Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Part of the Problem

For a large conference in my general field, I was asked to be the (sub)convener of one particular session within an overall larger theme session. Each (sub)convener was asked to invite two speakers. For the particular focus of my assigned session, there were some obvious possibilities, and I was pleased when the first two people I invited both accepted. My only thought for 'diversity' issues when making these invitations was to try to get at least one non-North American speaker (there were many excellent choices), and in this I succeeded.

Both of 'my' invited speakers are male. I was therefore dismayed when I saw the final list of all invited speakers for the theme session. All of them are male. All of them. Of the ~15 conveners, I am the only woman, so perhaps it was my responsibility to invite at least one woman? (<-- said in a sad, semi-sarcastic tone of voice)

When I was mulling over my possible invitees, there was one female scientist in the group I considered, but it turned out that she was unavailable. Maybe similar things happened with my male co-conveners.

I don't know, but it looks bad (to me) when I see a long men-only list of invited speakers. There are talented women in this general field. I suppose it is possible that all were busy or otherwise unavailable, but even so, it's dismaying when there are so many female students and postdocs, and yet we didn't come up with an invited speaker slate that includes even one woman.

So I ended up being part of the problem, perhaps in part because of the compartmentalization of the speaker-inviting process and/or my mistaken assumption that there would surely be some women invited for some of the sessions, without anyone making a particular effort. I should know better by now.

If we had first pooled our names of potential invited speakers, it would then have been obvious whether the list was extraordinarily imbalanced in some way. We could have discussed overlooked-but-excellent choices for particular topics, and helped each other with suggestions. In addition, some conveners could have realized that when deciding between two or more outstanding choices, perhaps a diversity issue should tip the choice one way or the other. I wish one of the high-level conveners had been keeping an eye on the list and been willing to make some comments to us lower level conveners. Or maybe, since I think it is important, I should just reflexively invite women whenever given the opportunity, on the assumption that no one else will?


T. said...

Oh, that is annoying.
I saw such a slate recently (in the last year) for a smallish conference and was astonished: there are many good scientists who are women in that field, and yet the 17 invited speakers were all men. Both the scientific & the general conference committees (~5-8 each) were also all men. First time I'd ever seen it happen. I avoided the conference on principle.

Anonymous said...

Oh nooooooo, what is your blog-detractor Clarissa going to say about this??? You have let her down AGAIN!!! She might write a devastatingly irrational and inarticulate post about this too! You should have been more aware of your responsibility to the Clarissas of the world when you accepted the job of being a session convener. Also, I don't know if anyone else noticed this, but this post is not ANGRY enough. Please use more ALL CAPS in the future so that you seem angrier.

Anonymous said...

All that I can infer from your post is that, although there were many women working in the field, its men who stood out for their contribution and excellence.

Like, you have mentioned in your earlier post, "I would prefer they offered me the HOD post because I earned it and not as a concession for being a women". This post seems to be contradicting the aforementioned.

Anonymous said...

the previous ananymous comment notwithstanding, there is a need to consider diversity in a pool of speakers just for the sake of the researchers in the field being properly represented. BUT it should not be your sole responsibility. the higher level conveners should take some responsibility for making sure that there is diversity represented in the total list of speakers. Women may make a contribution that for various reasons is not noticed until someone tells you to look for a female who contributes in the field. Also, women should try to make themselves available to speak at conferences rather than turning you down!! (I speak as a woman who has turned down being a session chair due to family responsibilities ;-))

Anonymous said...

Anon. 12.40

Just shut up.

Truly yours,
Dude professor

Anonymous said...

Wow- lot of angry sarcastic anonymous people out there.

As a female graduate student, I would find it discouraging to go to a conference and see an all male speaker list. We female grad students are not ignorant of our respective fields and do start to wonder when there was an obvious equally good (sometimes better) female working on a topic, and yet another male was added to the roster.

It is very discouraging to see the number of women dwindle so obviously as they move through the different career stages. Perhaps not getting invited to speak contributes to this.

It doesn't make me ANGRY, just discouraged.

Anonymous said...

I had to organize something for my university recently. And I asked two prominent women in my field to speak (actually hounded one because she wasn't getting back to me). Of course they are so busy doing so much service, they were too busy to come my lil' ol' symposium. I asked my mentor what to do, and she suggested to invite one of my peers (not as established) to give a talk.

The peer came and gave a great talk, just as good as all the other "more established" men who had come.

I'm glad I went out of my way to make this happen. Actually, I think I should have asked a few more women to get a 50/50 in the speakers. It's important, because I don't think anyone would think to call me up to give a talk alongside such big names... and perhaps they should. :)

another anonymous person said...

It makes me sad when I attend a conference and there are both very few (<10%) talks by women, and none by underrepresented minorities. This is especially the case when I know that most of the speakers who are invited had a personal connection to the organizer!

I agree that the better course of action would have been for the session organizers to ask the sub-conveners to put together a list of potential invitees and submit that list for discussion. Or for the organizers to hold onto a few general purpose invited speaker slots to fill any perceived gaps (whether in diversity or in subject matter) in their overall conference session, if they insisted on independent delegation of speaker invitation to their sub-conveners.

Stephanie said...

I'm sorry to say that it looks like the answer is YES, you should probably just invite an awesome female speaker because if not, this situation could happen again and again. Maybe in 20 years that will no longer be the case. Also, commenters, she clearly is saying that there are a lot of great women in the field and that she wouldn't be un-inviting an accomplished male speaker to invite a slacker female. There are many smart and talented people of both sexes in science. In fact, no one seemed to complain that she was going out of her way to have country-of-origin diversity? Come on, if those non-north-Americans aren't good enough to stand out on their own merits then they shouldn't be invited. <--sarcasm

GMP said...

Sometimes when the big dudes/dudettes decline an invitation, they suggest a postdoc replacement. These younger people almost invariably give great talks and are grateful for the opportunity.

I am organizing a subfield conference in a few months;
I am the conference chair and the only woman on the program cte. These conferences routinely don't have a single woman speaker, which is really annoying. I made a point of inviting several women speakers -- some declined, but we will still have several invited (one a postdoc after a big dude declination) and several contributed talks by women.

But no, it doesn't happen unless someone explicitly pays attention to bringing in women and makes sure people follow through. And that someone has to be a woman, still, which is depressing.

Alex said...

I'm on the board of a local professional organization that has 9 events/year. It's been a roller coaster on trying to get gender balance. We came out of our first planning meeting with a proposed roster that was 1/3 female without any deliberate effort. Great! Then all 3 women bowed out for a number of reasons, and when asked to suggest replacements suggested colleagues of theirs...who were all male. So I raised the issue and some people went silent but others stepped up. There was a flurry of effort to at least get 1 woman on the roster, and that succeeded, but then the meeting came within an inch of being canceled for a whole bunch of complicated reasons.

Fortunately, some of the men nominated by women punted, one of them sending it back to the woman who demurred (he outranks her, and I think she suggested him because she thought the manager should represent the organization) and the other in turn nominating female colleagues. So we still wound up 3/9. Not great, but far better than 0/9 last year.

This year's work has been such a roller coaster that I plan to sit out next year. I suppose I could make some equity-oriented suggestions from the sidelines, but after seeing how stressful the behind-the-scenes work is I'm a bit uncomfortable offering a suggestion without joining in the work.