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.