Cranky about overwhelmingly male symposia

A retirement symposium for a dear colleague is no place for complaints. No doubt all the people talking are fond of and close to him. He is no sexist, was one of the first people to welcome us to Wash U. So why is his symposium so male biased? Perhaps it would be better for this piece if I were more or less anonymous like Female Science Professor, who has a wonderful blog. The reasons I am not anonymous are many, too much for here.

Let’s break the sexism of this particular symposium down. The retiree is male and so is his department chair, so I’ll exclude them, though one might wonder why the chair is male and if a woman has ever been chair of that particular medical school department. There are nine other speakers. Only one of them is female. She is introduced by a woman, as is only one of the guys. Her talk is about the retiree, and science many years ago in his lab, not about her own current science the way most of the other talks are. The other nine speakers are evenly split between those from my institution and those from elsewhere. Surely there are qualified women from both places that could have spoken. The retiree himself has had female students that would qualify.

I know some of these people. They are well-meaning, friendly people who do not ignore women scientists in conversation (yes, it happens). I don’t know who chose the speakers or who had any oversight of the choices. What I do know is that there is one woman only. Did no one notice? Did someone think one was enough?

If Nature can write an editorial about its own bias, why can’t we generally understand that this is a problem? Plenty of groups do realize. Why can’t we realize that for decision makers, women and men alike, women speakers are slower to come to mind, so we have to pay attention.

Maybe you are someone who still wonders whether or not it matters, so long as the talks are good (they were). Won’t women and men equally learn from excellent science? Does the gender of the speaker matter? Yes. It matters. Young women scientists in the audience and even those that do not come but see the announcement and list of speakers will get one more reminder that this is a place they don’t really belong. The men in the audience will be less likely to notice the gender bias, but they too will be harmed, for everyone loses when good minds are excluded.

I feel sad to bring this up at a joyous celebration of an esteemed colleague. But we need continuing reminders of this problem. Nature told us. Many studies tell you. I’m telling you not with vague generalities but with a specific example happening today in the closing days of 2012. I will keep doing this. I hope you do too.

But I don’t want to end on a negative note, so I’ll just point out that the 2012 awards given out by the Animal Behavior Society went mainly to outstanding women. In some quarters people pay attention. When they do, there is no shortage of qualified women.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Scientific meetings, White male bias and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Cranky about overwhelmingly male symposia

  1. Liz says:

    Check out a workshop in my field (plant membrane biology), looks like 2-3 women out of 32 invited speakers!

  2. Liz says:

    Oh, and I am not one of them!

  3. Nancy Dudek says:

    Part of me resents the ‘invited speaker’ protocol. Why not leave space for volunteers who are eager to present their research? At a retirement event self-nominated speakers may not be appropriate, but surely workshops, symposia, etc would benefit from self-nominations. Hopefully, half of them would be women!

  4. Self nomination is an interesting idea. However studies have shown that men are more likely than women to self nominate. I’m very interested in alternative formats for symposia like the wonderful ones that Lawrence Krauss has organized at Arizona State University under the general theme of Origins, Origins has posters. It has very short talks, perhaps 7 minutes, followed by 20 minutes of discussion. It has popular events so the community can also benefit when these great people come to town. One way of getting more people is to see who agrees to come to an event and then choose some of the speakers from that list. In 2013 I’m organizing a retirement symposium and a symposium at a meeting. I’ll keep you posted on how those go, but I guarantee we will have diversity.

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