By Guest Work 18/07/2017

by Professor Cather Simpson (@ptolemytortoise)

Yes, of course we do!  Conferences that bring together women in science to discuss their work and what it’s like to BE a woman in science in the 21st century are incredibly useful to the whole science community.

That’s a provocative assertion, but before you get, well, hysterical, let me give you a few excellent reasons why conferences like the 2017 AWIS “Celebrating Women in Science” are still valuable.

First, these conferences simplify the process of ranking women scientists based on their physical appearance – we’re all there, in one place, ready to be directly compared to one another. As we are often assured, our hair, clothes, body shapes and other physical features are critical to world-class scientific success. Every woman scientist I know has been on the receiving end of comments like “you would do a lot better if you wore more revealing clothes” or “you look so lovely in blue!”

Women’s conferences allow us to really embrace this advice, and have workshops whose main purpose to advise women scientists on how to “dress for success”. Through techniques like role-playing, these workshops can help younger women scientists dress to prevent being hit on by senior, more powerful colleagues at professional events – and even help these young women respond after-the-fact without deflating egos or making these vulnerable men feel unattractive. What an opportunity! An additional benefit is that such conferences provide a much more level playing field for women themselves. I firmly believe women scientists’ looks should be compared to those of other women scientists, not to supermodels or athletes in magazines – that’s just not fair.

The author’s first invited talk.  See if you can identify her!  She was asked so many times “so, what do you do?” at dinners that she realised the underlying bias was that she was married to the person sitting next to her. The solution: if that’s the way it’s going to be, she might as well sit next to the best looking one!  Guess which one she chose …

Conferences about and for women in science allow women to really express our emotions without the dampening effect of our male colleagues’ disapprobation. I can’t remember the last time I saw a woman cry in public about a failed experiment or a grant rejection – seriously, it just doesn’t happen! When women are in that completely rational male scientist world, it’s like we don’t even have a natural desire to weep uncontrollably at professional set-backs. Ditto for the bitchy undermining of other scientists and their achievements. Clearly women need a “safer space” to express uniquely feminine emotional responses to the successes of our peers, ones that men never seem to feel. After all, when was the last time you heard a man saying “she only got early promotion because she is a woman?” or “she only won that award because she was the only woman nominated?” or even “he doesn’t deserve that promotion – I’m a much better scientist?”

Identifying top women scientists

Women in Science … this is what all of our conference talks look like! Well, except that some of us are blondes – or even red-heads.

Another very important benefit of Women in Science conferences is to give the rest of the scientific community a straightforward way to identify the top women scientists so they can be invited to the real science conferences. It’s challenging to find excellent women candidates, and once you’ve found one it often turns out she’s already taken! Prestigious award, medal and fellowship committees do their best to find competent women candidates, and yet the excellent women just seem to elude them – somehow, good women candidates seem totally invisible.  And seriously, if you’ve got to have a woman on your panel, plenary speaker slate, or editorial board, it should be one of the best ones. What’s the point otherwise?  There is an important role for Women in Science conferences here.

And then again, on a more practical level, conferences for and by women in the sciences allow women to hone and display their naturally exceptional organisational capabilities. This benefits the entire science community, because it means that the really important science conferences will be run more efficiently. It’s no mystery why organising committees, poster judging teams, and suchlike often have disproportionally more women on them than the slate of invited speakers at the same conference – women are surprisingly competent at these community-focused tasks. I think we should build on our womanly strengths in these areas, and have workshops about saying an enthusiastic “YES” to these sorts of invitations, with sessions on “how to encourage invitations to women speakers, without making your male colleagues feel awkward” and “how to tap into your natural strengths by leveraging that plenary speaker invitation into a conference organiser role.”

Role Models

The author’s mother-in-law, Dame Ruth Bishop, winner of the 2013 Flory Medal (and many other honours) who was a leader in the team that discovered the human rotavirus that causes third-world diarrhea. The author tweeted this as part of the #DistractinglySexy Twitter campaign in response to Nobel Prize winner Tim Hunt’s idiotic remarks about women in science.

Finally, Women in Science conferences serve an incredibly important and inspirational role for the next generation. They provide a place where younger, emerging women scientists can find mentors and role models. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a woman scientist praised as “Professor X, winner of the Excellent Medal of Excellence in Excellent Science, is a strong role model for women.” Why do we even need that “for women” caveat?  We all know that the best mentoring relationships are tied to the gonads: ovary-to-ovary and testicle-to-testicle. When was the last time you saw a girl mentored or inspired by a man, or a boy mentored or inspired by a woman?  It just doesn’t happen. It’s like in sports – only men find Richie McCaw impressive, and only women are awed by Serena Williams. It’s just a fact. Women in Science conferences provide a platform for more female role models for girls – what possible good could come from these women being role models for boys too?

The future of Women in Science Conferences?

I asked a 2nd year uni student whether she thought we still need women in science conferences. She said “OMG yes!” Fifteen minutes later I was still listening to stories of things I thought (hoped) were already sorted. Much progress has been made since the mid-1990’s when Prof. Nancy Hopkins at MIT “outed” gender bias in science at the very top – the fact that the 2nd year undergraduate was able to identify gender bias so clearly (and correctly) attests to that advance. A generation ago, she would have been puzzled by why her clever maths solutions didn’t get the same praise as those of her male classmates. We still need Women in Science conferences because we are not there yet. Women in Science conferences are key to changing the established science culture in a positive direction. They allow us to highlight inequities with less individual risk, as well as to celebrate our collective and individual successes, and to build bonds and networks. It’s Aesop at its best – a bundle of sticks is so much harder to break.

For more on how changing institutional cultures towards women and minorities can succeed, see Professor Simpson’s piece on The Spinoff

This article is by Professor Cather Simpson, from the University of Auckland, where her research now spans fundamental spectroscopy to applied device development.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons:  Miss Nellie A. Brown; L to R: Miss Lucia McCollock, Miss Mary K. Bryan, Miss Florence Hedges.

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