't have a choice.

* Fellow commenters, do you *really* think that all conference speakers are always chosen strictly with regard to scholarly excellence? Bull. I know plenty of people who got invited because of who their advisor was or because someone was scrambling for a local speaker to save on travel funds or because the organizer wanted to hear one of their buddies speak.

* Conferences that have only male speakers despite the presence of excellent women in the field often do have a certain atmosphere that is not so pleasant for a woman attendee. If I can do similar networking and learn similar stuff at a conference with a nicer atmosphere, I'm voting with my feet. It's not a boycott, it's a desire not to waste my time.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I voted "nonissue" because I go to few conferences.

One of them has as close to a gender balance as one can get in a computational field (more balanced than the field itself).

The other has no keynotes, but has speakers invited by how well the do in a contest that is the whole rationale for the conference. That conference has a very large gender imbalance, but the speakers are not significantly more imbalanced than the audience.

Anonymous said...

In the American Society for Cell Biology, the Women in Cell Biology committee helps make sure no one can say "I couldn't think of a woman in that field"

"WICB Speaker Referral Service
Women in Cell Biology (WICB) Committee Speaker Referral Service. Organizers of scientific meetings, scientific review panels, and university symposia/lecture series are increasingly aware that a balanced gender representation at the podium or in the review process makes for a better and more interesting outcome. WICB has developed two processes that allow organizers, early in meeting planning stages, to receive a list of outstanding women in relevant field(s), women whom they can then consider as invitees and reviewers."

More details are at

http://www.ascb.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=94&Itemid=147

Mark P

Desiree said...

Clearly default thinking has shaped the conference. I am wondering more about who planned it, and also if being part of the conference planning would be interesting to you.
Although how many issues can one person tackle successfully?

Anonymous said...

I was on a course once, the students were a 50/50 ratio. I didn't notice at the time but when we were reviewing the course on the last day, it suddenly dawned on me that there was only one female speaker out of the twenty. Maybe it was just that my undergrad was in a male dominated field but I still find it perplexing that I didn't even notice the weirdly skewed speaker ratios in a biological field and I'm female!