Gender bias is terrible at scientific meetings

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJust time for a quick post. It is bad and getting worse. Are we women invisible? Are we a distraction? Inadequate? What is it? Check out this post from Jonathan Eisen here. Or look at the latest from Jabberwocky here. Or look at the speaker list for a multicellularity meeting I’m going to in September, here. Or the KITP meeting I went to earlier this year, here. Who is funding this bias? What are you personally going to do about it? What do I tell the brilliant, creative, hard-working young women in my field?

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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 Genber bias, Scientific meetings. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Gender bias is terrible at scientific meetings

  1. Nancy Dudek says:

    I only speak locally because it is hard to get away from the family without coming home to insanity. Maybe I am part of the problem.

  2. Greg Hurst says:

    I also only speak locally because it is hard to get away from the family without coming home to insanity. Hopefully that makes me part of the solution!
    I suspect sex bias in parental care is one of the largest factors in this multivariate analysis.

  3. Liz says:

    This is a real problem! But be heartened–the annual Biophysical Society meeting in Feb has many, many women speakers. The session in which I’m speaking (mechanosensing in eukaryotes) is 3 women and 2 men and the other sessions look good, with at least one woman in each session. It wasn’t the case last year, so I suspect they made a major effort. I have to say that I am much less intimidated once I saw my co-speakers!

  4. Rhonda Snook says:

    I was recently asked to be part of an editorial team for an evolutionary reference text. My goal? To invite as many women as contributors as I could for the topics I was assigned. It took me a bit more time to identify invitees – AND to not go to the “usual suspects”. Nearly everyone agreed to contribute. And I’m glad because in the end most of the other contributors in other topics are men. When everyone is busy, and it takes that little bit of extra effort to identify women contributors, it’s easy to default, even unintentionally, to the male-biased norm. However, that little bit of extra effort will do a tremendous service to promote the visibility of women academics.

    • Good for you. We may not understand why even women who care have a harder time coming up with women, but we do know it is worth the effort, and they are as good or better than the men our crazy brains latch onto first!

  5. Jennifer Kovacs says:

    Hi Joan- Your post (and its timing) is perfect. Right now I’m at SMBE and the nearly complete lack of women speaking In the plenary sessions is shocking. And it’s not like amazing women scientists like Mariana Wolfner aren’t here, they are, they’re just not giving the big talks. A friend of mine crunched the numbers and I’ll have her post them here.
    Also I wasn’t expecting to see a picture of myself when I clicked on the link to this article, so that was a fun surprise. Great meeting you at Evolution, and thanks again for the blog.

    • Hi Jennifer, Thanks for the comment. I should have asked your permission for the photo, so am glad you don’t mind standing in for yourself and the whole generation of women we need to pay attention to!

  6. a mom says:

    I quit science because I couldn’t balance work & family. I think I had a real chance of making it, and certainly could have stayed in the game longer than I did, but it all just required more than I was willing to give at this time in my life. I have 2 little kids, and my husband already works 6-7 days a week, 10-12 hours a day; I want to see my kids and not have them raised by strangers! Supposedly women like me whose husbands work more than some similarly huge number of hours and who have kids have the lowest odds of making it, and I completely understand why.

    I have seen some of my female friends try to balance their science careers and their family lives, and I would say that I think some of them are just amazing, and I don’t know how they do it! Candidly, I personally feel that some are short-changing their families, other their work.

    So, to me, bias issues are very important, but there is also the very real problem of balancing families and work. We could debate this for several years and still never resolve the question, but I personally believe that on average, biologically, women are more inclined by nature to nurture young children than men are. I say on average because obviously there are many exceptions, among both women and men. And, in addition to any truly inherent, biological inclinations, there are a thousand cultural expectations as well, of course, and bias.

    In any case, in a world where women do more of the child care, how can we ever compete on even footing in a scientific world when the rules of the competition reward more hours put into work? If you take a male scientist with kids, with a wife who takes care of the kids, makes all the doctor and dentist appointments and gets everyone to them, probably does more than half the housework, and facilitates her husband working long hours, and compare his work with an equally talented and trained female scientist with kids and with a husband who works a huge number of hours himself, on average, who will win the competition for tenure, for awards, for everything — completely aside from any issues of bias? The idea of postponing tenure decisions while kids are little is a step in the right direction, but just a step! As long as this is the system we live in, fundamentally, how can women, on average, succeed at the level that men do?

  7. Jennifer, I’d love to see the numbers you get. I was at SMBE and the organizers suggested that ~20-25% of speakers were women. I offered to go through the previous years and see if there has been an upward trend, and also spoke with some SMBE council members about how to improve diversity among conference speakers. I’m hoping to help outlines some guidelines for SMBE14.

    I’ve been on a planning committee for an annual symposium, and like Rhonda mentioned, I’ve made a big effort to consider diversity when considering what speakers to invite. I don’t think it’s that my brain latches onto men more than women, it’s that the goal is to invite high-profile, established, successful scientists, and given past gender bias, the majority of established, high-profile scientists are older, white men. There’s also a confirmation bias. If most of the invited speakers are of a particular demographic, those are the ones that new investigators are going to first become familiar with. And the cycle continues. Because of that, our committee has really taken it upon ourselves to consider up-and-coming researchers; those who have conducted great work, but aren’t necessarily the “go-to” giants in the field. That has helped quite a lot.

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