Beginning tomorrow here at KITP is a meeting entitled Cooperation and the major evolutionary transitions. It runs for 5 days and has 37 speakers. From the look of the program, there will be more biology than there has been among the physicists in the last two weeks. There are 34 half hour talks with fifteen minutes each allowed for questions. There are sections on conceptual issues; genomics, population biology and molecular evolution; experimental evolution and model organisms; theory, computational biology, and physical considerations; graduate student sound bites; origin of life and ribozyme evolution; and insect sociality. It should be interesting.
But where are all the women speakers? Out of the 34 main speakers there are only 5 women. Is this a field where there are no eminent women? No. Are the organizers all men who never think of women? No to the first point, at least. So why did a meeting on a topic that has plenty of strong women, including women actually attending the conference, end up with such a sorry showing?
I would argue that the most likely reason is explained by work of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, summarized in his great book, Thinking, fast and slow. He divides thinking into System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the fast, subconscious one that makes us grab for the cupcake rather than the apple. It is the one where men come more easily to mind than women when thinking of eminent scholars, for women and men alike, one might argue. With this logic one might argue that the organizers did not think about gender of speakers at all. They simply thought of the best speakers on any given topic and they overwhelmingly happened to be men. This is System 1 acting, unfettered by System 2.
If System 1 is totally in charge, there might be no women at all speaking at the conference. That could be true. Maybe they thought that 5 of 34 female speakers, 14.7% was sufficient. Maybe they thought that if they had more female speakers the quality of the meeting would go down. Maybe they thought that there was balance with one of three graduate students having a 10 minute slot mitigated this imbalance (the woman was added only last week as far as I can see). Honestly, I cannot imagine what they were thinking.
Here is a little more detail on the balance of the sessions. Monday there are 5 men and 4 women. Tuesday there are 8 men and no women. Wednesday there are 6 men and no women, except the short grad student session has 1 woman and 2 men. Thursday there are 5 men and 1 woman. Friday there are 5 men and no women. If you miss Monday, then you will hear women speak for 40 minutes and men speak for 12 hours and 20 minutes.
Why do I think this matters? I think it matters because it is discouraging to women in the field, particularly to younger women. I think it is unfair, for I think there are excellent women they might have invited. Do I not think there are other groups likely to have been excluded if all the thinking is based on System 1? Yes, no doubt, but this one is easy to point out.
Is it not mean of me to criticize a meeting and a workshop I have voluntarily decided to attend? Maybe. It is certainly painful. Why do I not be quiet and pay attention to the material being offered rather than the irrelevant issue of their gender? Because if I say something, maybe someone will notice. Maybe a future meeting organizer will pause and consider that their System 1 is blinding them to excellent female speakers. This is only one of the many issues women in academia face. Actual concrete examples often hit home more than abstract studies. I have written on other examples of this problem, here, and here for example. I will keep doing so.