A semester of women in science

Here's a question I have been pondering this evening and I would like some help getting and answer: How many departments can we convince to field an all female invited speaker slate for the fall semester of 2012?

This was spurred by a twitter conversation with @phylogenomics and @duffy_ma that began with Jonathan Eisen suggesting that he wanted to start a conference with all women presenters.

In my limited scientific capacity I have tried a version of this experiment. I organize my department's seminar series, and a year ago I decided I was going to invite only women and not tell anyone in my department. I was nearly able to fill the semester with all female speakers, but a few visiting scientists ruined my sweep. However, not a single person in the department ever appeared to notice.

But I would like to take this a step further. For the fall of 2012 I would like to not only invite a full slate of female scientists as speakers, but I plan to get my colleagues on board with the plan. Beyond that, I want to get you, dear readers, on board as well. Between you and I, let's see just how many departments we can convince to invite only women to give talks in the fall of 2012.

I plan to bring it up in faculty meeting. I'll inform my department that I'm doing this and ask for suggestions to be sent. By doing it publicly, anyone who scoffs will be announcing that they are an asshole. It may already be widely known, but it never hurts to let these people self identify. By presenting my plan as a done deal, my guess is that people will buy in. Everyone likes something a little different and also likes someone else to do the work.

At the same time, I'm not going to make a big deal of it! No announcements, no drawing attention so that people will say "Oh, look. Affirmative action!" because you and I know that such a sentiment will only make people put a mental asterisk next to the speaker list, which is bullshit. In fact, I have been trying to get three female speakers in for two years and they have been too busy traveling. I'm not looking for any reason for people to view the speaker list as anything different, just like no one would bat an eye if it was an all white sausage party.

I like this evening idea for lots of reasons, but 1) I'm hoping it will help me convince a couple of my favorite scientists to make the visit in support of the notion, and 2) I want my colleagues to at least get it in the back of their mind that we generally invite too many old white dudes.

So help me out people. Who else thinks they can convince their department to spend a semester listing to some awesome science done by kick ass women?

34 responses so far

  • Nice - in thinking about my idea for a conference with all female speakers I was also thinking that it would be best to call no attention to it --

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    ... but calling no attention to it means we have to hope very few people are reading Prof-like Substance's blog. And that's the *opposite* of what I usually hope for.

    Now my head hurts.

  • duffy_ma says:

    I love the idea (but would consider adding in minority men, too). In my dept, each prof suggests at most 1 person per semester. They all need to be approved and coordinated by our seminar coordinator. . . and I'm not that person. But I am trying to convince the person who is to make diversity a priority.

  • DJMH says:

    "However, not a single person in the department ever appeared to notice."

    Betcha you're wrong. Betcha some women grad students and postdocs said an internal "Hallelujah!" but kept their mouths shut because, duh, let's not call attention to this or a d00d will get all "Affirmative action hurts men!" on me and then there will be blood.

  • The president of the Society for Neuroscience gets to invite four speakers to deliver four Presidential Lectures. When Eve Marder was president, she invited four women.

  • Yael says:

    One year, after I went to my field's small conference, a professor asked me for a list of potential seminar speakers. I listed all women or minorities (male and female). Didn't even have to look very hard because they are all leaders in their fields. Only person that noticed was a jerk postdoc, everyone else was very happy with the list. That particular meeting takes an effort to invite women and minority speakers, as well as junior scientists, so it really was a win-win situation all around.

  • gerty-z says:

    Super idea! The way we organize our seminar series I don't think this is possible...yet. Good luck 🙂

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I'll draw attention to the idea here and try and drum up support. I'll also bring it up with the faculty in my department to get them thinking. However, I am NOT going to bill it as a special seminar of any kind at my uni, because that sends the message that we had to convene something unusual to give these people a venue. The only thing unusual is we're not defaulting to the Google image of Scientist.

  • Bashir says:

    Between you and I, let's see just how many departments we can convince to invite only women to give talks in the fall of 2012.

    My department could easily do this given the numbers in my field. Though it'll depend on who is making selections. Some of the greybeards are pretty old-boys-clubby.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Bashir, the point is to take control of the inviting or convince the organizer that this is important. I bet Prof Graybeard's scotch-drinking buddy is available to speak in the spring too.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    You sneaky bastard you!

  • anon says:

    The seminar series hosted by my department this year was ALL male. All white guys, too. I did notice (as a female - not sure if any of the men noticed), and mentioned it to the only woman who was on the seminar committee. She claimed she didn't notice, but that she herself had mentioned a few female candidates to invite, who were rejected by other members of the committee. The seminars delivered so far by the white guys are fine, really, but the lack of diversity among the panel of speakers is inexcusable.

    I like the idea of offering these opportunities to more women, but how to bring it up if you're not an immediate member of senior faculty or the committee?

  • duffy_ma says:

    anon @ 9:48: I wrote to the person in charge of our seminar series and pointed out the lack of diversity. When doing so, I said that I realize that I have, in the past, also tended to suggest white men.

    I asked that he announce, when soliciting nominations for the fall, that we have a tendency to have a seminar series filled with white men, which misses out on many good scientists, and also sends the wrong message to our students. He seems on board. If he doesn't make that announcement, I plan on doing it myself. (I am an asst prof.)

  • Assoc Prof says:

    Huh. I did that in the semester-long series I organized last year without even trying. I didn't realize it until I just read this post.

    How about a series exclusively with underrepresented minorities?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I'm not saying it's hard, only uncommon. I certainly would not object to a UM seminar series, or even just a "No white dudes" one. Let's show the trainees in our departments that they don't have to be white and male to succeed in science.

  • BugDoc says:

    Bringing in role models is an excellent idea, but I find the concept of scheduling an ALL female seminar series somewhat bizarre, just as I would if there were an all-male seminar series. People would not fail to notice it in my field. It's a terrific plan to look at suggestions for invited speakers (each faculty member in my department put in suggestions, so it's not all decided by one person) and ensure that you have an interesting mix of topics, of universities, of gender, etc, but I think such an obvious maneuver would generate more negative discussion than positive. I guess I should be thankful than in my department and in my field, there are quite a few prominent women scientists, so maybe it's somewhat less of an issue than it might be in other fields.

  • Ink says:

    You're cool, PLS. Just wanted to re-mention that.

  • drugmonkey says:

    bugDoc, in just about any field worthy of a seminar series there are WAY more candidates than there are speaking dates. If people "notice" the all woman lineup and chatter about it....GOOD! they need to have that conversation.

  • Just thought I would point out there is a conversation going on about this topic on Google+ after I posted there ... see https://plus.google.com/103101121348859087349/posts/7MG2RdMSm9Q

  • Yael says:

    Bugdoc: "...just as I would if there were an all-male seminar series. People would not fail to notice it in my field."

    We have had "all caucasian male" seminar series and nobody said anything. I think "caucasian male" seminar series is actually the default in my dept and anything else is an anomaly.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    but I think such an obvious maneuver would generate more negative discussion than positive

    Why? If it did, I would happily ask why no one gets upset when the seminars are by all white men. I would be much more interested in THAT answer from these hypothetical angry people.

    People will often toss out the old BS about "We should bring in people because of their SCIENCE!", which as DM and others have pointed out, is total crap. Find me a field where you couldn't identify a semester's worth of female scientist doing awesome work (as good or better than the male couterparts who often get the invites) and I will show you a dead field.

  • My grad department solicited speaker recommendations from the grad students for their seminar series. All I had to do was show up to that meeting and say the names of the people I wanted to invite repeatedly. I routinely filled about a third of the speaker slots with my picks. At least in some departments, students can play too.

  • CoR says:

    Hm, not sure if I'm in charge of the seminar series next year. We've managed 50/50 so far this year, but after making an effort.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I'm both an incrementalist and perhaps a little sneaky. The idea of incrementalism is that a series of small changes can result in large results. My goal would be to change something in an unnoticed way, such that people would think it has always been way I wanted it.

  • Jules says:

    To support the idea of an all female conference:
    the German Physical Society holds an all female physicist conference each year, where everybody can attend but only women give the talks. It'll be held for the 16th time this year and its steadily growing!
    Uncommon ideas might lead to fantastic events.

  • [...] of feminism, Prof-like Substance is quietly lobbying to get everyone to invite only female scientists as speakers for their [...]

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    For some 30 years, more females than males have received Bachelors degrees. Same has been true of Masters degrees for a few years, and I have read that it is now true of PhD degrees received.

    Is your department student population majority female, or lotsa females, anyway? If so, you should be bringing in some female role models among the seminar speakers (and perhaps among the Professors as well). The sex ratio disparity is even greater among non-Asiatic minority groups, so think about that as well.

    If these trends continue, at sometime in the forseeable future, will some one brag of having scraped together a seminar schedule of white males as role models for the minority students?

  • BugDoc says:

    "Why? If it did, I would happily ask why no one gets upset when the seminars are by all white men. I would be much more interested in THAT answer from these hypothetical angry people."

    My point was that I/others would also take notice around here if it was an all white male lineup and find that to be strange planning as well. My view has been shaped over time by discussions with a number of prominent minority scientists that I've worked with over the years. In my younger days, I used to be wholeheartedly in favor of affirmative action-type initiatives (e.g. all women/minority seminar line up), thinking that we were providing opportunities that might normally be diminished by bias. I was surprised to find that successful colleagues who were part of an under-represented minority felt very strongly that affirmative action-type initiatives created a common perception that they were ONLY successful because of special circumstances, not on their own merit. In fact, the 1/19/12 post on FSP addresses this very issue from a reader's email that I think highlights a common issue for women scientists - am I being asked to participate/speak, etc, because I'm a woman? A deliberately planned all women seminar series highlights this problem. So while I'm not really in favor of a push to have an all female seminar series, I am ALL for making sure that terrific women/minority scientists are well represented in every seminar series.

  • Joshua King says:

    Instead of doing something that seems largely aimed at calling attention to how "unbiased" you are, why don't you do something more meaningful. For example, work tirelessly to get more women hired as faculty in your department. Or, develop a series of symposia aimed at educating your University faculty about the inequity of hiring women scientists as part of a grant's Broader Impacts. Taking a "holier than thou" approach with your departmental symposium probably isn't as effective, and may in fact result in annoyance with your approach (or you) rather than a focus on the issue at hand (faculty hiring bias). When I've scheduled semester seminars I aim for the grad. student balance of our department (60-70% women) of women speakers, but focus as much on bringing in exciting people. The result is usually 50-80% women, and lots of cool talks that everyone enjoys. Focus on solutions, not making yourself feel good.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    BugDoc - This perception is exactly why I would not be drawing attention to my efforts, as I explained above.

    Josh! It's been a while since we've heard from you. Glad to know that my writing still pisses you off as much as always. Clearly you've seen the entirety of my efforts on behalf of increasing the non-white-male proportion of PIs and their influence in this one post on a particular topic. Thanks for setting me straight yet again.

  • Joshua King says:

    PLS, let's be clear: I generally like what you are doing here and I suspect in the real world I would too. But my opinion doesn't matter, so why reply? Criticism is so old fashioned, anyhow, it is really best just to ignore it.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Josh, let's also be clear that extrapolating judgment on an entire landscape based on looking at a rock is hardly constructive, or even valid criticism. Is jumping to unsubstantiated conclusions the new "in" thing.

  • Joshua King says:

    YOU asked for comment. I'm reading in the abstract so how should I know about all of your other inspiring acts of humanity. The criticism is of how you wrote up your way of going about an all female seminar series. It came off, the way you wrote about it, as self-serving. Obviously, that point must have resonated.

    Whether you like it or not, I'm your peer and you solicited advice. As a peer, I judged you on what you asked for comment on. These things happen on blogs.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Awwww, missed you too.

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