does this conference have no shame? asking for a friend

Op-Ed for HealthCare IT News published on IWD 8 March 2018

I’m a woman. And I was raised a Catholic. So I know a bit about guilt and shame. One of the earliest and most confusing lessons I learned was, it doesn’t do to show how clever you are. That would be shameful. Boys don’t like girls who are smarter than them.

This old “girls are not (meant to be) smarter than boys” cliché may contribute to the bias many of us hold that science is male. It may explain why, for example, when I’ve received a prestigious speaking invitation, a leadership role, fellowship, award, whatever – I’ve often also received a comment or two implying that I’d only got that gig because I’m a woman. You know quotas. Affirmative action. The subtle message is that I couldn’t have earned it on merit alone – consequently there must be more deserving men who missed out. Presumably, I should be ashamed.

Speaking of affirmative action, people of all persuasions have told me they don’t support quotas or targets to address entrenched gender imbalance. That wouldn’t be fair to men. Women will feel uncomfortable. No, we must consider merit only. We can’t let this issue affect quality. Hmm, I think…but increasing diversity will affect quality; it is bound to improve.

Anyway, who made up the rules so that merit means pale, male, and stale?

Look around. Look at every sphere of influence, every sector, every decision-making body. There is already a quota system in place. It’s a quota for men. Men are supported by societal constructs, by systems, structures and policies devised by men for men. Systems and constructs that we all adhere to, unconsciously or otherwise.

I am reminded of an infamous conference in 2015 in a field of science replete with high profile women. A conference with 21 invited speakers. Three of those invited speakers were men named Mark from NSW. Yet none of the 21 invited speakers were women. Not one. The conference website proudly displayed the headshots of the invited speakers. It was magnificent in its uniformity. How could the organisers not see this enormous carbuncle of a problem? Did this conference have no shame? Did they expect that no one would comment?

Did anyone tell those invited men that they only got that gig cos they were men (named Mark from NSW)? Do you think it entered their heads that because of an insidious unconscious quota system for old white men, they had benefited from invisible privilege? Did they consider that in accepting that quota, I mean invitation, they had taken the place of a meritorious woman?

Some men are horrified when they find out – and are quick to respond. Others. Well, clearly they must be the best speakers because they wouldn’t have been invited otherwise. That’s how they got that gig. They earned it. What’s more, I should be ashamed for asking such questions and making them feel uncomfortable.

It’s an awkward truth, but this is what entitlement looks like.

Guess what? It’s not that difficult to get quality and equality in speaker lists for conferences or panels. I’ve done it many times. The trick is to be aware that implicit bias exists, to consciously address it, to plan ahead and, you know, maybe count the number of women and men you invite. I wrote a post – a how-to guide if you will – to help others achieve conference speaker gender balance. I published it in PLOS Comp Biol in Nov 2014 with the title “Ten simple rules to achieve conference speaker gender balance”. It’s been viewed over 35,000 times.

Ten simple rules. 35,000 views. And yet conference organisers still mess up. So, more than a year ago I wrote another 5 rules, to provide remedial help. You can see what I’m doing here, I am trying to be polite. I am trying to help. That’s what is expected of women.

It’s more than four years since I wrote that original post. Over three years since the open-access paper was published. And yet we still end up with conferences like this and this and this (scroll down to see the list of speakers) and this. Some of the men who accepted to speak have signed a #panelpledge. They should be ashamed.

Women I’ve never met contact me on a regular basis, women who are ashamed of their professional society, their organising committee, their field, which has – without any apparent shred of shame or guilt or self-awareness – approved and happily advertised a panel, or conference speaker list with no (or very few) women. How is this acceptable?

It’s not acceptable. I’ve had enough. Now, I have no shame.

Our world can’t wait another 200 years or more for equality. So on this International Women’s Day 2018 I will #pressforprogress by pledging to out conferences, panels, societies that have no obvious regard for equality, and to shame men I know that accept speaking invitations without considering diversity and who thereby contribute to normalising this persistent abnormality.

This is really important. Not just for conferences. For our future. If we are to solve the many challenging problems our world faces, we need to make sure that everyone has the same opportunities to succeed, that there is a level playing field, so that we really do end up with the most meritorious people in positions of power, making the big decisions.

Join me to #pressforprogress. Post those #allmalepanels you see advertised, here. And ask questions, like: before I join, what is this society’s speaker policy? why aren’t there any women on the invited speaker list? Inclusiveness and diversity are key to future success, so why should I pay to listen to a panel that isn’t inclusive or diverse?

You never know, we might just change the world one shame at a time.

3 thoughts on “does this conference have no shame? asking for a friend

  1. I have pressured conference organisers into including women. The problem is just as entrenched in business disciplines.
    I will leave a quote here that I put in my (successful) promotion application a couple of years ago. Conferences, promotions etc. are rituals, invented primarily by men …
    … “[a]ll rituals are paradoxical and dangerous enterprises…Dangerous because when we are not convinced by a ritual we may become aware of ourselves as having made them up, thence on to the paralyzing realization that we have made up all our truths, our ceremonies, our most precious conceptions and convictions- -all are mere invention, not inevitable understandings about the world at all but the results of mortals imaginings” (Myerhoff, 1978, p.83).

  2. This is an excellent commentary on the real world out there. It has to be called out, it is so embarrassing that is still persists. Are men asking their mates to speak because they knew they wouldn’t get an invite if they had to compete on merit for a speaking invite with the women out there?

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