March 21, 2012 / Opportunity

Part of the Problem (overlooking women)


The following article is cross-post with the express permission from the blog Female Science Professor. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

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?

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