Tuesday, 29 August 2017
THE PLAN TO END SCIENCE’S SEXIST #MANEL PROBLEM
sARAH SCOLES SCIENCE 08.01.1707:00 AM https://www.wired.com/story/the-plan-to-end-sciences-sexist-manel-problem/?utm_content=buffer46bff&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer IN OCTOBER 2016, the organizers behind a microbiome conference sent promo materials to some prominent scientists. Elisabeth Bik was one of them. With nearly 12,000 followers, her tweets could help publicize their upcoming event in San Diego. But when she scanned the lineup, she noticed that almost every speaker was a man. Add more women, she suggested—or the conference should expect backlash. She was right: Biologist Jonathan Eisen—“Guardian of Microbial Diversity,” his Twitter bio says—brought the biased list to the attention of his 46,000 followers with a blog post called "The White Men's Microbiome Congress." The organizers, Kisaco Research, added more female speakers before the conference convened and issued a penitent statement. Bik, who runs the widely read Microbiome Digest, didn’t raise the alarm at the time. “They looked like they were going to do better," she says, "so I didn't want to make a big stink." But last week she saw the latest speaker list for the Kisaco-organized European Microbiome Congress happening this November: same story. Eisen did, too. Another white men's microbiome meeting from Kisaco #YAMMM #manel #STEMDiversity http://phylogenomics.blogspot.com/2017/07/another-white-mens-microbiome-meeting.html?spref=tw … In the past few months, two other high profile science conferences—Starmus and the World Science Festival—have also ignited internet ire for their lack of representation. And websites exist specifically to point out the most egregious examples: There’s Bias Watch Neuro, an All Male Panels Tumblr, and the hashtag #manel. The Gender Avengers, a community dedicated to hearing women's voices in public conversation, asks professionals to pledge not to serve on such panels. Yes, it's 2017. Yes, this is still happening. “Women tell themselves, ‘Our generation is going to do better. When I'm in my 40s, I'll be the speaker,’” Bik says. “I thought that. It hasn't happened.” Women have experienced underrepresentation over decades and in different departments of study. And it has real-world repercussions: Who enters science and who rises to the top of a field both have a dramatic impact on the type of research that gets done. But people like Bik, and the online communities around them, are working to make it better next time. Really. Starmussed Gender representation has been pretty imbalanced for the VIP-laden Starmus conference's six-year history, in part because organizers pride themselves on inviting fancy people of a specific sort. Nobel laureates, astronauts, Stephen Hawkings—all designations sooted with historical and cultural biases of their own. Although Starmus still doesn’t have speaker stats to boast about—less than a quarter of main-stage speakers have been women—more female scientific stars appeared at the June meeting in Trondheim, Norway, than in the past. Still, “there got to be an undercurrent in the audience, when you see this stage full of men with a token woman or no one at all," says astronomer Jill Tarter, who has been the only woman on Starmus' board. "It just festered.” The festering reached a fever pitch during a panel with seven men and zero women, after economist Christopher Pissarides confessed that he had changed Siri to a male voice. You know, because he trusts it more. When question time came, Tarter commandeered the mic. “I’m wondering,” she said, “why after a beautiful, inspiring lecture by Jeffrey Sachs this morning about [how] we have to solve our problems globally—everybody needs to be in the game—why our very wise, knighted Nobel laureate found two opportunities on the stage of this conference to piss off half the world’s population?” After the session, young women mobbed Tarter with gratitude. It's one thing to be a well-known scientist like Tarter, demanding attention at a microphone. But participants have stepped up too, as one audience member did at the World Science Festival in New York in June. There, theoretical physicist Veronika Hubeny found herself surrounded by six men, not given much opportunity to speak for the first hour. "We haven't heard enough from you," the moderator said, and started to ask her a question. But he then repeatedly talked over her to explain string theory (her field) instead of allowing her to answer. After about three minutes of intermittent interruptions from the moderator, audience member Marilee Talkington shouted: “Let her speak, please!” The room erupted into clapping and cheers—support that continued after Talkington recalled the account on Facebook. Thanks directed to Tarter multiplied online as well. But so did the thousand discriminatory papercuts from speakers and organizers. Today, the public record of sexism, at Starmus and the World Science Festival and beyond, reaches past the physical conferences and their chronology—to the postdoc watching the livestream on lunch break, to the student who searches YouTube five years from now to learn about astronauts. Instead of inspiration, they can find a demonstration of just how steep the uphill battle is. What Now? The problems on display at science conferences aren't new. To some extent, they reflect the fundamental gender imbalance in science: The tenured scientific elite has higher male-to-female ratios than the ranks of postdocs and assistant professors. But speaker imbalance still often outstrips that within a field. Self-promotion may amplify the divide: Men on average are more likely to see and sell themselves as important figures (a tendency that shows up on paper, with men citing their own work 56 percent more than women). So how do you get those numbers to change? If you talk to conference organizers, especially ones with a surfeit of men, they’ll often exclaim (as both Starmus and Microbiome Congress organizers did) that they invited more women. Those women just declined the opportunity! Here's why: They're busy. Conference organizers often have, in their heads, a list of Rock Star Female Scientists to scan through when they need some women. But those rock stars are already attending 55,000 conferences. “You have to invite more women than men because they're being stretched thin,” Bik says. The good news is that pseudocelebrity scientists aren't the only ones who do robust research and speak comprehensibly. Finding other contributors isn't hard—it just requires looking to different sources. Bik, for example, maintains a list of women in microbiology who would be happy to give a great keynote speech at your conference. The American Astronomical Society has a similar database. Organizers can also check out this Diversity Distribution Calculator to see how their meetings measure up. The field of microbiology also offers some hope. In 2011, women made up just 27 percent of the speakers at the American Society of Microbiology general meeting. By 2015, the society had bumped that up to nearly 50 percent. How? Researchers from Johns Hopkins University showed organizers numbers from their own meetings: When the committee in charge of speaker selection included at least one woman, sessions had 72 percent more female speakers and were 70 percent less likely to be only male. In response to this and other past-meeting data—and then a call to be better about avoiding all-male panels—conference conveners brought more women into the decision-making, and soon the number of women speaking nearly matched the number of men speaking. Some conferences set out with the goal of gender parity, and then choose their speaker list accordingly. It requires planning, sure, but Twitter is here to keep scientists from stalling out in their search. The key? Just ask, like neurobiologist Leslie Voshall did a few days ago as she began to schedule talks for 2019. If an organizer doesn't have enough reach of their own, they can solicit suggestions using hashtags such as #WomenInSTEM or search for lists of science-internet influencers such as the WomenTweetScienceToo rolodex, which popped up after Science put only four female scientists on its top 50 tweeters list. It has 316 badass, smart women who can write 140 informative characters or, you know, wow a weary audience at the 8 am plenary session. Coordinators can also ping #BlackInSTEM and #QueerInSTEM for speaker suggestions. Because diversity isn't just about women. “Anybody who is a minority will feel the same,” Bik says. “They will look at the podium and wish there was someone there who looked like them.” Thanks to the internet, there's really no excuse for that wish to go unfulfilled.