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Female chemists protest all-male conference lineup

Chemistry Without Women
February 24, 2014

“It happened again – another major theoretical chemistry conference features an all-male program.” That’s the opening to a new petition calling for the boycott of the 2015 International Congress of Quantum Chemistry conference in Beijing. The petition has attracted lots of support – and some criticism – and highlighted what many see as the persistent, if unintentional, sexism in academe and in the physical sciences in particular.

The online petition, written by three prominent female scientists, continues: “Are there no women in theoretical chemistry? Hardly. The Women in Theoretical Chemistry web-directory lists more than 300 female scientists holding tenured and tenure track academic positions or equivalent positions in industry and other research establishments pursuing research in theoretical and computational chemistry, biochemistry, material science, as well as theoretical molecular/atomic physics and biophysics. Many of these women are far more distinguished than many of the men being invited to speak at these conferences.”

It asks those feeling as “fed up and frustrated as we do” to denounce the “biased practice, which we hoped would be obsolete long ago” and notes that signatories “do not endorse and indeed recommend boycotting” the conference.

Emily Carter, founding director of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University; Laura Gagliardi, professor of chemistry at the University of Minnesota; and Anna Krylov, professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California, started the petition this month in response to a preliminary published program for the Beijing conference featuring 24 invitees, five chairs and honorary chairs – all of whom were men.

Conference organizers have since taken down the list, saying that efforts already were under way to make it more inclusive and that the final program will include a number of women scholars.

In an interview, Carter said she began boycotting all-male speaker conferences in 2001, when a major scientific conference featured no women in a lineup of 40 speakers. She said she “wished" she was surprised that it was still happening 13 years later, but wasn’t. Nevertheless, she said of the recent conference lineup, “What kind of message does that send?"

Krylov said she read the program list with “fatigued frustration,” and moved to create the petition only after years of reading similar lists and hearing all-male speakers at conferences.

“The pattern is always the same: we would alert conference organizers privately; they would patch the program by adding a few female speakers (often after the program has been released), sometimes, we would be attacked and chastised for being pushy; then, the next time around the story repeats itself,” she said via email. 

Krylov attributed the phenomenon to a complex blend of gender stereotypes and biases, “cultural baggage” and a bit of “cronyism.”

Carter said she didn’t think conference organizers were “malicious,” and chalked their actions up to the human tendency to gravitate toward similar people – in this case, men. That explanation is in line with the findings of a recent study that found having even one woman on a panel organizing committee makes a significant difference in gender diversity among invited speakers. And the problem isn’t unique to the physical sciences; philosophers have called for boycotts of all-male speaker conferences, for example.

Still, Carter said the organizers should have known better.

Women are underrepresented in the sciences for a variety of reasons, including that they often feel they must choose between family and a demanding career, and don't see how to do both successfully, she said. Men, on the other hand, "feel no such sense of needing to make a choice and that they will have others to help them manage family obligations, so they proceed onward up the career ladder." But speakers should be at least as diverse as represented in the profession. One metric for that could be the fraction of female principal investigators on federal grants, she added.

According to data from the National Science Foundation’s chemistry division, 88 women and 340 men received grants in 2013.

The women circulated their petition among colleagues, including through the longstanding Computational Chemistry List, or CCL listserv. The petitions had garnered some 1,450 signatures as of Sunday and mostly positive feedback. One signatory wrote: “Gender bias is science is just plain wrong. Also, how much excellent science is lost because of women are forced out of science?” Another said: “This kind of quantifiable bias is the easiest to call out and a good place to start. There is an avalanche of little things our community -- and academia in general -- does to make women feel unwelcome, but abolishing these major embarrassments is an important first step.”

The outcry over the preliminary program also sparked conference organizers to remove it from the conference website, for now. The program page is blank. A page with information on speakers contains three confirmed scholars (all men) and a statement saying that the organizing committee “apologizes for having made a partial list of speakers public under the request of some invited speakers.” It says the list was “imbalanced in several ways and has caused unnecessary misunderstanding.”

The statement continues: “The organizing committee has worked under the instruction of the governing body, the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science, and is trying the best to give a complete list of speakers with full considerations of area, research field, gender, interests, broadness, etc.”

On a web page dedicated to updates about the petition, Krylov posted a letter of apology from Joseph Michl, president of the academy and a professor of chemistry at the University of Colorado at Boulder. It says: “Please accept my sincere apology for the premature public release of a partial speaker list. The gender representation among speakers at the Beijing [conference] will be balanced, as it was at the preceding [conferences].”

Michl’s letter says conference organizers, including Zhigang Shuai of Tsinghua University in Beijing, were “performing a difficult balancing act with regard to gender, geography, and subdisciplines. Please kindly give them the benefit of the doubt until you see the final list. A large fraction of the people already on the list was outside the control of the organizing committee (medalists, newly elected [academy] members, previous organizer).”

In an email, Shuai said he erred in making the partial list public and “deeply apologized” for having made female colleagues feel “underrepresented in our field.” He said he originally invited two women speakers among a list of mostly obligatory (by virtue of their positions in the association) male invitees, but that the two women had not responded before he posted the preliminary program.

Even before the petition, Shuai said, he had asked Michl for recommendations about female scientists to help fill the remaining one-third of speaker slots. He said the past three academy conferences have featured 10 female speakers out of 102 total and that this conference “will have a much higher portion of female scientists, regardless of the boycott movement.”

He continued: “Personally I believe this boycott has no base, and my efforts had already been under way to eliminate the existing discrimination long before this boycott movement. There are many other ways to increase the public awareness of ‘Women in Science.’ Boycott a major international conference is too much radical [sic] and reminds me [of] the Cold War.” 

In an email, Michl said he took responsibility for the list. “There should have never been an initial all-male list, not even an unpublicized one! The three women who formulated the petition, and all people, women and men, who have signed it, have performed a very valuable service with an impact far broader than theoretical chemistry alone.”

Michl said organizers are working to add women to the line-up and when the final list is published, the ratio of male to female speakers should be five to one.

The petition writers have said it will remain active until the situation is "completely rectified," and that they hope the proportion of female speakers exceeds the historical conference average of 10 percent.

The petition has received criticism beyond Shuai’s.

Jim Kress, founder of the KressWorks Foundation, focused on the application of systems engineering in cancer research, responded to the petition on the CCL listserv with the following comments: “Has anyone determined the number of black/ Hispanic/ Asian/ American Indian/etc. speakers to ensure there is no ‘racial inequality’? How about the number of speakers from every country on the planet to ensure these is no ‘ethnic inequality’? How about the height of the speakers?  Has any ensured there is no ‘vertical inequality’ by making sure that people of all stature are ‘properly’ represented?”

It continues: “What about weight?  We wouldn't want to promote ‘Girth Inequality’, now would we? What about age? Hair color? Shoe size? Marital status? Claimed sexual orientation? Eye color? Nose length? Ability to hear? Ability to see?  Ability to walk? Ability to talk?  Every other ‘disability’ status? As one can see, once CCL starts down this path there is no end to the amount of whining and complaining that the list will have to endure. It will render CCL a wasteland of ‘Political Correctness.’ ”

Kress declined to comment on the post. But other CCL followers, including Christopher Cramer, associate dean of academic affairs and professor of chemistry at Minnesota, have responded in defense of the petition writers, and in defense of efforts toward diversity in chemistry in general.

“What if it's a woman who has the next big breakthrough idea that advances our field dramatically?” Cramer wrote in a lengthy response, in which he cited a 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States showing that lab managers favor male applicants in the hiring process over female applicants, even when their qualifications are identical. “And, what if she can't get that idea recognized as quickly precisely because implicit bias slows appreciation for her scholarship?”

He continued: “You'll suffer, too, as you won't be able to offer your clients a service that you otherwise would have become more rapidly aware of. We all like to believe that cream rises to the top, but, in all honesty, ‘it's not what you do, it's who you know’ goes a long way in science, too.”

In an interview, Cramer said he wouldn’t be attending the Beijing conference, in part because of the program oversight. “I’m not interested in being part of an organization or conference that sends that kind of message,” he said, noting it was a “particular thumb in the eye” to the many scientists who already are “sensitive” to gender equity issues.

"Nothing to see here" attitudes such as Kress's don't help solve the problem, he added.

In an email, NSF spokeswoman Ivy Kupec said diversity was “key to good science.” She added: “In fact, scientific research relies on having an assortment of perspectives and experiences, which goes beyond gender differences. When we expand our outlook, we can more effectively solve problems and advance science.”

Krylov said she hoped the petition had ramifications beyond the Beijing conference.

“The culture needs to change, and it will not happen on its own,” she said. “We need to expose the existing issues and educate our colleagues (men and women alike). We need to make women’s achievements visible and fairly recognized.”

She added: “I am hoping that this campaign will make future conference organizers more open-minded to seeing female achievements and more sensitive to these issues.”

 

 

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