Monday, November 24, 2008

Scientifiques avec Quelques Frontières

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.


Anonymous said...

Good for you, FSP. I'd hate to be associated with a conference which proclaims that scientists are men, even if 99.99% participation is men. But I'm not sure I would have written to ask about getting it changed. That is, until now. You're an inspiration; now if I encounter something like this, I will insist on change too.


quietandsmalladventures said...

thank you! obviously there are a large group of us non-men scientists.....what exactly would that make us? evolved?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for speaking up.
My advisor often says "son of a bitch", and I always correct him with: "daughter of a bastard".
He likes it.
Also, I think in order to be fair, women scientists also need to not just refer to scientists as female. I read a book by a famous female scientist in which she refers to all scientists as female. That is not right, either.

Ms.PhD said...

Good job, FSP! It's amazing how much these little things help women feel more welcome in science. It actually makes a HUGE difference.

And to the last Anon, I think it's good to use "she" sometimes. The first time I had a professor who did this was in college, and I remember being pleasantly shocked to discover how foreign it sounded.

The point is to draw attention to how often "he" has been used in he past, and make people aware.

When awareness becomes the norm, we can switch back to using the clunkier "one" or some other gender-neutral pronoun.

I think the women's movement too offers suffers setbacks from the moral highground of premature equality. We're not equal yet! Let's worry about being paragons of politically correct when the rest of the world has caught up with us.

Anonymous said...

Once I read an on-line article, part of a series on career development, in one of the leading general science magazines. The article was about peer reviewing, and referred to scientists in general terms (ie people), except for a negative statement which was in the female voice. I wrote to the editor, the kind of thing I never do, and to his credit, he changed the text immediately in the website. He explained that he tries to alternate he and she in a text, but by accident, it ended up sounding really nasty. Anyhow, the lesson I got, always speak up-- nicely, of course. Chances are, if something bothers you, it will bother other people too.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Yeah, I agree with Physioprof. When I've voiced suggestions to change pronouns, etc. to be gender neutral, I've been accused of being overly sensitive or "like, one of those--what do you call them?-- feminazis."

Glad your colleague was a little more tolerant than the people (see? not hard to do!) I've encountered in the past.

Sablivious said...

Kudos for taking the time to do this and preventing people feeling excluded (plus it would have been a bit embarrassing for a conference to that let that type of thing through).

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the original writer probably would be annoyed. You know what? TFB. Science requires accuracy.