Monday, November 21, 2011

Women at Conferences

The CSWA has been making an effort to keep track of the percentages of women speakers at conferences. Recently, we featured a conference with a very high percentage of women speakers, right here on this blog. It's great to see that we are making progress. So, when I received the November 14th mailing from the AAS about the upcoming January meeting in Austin, I couldn't help but read the following enthusiastic description about the invited speakers with some amount of dismay:

"After a weekend of workshops and Historical Astronomy Division (HAD) sessions, the main part of the meeting kicks off Monday morning with the Kavli lecture by Lyman Page (Princeton University) on neutrinos and the cosmic microwave background. Over the next four days we'll hear about award-winning research from other eminent astronomers, including HAD Doggett Prize winner Woodruff T. Sullivan III (University of Washington) on the early days of radio astronomy, High Energy Astrophysics Division Rossi Prize winners Peter F. Michelson (Stanford University) and W. B. Atwood (University of California, Santa Cruz) on doing science with the Fermi Large Area Telescope, and Heineman Prize winner Robert P. Kirshner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) on Type Ia supernovae and the accelerating universe.

Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg (University of Texas) and Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, will explore the intersection of science, society, and economics in their two invited lectures. Astronomer-astronaut Steven A. Hawley (University of Kansas) will take stock of challenges and achievements in 50 years of human spaceflight. And Linda Tacconi (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics) will close out the week's plenary presentations with her Berkeley Prize lecture on molecular gas in star-forming galaxies in the early universe."

After a bit of investigation, I realized that no, there was actually more than one woman invited to speak at the meeting. It just so happens that only two of the prize winners were women, and it just so happens that one of those women is receiving the woman-only Cannon award, and the other is speaking in the last time slot on the last day of the meeting. That still leaves the question: even if the invited speakers list for the AAS meeting is somewhat gender balanced, why aren't the prizes?

In a similar vein, Female Science Professor proposes boycotting conferences with all-male slates. I wonder if that would really do any good, though, since that might have the effect of skewing the gender balance at that conference to even more all-male. Then again, direct complaints to conference organizers also have a tendency to fall on deaf or denying ears. But then, that's why the CSWA established the conferences webpage in the first place.

EDITED TO ADD: I want to make it clear that I am not at all advocating a boycott of the upcoming AAS Meeting. In fact, I am going myself and look forward to the meeting. (Come see me at the CSWA Special Session on Monday at 2pm!) And I do know that the AAS is sensitive to diversity issues and makes a real effort to achieve diversity of speakers. However, the email advertising the slate of speakers was unfortunate, as it did not give that balanced point of view. So the moral of the story is two-fold: nominate women for prizes, and remember to advertise women as well as you advertise men.


Deb said...

The Vice Presidents work very hard to achieve a gender and geographic and topics-balanced program of speakers. So indeed you'll find that 3 of 8 plenary speakers and 2 of 8 prize speakers in Austin are women. Our Berkeley prizewinner is purposely placed in the last slot of the last day in an attempt to encourage members to remain for the whole meeting.
Our Russell prizewinner, a woman (Sandy Faber), opted to speak in Anchorage rather than Austin.
Council has been studying prize statistics, with 9 women and 64 men winners over the last 10 years in the 8 AAS-wide categories. The community can help by nominating more people for awards; remember you don't have to be at the same institution to nominate someone. Don't assume someone you think worthy is being nominated already.
Debra Elmegreen
President, AAS

Lee Anne Willson said...

The issue of the prizes is a fair one - the Council has been grappling with this, and that is why some of the rules have changed recently.

However, to extend this to the meeting as a whole is unfair. The blurb is unfortunate, and doesn't really tell the story. The Berkeley prize is a new prize that will always be in the last slot of the meeting - an incentive for folks to stay - and this is the second time it is being offered, for 's 50% of the Berkeley prizes so far going to women. The Kavli is being given for the 3rd time; the first two were Carolyn Porco and Martin Rees, and for Anchorage it will be Ewine van Dishoeck - with Lyman Page that's again 50%. For Austin, the final plenary + Prize stats are 5 women/16 total. Of those 16, 9 were selected by the VPs; 4 of those 9 were women.

For Anchorage, we have definite speakers for 11 out of 16 slots; six of those are women. I might add that no special arm-twisting was involved in any of this - just a careful process to identify all the speakers we might want to hear and then pare the list down to fit in the slots available. Frankly, I've been feeling pretty good about these stats!!

Rather than talking about boycotts, the best possible positive action to take for improving the prize statistics is NOMINATE PEOPLE. They don't have to be your friends, or at your institution - they just need to be good. There are plenty of good women out there - NOMINATE THEM.

Lee Anne Willson