Friday, August 04, 2006

Distinguished Women

My department is in the throes of making invitations to outside speakers for our weekly seminar series in the coming academic year, and the Chair has asked in particular that we suggest women speakers as part of a Distinguished Women in Science effort promoted by the Dean's office. I always have mixed feelings about this type of thing.

Mixed Feeling #1/Pro: There have been many years when there were no women speakers for the entire year. It always amazes me that this is possible, given that there are excellent women scientists who could be invited, but the general philosophy of the seminar organizers has typically been to invite their friends or to invite Really Big Names in the field, and both of these categories are rather male. So, for this reason, I support the effort to bring in distinguished women speakers. An added benefit is that grad students and postdocs can see that there are in fact women with successful careers and interesting things to say.

Mixed Feeling #2/Con: Why do we have to make a special effort and designate these speakers in a particular way, so that it is clear that a major reason they are being invited is because they are women? It's true they wouldn't be invited if they didn't also have interesting research ideas and results to discuss, but even so. It's sort of like how some scientific organizations have designated 'special' awards that only go to women, to try to mitigate the problem of gender bias for the major awards. Does this solve anything? I hate it when people say or write things like "She's one of the best female _________s" (fill in the blank with a scientific field). I've seen that in letters of recommendation for faculty positions. When can we remove the adjective? When can we just be chemists or oceanographers or astronomers, for example, and not female chemists, female oceanographers, female astronomers?


Anonymous said...

We had a similar speaker slot at my grad school, and I am similarly ambivalent about such things. I have also won some of these "women only awards" and felt ambivalent about getting them (I would prefer to be designated as "Best X" than "Best Woman X"). On the other hand, when I actually met the other women who won the awards, I realized we were an impressive bunch and felt really proud.

I think a lot of the "cons" of having the special female speaker slot go away when there are at least 3 or more female speakers per year. Then it stops looking like the only way to possibly get a woman is through the quota system-- rather it is a special honor for a distinguished woman! (Not all of them have to official Departmental Colloquium speakers, either-- other seminars will do.)

Anonymous said...

Hi there,
No particular comment to this thread. Just popping in to say that I have the same job as you, and so does my wife. We have both had many of the same experiences that you describe, both gender-specific ("so did they hire you because they wanted her or visa versa?") and non-gender-specific (i.e., proposal hell, etc). Nice to find a kindred spirit.

avocadoinparadise said...

I agree that people shouldn't pigeonhole other people with adjectives like that. For some reason a lot of people are really uncomfortable not knowing the gender of someone (or even something like a pet cat). So this might be why some rec letters use female/male in their text.

On your other point, I am really annoyed by speaker series that include only males. It really makes my blood boil whenever I see a roundtable on tv that includes 9 males and 1 female, or a yearlong speaker series that includes all or predominately men. In my opinion, committees are obligated to do whatever work or research it takes to get a better distribution than this. It doesn't always have to be 50-50 (due to past discrimination I know this would be rough), but they need to give it a good shot. And that shouldn't just include passing the nomination buck to their female colleagues as you might be describing in this post.

Anonymous said...

I think that it is worth to push woman speakers in this case, specially to help woman students to be as ambitious as men (cause male domination has to be fought also in women thoughs).
The cons can be avoided if the speakers are not presented as "Distinguished Women in Science" but as scientists full stop.

To be clearer, that kind of affirmative action should be done at the level of the inviting committee but not presented at such to the public.