Microbial 'omics

a post by A. Murat Eren (Meren)

Table of Contents

Elisabeth Bik recently mentioned this conference on Twitter to highlight its serious gender imbalance:

I was very embarrassed to learn about it as I am one of the speakers. As you go through the list, you see how much room for improvement there is. Here I am spontaneously writing about it for two reasons.

The first reason (which in fact was the main and the only reason to write this as of last night) is this: what started on Twitter continued in multiple e-mail threads that included some of the organizers of the conference, and I had the opportunity to observe these conversations. Since not everyone is on Twitter to present their side of the history, I thought I could take this responsibility to share what I learned during those e-mail exchanges. I was granted permission to summarize some of the key points.

The second reason is because I realized my own conformism despite my best intentions, and better understood my role in this societal problem. This was not even supposed to be a part of this post, but it became clear to me literally as I started writing, and I thought I must admit it openly in case it becomes helpful for someone else in their own journey.

A genuine but failed attempt to increase diversity at the conference

How come this conference ended up with only 3 female speakers versus 14 male speakers?

One thing I learned from the e-mail thread, which relieved me very quickly, was that the organization committee did reach out to women. Yet, their attempts to bring them on board failed as for 7 invitations they sent out, they got only 1 positive response. In comparison, out of 18 invitations that was sent out to men, they got positive replies to 11.

There is a gap between the number of people they reached out to from both genders (7 vs 18), but there is even a larger gap between the number of individuals accepted their invitations from both cohorts (14% vs 61%), which worsened the initial gap dramatically.

While I think everyone agrees that their attempt is not exactly an excuse for the outcome, the fact that they did attempt to avoid this should be enough for everyone to realize that they are not a bunch of evil men who throw their heads back in laugher as they stare at the gender gap in the list of speakers. Besides, as far as I could see, they were genuinely upset, very open to criticism, overall thankful for all the suggestions they received, and they were willing to implement them for the next year. I have a lot of respect for everyone involved, and I learned a lot from their scholarly attitude in the face of criticism. For me it was one of those little things that make one feel like they chose the right profession for themselves.

Witnessing these discussions showed me multiple things instantly that I wanted to mention:

  • It is imperative to highlight gender and minority issues because it truly motivates people to try to do better.

  • Even behind the most frustrating diversity failures there may be individuals who failed while trying their best.

  • Trying to do better requires a relentless fight –both from the organizers, and the attendees.

Although I masterfully removed myself from these observations, then I realized something more.

A challenge for everyone to address: Conformism of the educated (Exhibit A: Me)

How educated I am is certainly open to debate (as one of the PhD students I’m working with kindly reminded me today while we were discussing the contents of this blog post). But by just looking at titles and positions, one would rightfully assume that I have much less room to get away with via ignorance. That’s why it was extra upsetting to realize how inappropriate my initial relief was when I learned that there was an attempt to increase diversity, and it was OK for me to feel less bad even though it wasn’t successful.

From the e-mail conversations, I could see that all the women scientists the committee reached out to (just like the ones who are currently listed among the speakers) were known for their excellence in a field that is dominated by men. As our collective awareness of the lack of diversity in the fields of STEM increases, our motivation to correct this embarrassing situation gets stronger, too. Which is good. But clearly, we don’t yet know how to address this issue fully, and maybe some of us don’t even understand how far we are from being a part of the solution. To highlight the latter point here I will volunteer myself as a case study: as a male speaker in a list of many other male speakers, I almost fully freed myself from my embarrassment right after I learned that the committee did try to reach out to women, too. It took me some time to realize that this very attitude was the part of the problem.

On the one hand, I am not oblivious to gender issues, and I sincerely acknowledge that we have to fix them along with other issues affecting other minorities. But on the other hand, I am very quick at relieving myself from my responsibilities just because someone somewhere did the best they could. It is similar to understanding that protecting the environment requires everyone’s effort, and then assuming that you are golden just because you are doing your part by asking for paper bags in Whole Foods and driving a Prius.

Because I am not sure if any attempt on my part at this late point to recover from this initial mistake would cause more harm than good, I will simply admit my mistake, and make sure I do not do it again.

I’ll work on mine, but I don’t know can we correct this conformism. Fortunately, it is getting harder and harder to not carefully think about the issues of diversity as many people have already defined the problem quite eloquently:

Ask a group of people to nominate candidates for an important role and the chances are they’ll come up with a bunch of men.
Athene Donald

Discussed how can poor decisions go unnoticed when decision making committee itself lacks diversity:

Homogeneous groups, on the other hand, were more confident in their decisions, even though they were more often wrong in their conclusions. In non-diverse groups, Phillips says, "often times the disagreements are just squelched so people don’t really talk about the issue. They come out of these groups really confident that everybody agreed when in fact not everybody agreed. There were new ideas and different opinions that never got discussed in the group."
Based on the research of Katherine W. Phillips, Katie A. Liljenquist and Margaret A. Neale

Made strategic suggestions for the organizers of large conferences:

Conferences are hard work. The more people you have to spread the burden over, the easier and less stressful it will be. I highly suggest getting a diverse group of people to help you plan your conference. Ideally your organizing group and volunteers should be as diverse as the community you hope to create. This isn't always possible and it's easier to grow this with each subsequent conference, but keep this in mind as you are putting together your committee.
Ashe Dryden

And suggested simple, actionable items for attendees to enforce change:

Dear Men, Have you noticed that a lot of the time it just seems like, gosh, there are a lot of dudes speaking at this conference? Perhaps you've been on a panel and you've looked around and seen man after man after man. Maybe you've thought, it's too bad the organizers didn't think to balance this out a bit more and ask some women to speak too. I love that this has bothered you. And I am happy to tell you about a simple step you can take to help change this: Refuse to speak on all male-panels. Just say no.
Rebecca J. Rosen

A three-step solution for small conferences

Going back to addressing the diversity issues with smaller conferences. What can be done?

Clearly asking high-profile women to accept more invitations is a terrible idea. On the other hand, given the low positive response rate, asking to 70 people instead of 7 is not scalable either, especially for small conferences where most of the effort is on the shoulders of a very small number of scientists who are doing this mostly for altruistic purposes while taking time from their own research.

Maybe by changing the mindset just slightly, conferences that don’t have any budget to hire people to assure a diverse array of speakers could get away without much extra work. Here are three suggestions inspired by points made by others:

  • Start with a diverse organizational committee. Regardless of its size. It turns out this is a suggestion that can be supported with a citation –See Casadevall and Handelsman, 2014 (I thank Jennifer Glass for pointing it out).

  • Admit that junior scientists are OK to invite. Post-docs, and senior PhD students can deliver as much as their high-profile mentors, and one can argue that it is a bigger responsibility for conferences to show their commitment to diversity than bringing all the senior people together. If this sounds reasonable, things will only get better because this will simply become a possibility: Dr. Jane Doe, we would be happy to have you, but we are going to be equally happy to invite one of your women colleagues from your lab who can share your science. Done. Options tripled.

  • Make a firm decision with numbers, and stick with it. Such as, we will have X invited speakers, and X/2 of them will be women. And do not fill it until it is filled with women. Social media can be helpful, a tweet asking for help (i.e., “let us know about your colleagues so we can invite them”) can reach to many.

2 cents.