Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Qualified Females/Deja Vu

Some American science organizations (professional societies, funding agencies) require that the meetings they sponsor have some representation from underrepresented groups, including women. At one such recent meeting, the male organizers (an international group of Europeans and Americans) were required to have at least one woman speaker give an invited talk. So they invited one (but only one), and met the minimum requirement. There is no lack of women who could have been invited to speak, and in fact I think it is quite a feat to organize a meeting in this particular field without involving more women.

With reference to this meeting, a group of men (all Europeans, as it happens) were discussing this American policy of inviting women. They thought it was a good example of absurd American behavior, and one said, with reference to being forced to invite at least one woman: “But what if there aren’t any qualified ones (to invite)?”. One of the men objected to the premise of that question – the one who told me about this (knowing full well that he was providing me Blog Fodder).

It is very difficult to organize a meeting on any topic in my field of science without involving women. Although men outnumber women, there are sufficient numbers of women such that any meeting, even those that are very focused, will attract women participants. Aside from the question of why more women weren’t invited to speak at the meeting in question, and even considering my deep cynicism about gender issues in the sciences, it still amazes me that any man in the physical sciences today can seriously ask the “what if there are no qualified women” question as if it is a sane question.


Schlupp said...

Ha! I well remember the loud laughing at my European PostDoc institution, when inviting women was suggested. So far, they do a wonderful job of avoiding it, even if it means they have to go and really look hard for a man.

fruchtzwerg said...

another absurd example: there's a conference coming up which has "women" in its title/theme. one of the big organisations in my field is sponsoring a session and it needed an "old, white man" (his words) to point out to them, that they only came up with "old, white men" as invited speakers. to talk about the role and issues of women. soo typical!
ps.: i love your blog!

Anonymous said...

I spoke at a European meeting in a biomedical science field in mid-September, and was appalled to find that of 20+ speakers only three were women and only one received a "full talk". This is a field where women are well represented, and where I could, off the top of my head, name 10 additional women who could have been invited to speak. An American meeting with a similar representation of women would never have received funding, rightfully so. It was also very ironic that even in Europe the graduate students at the meeting were more than 50% women. I think in this case many of the American's in the audience did notice the discrepency, which is some progress.

For the record, the organizers were both male--they assembled an advisory committee which included one woman and three other men but from my conversations with committee members some learned they were on this committee when they read the meeting program.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

so are these rules "forcing" invitations useful? Or do they just lead people to conclude the underrepresented cant be any good because they have to be forced to invite them?

Anonymous said...

I think it is a very valid question. There are NO women in my sub-field, and within the broader field, I can think of only one. While she is *extremely* well-qualified, she only goes to meetings about once every other year due to age concerns. Tangentially, you make the assumption that any woman who was invited, accepted the invitation--perhaps women were invited but declined.

IMHO, it is ridiculous to require quotas to be met for meetings for the very point that the above anonymous poster brings up. Do you want to go to a meeting that only the best of work is presented (regardless of sex, race, sexual orientation, etc), or do you just want to see a variety of genders/colors at the podium to adhere to some superficial PC agenda?

Vodalus said...

Since I've only recently been forced to examine how women are treated in higher education, it blows my mind every time I hear of how sexist Europe is. Whoever does PR for the EU does a great job, because I always used to think that it was the great bastion of social liberalism.

I'm from the blood-red Deep South and even down there, credit is given where credit is due. Women scientists might not be welcomed with open arms, but the old boys at least admit to their existence!h

Unknown said...

As a computer science student I remember sitting in my professor's office and hearing him wonder out loud why, with more women than men recently enrolled in our major, weren't there any smart ones.

I was at the time the President of the ACM and getting the highest grade in his class.

I don't necessarily agree with quotas. I'd rather be picked because of my accomplishments than my sex, but some people just can't look past the sex to see the accomplishments.

Rachel said...

On a related note, I was talking to an older woman recently who works in PR and obviously attends and organises lots of meetings etc.
She told me that in many cases, not only is she the only woman in the room, but she is also expected to pour the tea/ coffee, even though she is at the same professional level as all of the men.
She said her tactic was to turn to one of the men and say, for example, "David... Why don't you be Mother today?"

Apparently it usually works, but it seems so sad that she has to do it at all.

Also, Europe is as sexist as everywhere else, as far as I can see. (Do you include the UK in that, by the way, or does it sit on its own?)

And the quotas are good, if only because they force people to examine their own behaviours and attitudes. Although it is a shame that they have to be used. I'd much rather see women properly represented without them, but failing that, any reasonable method will do.
(Apologies for the long post)

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, sexism is still very much alive in Europe. Why, at the faculty meeting today we were discussing a hiring proposition with (shock!) a woman on first place, a female scientist so qualified I can't believe she would want to come to our school.

"Oh," the search committee head said, "she's getting married to a man from (our town) this fall". I was speechless as then another colleague cut in: "Oh, that's great, getting married, because it means she was able to get a man."

*Where* do I get clue sticks? I need a dozen....

Schlupp said...

The woman of science, it's not the EU (as in the big transnational organisation) fault. In fact, 'them bureaucrats' try to address it and are usually accused of planing to 'bring down meritocracy in sciene.'

anonymous (one of them), no, forcing the invitation is NOT the root of thinking women might not be good enough otherwise. Proof: When people are not forced (as in many European countries), they don't invite women either.

Mr. B. said...


Many years ago the university where I work could not find any qualified women to hire as faculty members.

They were forced to by court order. Many excellent female faculty members have been hired since then.

Sometimes quotas are good and necessary when people refuse to do the right thing on their own.

End of sermon.


Anonymous said...

I'd like to followup on my earlier comment and the responses. I wish we lived in a world where rules to ensure fair representation were not necessary. However, we do not. In my own field and in any major field of biology, more than half of the grad students are women, and they are certainly no less qualified. In fact, in graduate admissions we sometimes wonder whether we should institute affirmative action for men. However, as you move up the scale, fewer and fewer women are found. This does NOT reflect ability. It does reflect many complex issues of societal pressure, disproportionate burden in carrying for children, and outright discrimination. However, there still are many qualified women at the top level. None of the women who came to mind in my thinking about this meeting was "not qualified" I agree that it is possible some declined--however, in my mind the organizers then need to simply go on to other women. It doesn't need to be perfectly 50:50 but in an area where science is nearly 50:50 men and women 10:1 is not acceptable. It sends the wrong message to the students both men and women. PC--no, simply C--its the correct thing to do.

Mark P

Vodalus said...

Sorry for any confusion regarding the use of "EU" to label Europe. I don't blame the government for deliberately excluding women from science. I blame the Europe Chapter of the Old Boys Club. Citing the EU was just the fastest way to indicate the particular nations that I wanted to indicate.

But someone is doing a good job of whitewashing the concerns of women in Europe. I say it again: given the otherwise substantial social liberalism in most European countries, I would have never suspected this. I also think that this lack of publicity except in feminist science blogs is a bit of a shame. I know of several female graduating PhDs at my school who are considering or accepted post-docs in northern Europe. It is a well-known fact that many people starting post-docs in Europe wind up stuck there due to quirks in Trans-Atlantic job hunting. I wonder how many of these women would reconsider the move if they were also aware of how bad the glass ceiling is in Europe.

Global Girl said...

To The Woman of Science and others speaking vaguely of 'Europe':

As a TCK with ties to both Europe and America, I think you are rather simplifying the situation. I don't think it's very meaningful to speak of "Europe" as broadly as you do - my experiences living as part of Swedish and American society makes the States look positively stuck in the 19th century. In fact, it's part of national imaginery in the Nordic countries to define Self in contrast to continental Europe with gender equality as a major component. If you mean, say, Germany (and I'm mentioning Germany for a reason), then say so. Europe is very inhomogenous on this issue. The discussion isn't going to move forward nearly as much as it could unless we get culturally specific.

Ms.PhD said...

What do you mean? I still hear that question all the time from my colleagues. I hear it so much that I've gotten tired of having the argument about it, because I rarely gain any ground unless I can reel off several names in rapid fire succession. That's the only thing that works- if I tell them who they should have invited.

So I recently had a talk with one of these guys who wants to be enlightened but just doesn't quite know how.

The problem is not that there aren't any women, it's that the only ones they consider 'qualified' are senior professors who are already booked solid for the year, so they say no.

So once they've asked the Usual Senior Suspects, there's no one else to ask, because they refuse to ask younger or less senior women professors.

And god forbid they should invite a talented postdoc or graduate student, even if we're the most appropriate and our PIs would just be talking about our work anyway!

Grrr. I really do hate the ageist hierarchy.

Oh and re: the cultural sexism in Europe, um, this is pretty obvious if you've ever studied, for example, a romance language. It's ingrained in every tiny bit of daily life that some things are female, and some are male. Guess which ones are which?

Europe is generally very traditional in terms of gender roles, while the US is very heterogeneous depending on where you go. But I guess I considered going to Europe seriously enough that I started asking around, and with the exception of Spain, all the women I know who came here from Europe were not going back either because it was too competitive (like France), too sexist (like Italy), or both (like the UK).

Just my indirect, anecdotal experience.

Anonymous said...

The woman of science, you'll be glad to hear, just this post influenced one of those young girls...I myself have been thinking about trying for a post-doc in Europe, and I did not realize this. Now that I've read this blog post and the comments, I remember reading another one a while back, and it makes me think wow, it does sound like science academia is more sexist in Europe! I'd better think about that when I decide if I want to go there - it sure doesn't sound like fun to deal with it!

Anonymous said...

flicka mawa, please don't make any rash decisions based on comments about Europe as a whole. I want to second what global girl said. Europe is very heterogeneous and it really depends on the country and sometimes on which part of the country you're talking about. I strongly recommend talking to people in the country your post-doc position would be and make a more informed decision.

Anonymous said...

I also think that Europe is very diverse and that to say "Europe is more sexist than the US" is just way too generalized to be true. I depends very strongly on which country, which field, which university and which specific group you are in.
However, these examples are really bad, I'd like to know which countries and universities they are from.

Ms PhD, I find your comment on romance languages weird. What do you mean "guess which words are male and which are female"? Well, yes, stupidity is female in French and Spanish (and German), but so are competence and intelligence.
The sentence "All men are created equal" bugs me much more than that. In German the word for person is at least gender neutral and not the same as the one for male, and there is no differentiation between miss/ms/mrs.

Global Girl said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who reacted to the generalization. I understand that it can be difficult to appreciate when you haven't experienced it, but a geographically qualitatively correct image is a culture and language chance at every US state border. Imagine if every time you left your state (if you're US American, of course), you entered another country where people spoke another language, government worked differently, and your prospects as a woman scientist possibly changed. If there are any generalizations to be made on this issue, they won't be made by a few anecdotes of this sort where the nationality of the offenders isn't even mentioned.

I've seen Americans get miffed about being nor not being from a particular part of the country. My parents now live in the American South and bought a book to help people from the American North to adjust culturally. If you consider that a valid reason for not generalizing about American opinions on this, that or the other (such as: "Americans do not think government should interfere with a woman's reproductive decisions" or "Americans believe abortion is murder"), you ought to refrain from such generalizations even more when speaking of differences between actual countries. Imagine how miffed they're going to be, and consider that they will be focusing more on you than on sexism.

Zipi said...

Anyone who makes a generalization about Europe such as "Europe is more/less X than the US" is very ignorant about Europe. Europe is orders of magnitude more heterogeneous than America. Countries like Spain, Sweden, Greece, and Poland have millenia of differences in history, art, culture, language, tradition, government, social organization,...

Also, the same can be said about different branches of science. For example, in mathematics in Spain women represent about 50% in all levels, from students to senior professors. Something similar is true in Portugal, but absolutely not in the UK. If you change to theoretical physics, however, there are very few women.

Ms. PhD., I call BS on your comment about gender of nouns in romance languages indicating sexism. Give some examples, please.

Madscientistgirl said...

Ok I have to tell my story. And those of a few of my friends. I am a graduate student in heavy ion physics. There was a big conference - somewhere in the top three or four most prestigious in my field - held in Slovakia. They advertised a "Ladies' Programme" to take place during the conference, for all of the wives of the real scientists. I wrote to the organizers and complained, in addition to complaining to the people I knew on the international organizing committee. The name was officially changed, but I did not get an apology but rather was told my proposed alternate title "Spouse's programme" was wrong because not all of the people coming along to the conference who were not scientists were spouses of attendees. The organizers were running around complaining about me behind my back to other senior physicists, and I was accused of being "culturally insensitive" and an "arrogant American" by two of my male collaborators, one German man who has lived in the US at least 15 years and an English man. (Although my advisor and a few other senior American male physicists backed me up, but none publicly.) I should add that since my boyfriend is Czech, I have spent at least three months in Prague in the last five years, I know roughly half of the scientists in Prague in my field (and the Czech and Slovak scientific communities are fairly entwined), and of all of the people at the conference I was the only person who was neither Czech nor Slovak who could communicate with the locals at all in their own language. But I was the arrogant, culturally insensitive American.

This "Ladies' Programme" thing and variations on it is quite a problem throughout much of central Europe. And when I was recently visiting the theoretical group at the university in Frankfurt, it was pointed out to me that there are no women hired full time in the theory department, although there is one woman married to a man in the department who is continually given (considerably lower paying) contracts with limited terms. For years in Prague in the particle physics department at Charles University there was a post doc who addressed women using neuter pronouns and proclaimed it was a promotion - and to my knowledge, after some investigating, he was not only not fired, but never even yelled at for that. (I only wish he'd tried that on me...) And a friend of mine, the only woman in her undergraduate class in the Netherlands, had a professor who addressed the class with, "Good morning lady and gentlemen," every day.

I agree that it is important to distinguish between places in Europe but I think it's also important to note that in many ways many Europeans do not view sexism as a social problem but as a "cultural difference" that should be accepted. I have never had a European colleague publicly back me when I have been complaining about sexism in my field.

American in Oxbridge said...

There was a workshop in my field last year held in India, and after looking at the programme I started calling it the "All boys XX conference" which amazingly had gone unnoticed by any of my colleagues who were invited or others in my field. All of whom stopped and thought about it when I joked with my new name. But I guess I should not have been surprised when I saw one of the organizers at a different conference last week. I was watching a female post-doc give a great talk, and it happened to be the only other female in the programme besides me. After she was done, the man (who was chairing the session) said "Let's thank the young lady for her presentation" instead of "Let's thank the speaker..." as he did for all the others. I was just cringing, but I realized that we have so much more work to do than I had previously acknowledged.