Welcoming Women at STEM Conferences – and Beyond

UC Davis professor Jonathan Eisen explains how to help make science a true meritocracy.

Candice Helfand-Rogers By Candice Helfand-Rogers

Editor’s Note: This interview is part of a project in which we hope to explore the continued lack of female representation for employees and entrepreneurs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The first installment of this series can be found here.

eisen_jonathan_300-x-400Jonathan Eisen is a professor at the University of California, Davis. He is also one of a growing number of men advocating for increased diversity in STEM, joining the ranks of prominent figures such as entrepreneur and expert Vivek Wadhwa. Eisen serves as committee co-director for the UC Davis ADVANCE program, which aims to create an increasingly welcoming research space for anyone interested in science. Through his work and that of others, tenure criteria at the university have already been modified to prevent women from being discriminated against for taking maternity leave.

During our talk, Eisen discussed why a lack of diversity harms science, the importance of making industry conferences more welcoming, and the women who have influenced his thinking.

Edited interview excerpts below.

The Story Exchange: Why is it important to have more women involved in STEM?

If we want our science to be the best it possibly can be — and also the fairest and most welcoming — then we have to make sure we’re not either purposefully or accidentally biasing against people. The purposeful biases against women, people of color and so on are obviously detrimental, but so are the accidental ones. Women comprise more than 50 percent of the population, and it seems really stupid to lose that fraction of people from scientific research, from teaching, from outreach and from other types of activities.

The Story Exchange: In previous interviews, you have mentioned making industry conferences in particular more welcoming for women and minorities. Why is this important?

The more we can do to increase the pool of people we are sampling from for scientific research, the better. But the reason I got interested in conferences is largely because it’s incredibly low-hanging fruit. If we can’t fix conferences, how are we going to fix tenure or hiring practices? If the people organizing a meeting can’t figure out ways to have diversity represented in both the attendees and speakers of a conferences — well, first of all, I think that’s sad and pathetic, but I also think it’s a really bad sign. Conferences are a critical place where people get to see what’s going on in a field outside of institutions.

The Story Exchange: What are some possible solutions?

Studies have shown that the probability of having a woman speaker at a conference is correlated to the fraction of conference organizers that are women. We should try to get women to be organizers — it helps one’s career, and it spreads diversity.  I mean, do we really want our conferences to be just a few famous men presenting? Is that really going to help science and society? When I organize a conference, I try to have a balance — not just in gender, but also people from different countries and different types of institutions, who are in different stages of their careers. We’ll have undergraduates and post-doctorates, not just Nobel Prize winners.

The Story Exchange: How did you become involved with this issue?

My mom is a chemist who was heavily involved with [the Association for Women in Science]. When I was a kid, any time I had to write a school report about a famous person, I always wrote about Marie Curie — every single paper. I think it was always sort of in the back of my head, the importance of promoting and discussing women who do science. But I can tell you the exact moment that I got interested in women in science in relation to conferences. I was at a conference in Lake Arrowhead [in southern California] … where I saw a couple of people sitting on the lawn, including a college student with a young baby. When I talked with her, she told me that she wasn’t there for the meetings — she was a nanny who was hired by the University of Wisconsin to come with a graduate student who was attending seminars. I was flabbergasted. I honestly thought it was one of the most amazing things I had ever heard in my life, literally. [She was there as part of] a program started by Dr. Jo Handelsman, a remarkable scientist and human being. She has been an inspiration for me every since then. Embarrassingly, I had never considered [the issue] prior to that. Ever since that moment, my eyes have been opened.

The Story Exchange: As a man in STEM, what inspires you to work on this problem?

My female colleagues tell me how great it is to have a few men [advocating for] this. That has nothing to do with why I do it, though. I do it because it seems, unquestioningly, to be the right thing to do. The groups that are being directly affected seem to have a higher probability of saying something about it, yes. But the thing I argue is that everyone in academia and in STEM is affected by this. People think [science is] a meritocracy — it’s not. The driving force behind everything we’re doing, the ways we’re trying to change the system, is to make science more of a meritocracy.

For a List of All Project Posts: The Story Exchange on STEM Entrepreneurship

Posted: May 22, 2014

Candice Helfand-RogersWelcoming Women at STEM Conferences – and Beyond