Want more women at STEM conferences?
September 13, 2012 2:59 PM   Subscribe

How to help increase the number of participating women in STEM conferences As a woman who got steered firmly away from a STEM career many, many years ago, I find this incredibly heartening.
posted by jfwlucy (62 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
My daughter started he college career as a pure math major. She absolutely had the mind, tenacity, and skill for it. But, within her first semester, the boy's club had convinced her to abandon that ship. She'll be a crackerjack CPA some day.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:09 PM on September 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Probably everyone should be dissuaded from a Science career these days. Well, dissuaded in a gender neutral way that is.
posted by Chekhovian at 3:16 PM on September 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Probably everyone should be dissuaded from a Science career these days.

what
posted by R. Schlock at 3:23 PM on September 13, 2012 [12 favorites]


Well, if you add up all the unpaid years you're expected to put in and the low pay even when you get a real job most scientists would probably come out ahead being a dog walker or a bartender. Plus less stress.

Then after all that? no one listens to you and you have the disheartening experience of watching science be ignored whenever its inconvenient or facts treated as an article of faith by people too uneducated to tell the difference. Not to mention idiots at your parent's dinner parties wanting to "debate" climate change or the effects of fracking on groundwater even if you're an astrophysicist. Eventually most scientists can only hang out with other scientists, and even then only with people who are in their fields. And you're all still broke.

It's enough to make anyone want to become a banker.
posted by fshgrl at 3:38 PM on September 13, 2012 [20 favorites]


Wow, for biology, that is extremely unusual. Even for "quantitative" biology, which is pretty vague but presumably more male-biased because of dilution from math and physics departments, I would say it unusual based on the only quant. bio department I'm familiar with. In biology you have to work pretty hard to exclude women. Currently, all my best collaborations, the ones where I feel that I get a scientific boost by association, are with women PIs, so there's no shortage of women leading the field.

For a brand new conference I would guess that this is entirely due to the organizers, as they are the ones that are calling potential speakers up and convincing them to risk their valuable time on an unknown.
posted by Llama-Lime at 3:40 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Uhhhh... I'm all for more women in STEM but where's the part that tells you how to help increase the number?

Maybe this is more what you're looking for?
posted by Talez at 3:46 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, if you add up all the unpaid years you're expected to put in

Maybe it's different for engineering than for biology, but at least STEM Masters and PhD's tend to include free tuition and a stipend, unlike MBAs or law school.
posted by muddgirl at 3:49 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Maybe it's different for engineering than for biology, but at least STEM Masters and PhD's tend to include free tuition and a stipend, unlike MBAs or law school.

Yeah, good science PhD programs are not "unpaid." They are low-paid—in the U.S. you generally get somewhere between $17,000 and $32,000 with benefits (health care, free tuition, but no retirement). And I thought of the work I did as a science PhD as a "real job."
posted by grouse at 3:53 PM on September 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


The average PhD in the US is, what 9 years now? 10? That's a lot of years at $20k.
posted by fshgrl at 3:53 PM on September 13, 2012


The average PhD in the US is, what 9 years now? 10?

Are you just making things up? Where did you get the idea that the average PhD in STEM takes that long?

In my department the average is a little more than 5 years and the minimum stipend is $22K. Most people finish between 4.5–5.5 years. Joining a department where the average is ten years (that means some people are finishing in 11 or 12 years or more?) is an avoidable error.

Yeah, I could have made more money in industry. Or by doing investment banking or management consulting which are other things I didn't want to do.
posted by grouse at 4:01 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


The average PhD in the US is, what 9 years now? 10? That's a lot of years at $20k.

A successful program will want to get rid of you sooner than that, after five years or so. Time limits are in place to ensure that students complete the program in a timely fashion, thereby maximizing "return" on limited funds.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:12 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


fshgrl: "The average PhD in the US is, what 9 years now? 10? That's a lot of years at $20k."

This article from a few years ago says 8.2 years.
posted by octothorpe at 4:17 PM on September 13, 2012


I think it's more like six years, fshgrl. In any case, the prospect of being paid to do a postgraduate degree has me nearly giddy with excitement and my S.O. (currently in an MSW program) green with jealousy. I get that scientists are often underpaid, but I'm 28 and 25k/yr is twice as much as I've ever made in my life, so I'm not complaining.

And you know what? I think what I've chosen as a career (conservation biology) is important. I know that I can look forward to a lifetime of documenting the depressing march of extinction and destruction that is the flipside of the coin of progress, and that I will doubtless find my dire predictions and my crucial recommendations largely ignored by those in power, but I feel in my bones that the struggle to preserve the Earth's biodiversity is one of the greatest and most important battles of our time and I want to be on the right side of that, fighting the good fight even if it's a losing proposition.

The idea that I can do that, and have a career which is intellectually stimulating, provides an opportunity to educate future generations and train future scientists, and maybe even will give me the chance to visit some of the more spectacular parts of the world in the name of trying to protect them, is an idea that I don't need a lot of financial persuading to throw myself behind. I know that it's an uphill battle to get to the point where I can do that, but I'm going to give it my best shot.

This seems to be something that resonates with women as much as men, and while there's certainly a gender imbalance among senior scientists in my field (and while there are certainly pockets of very ugly sexism still yet to be extirpated) I have seen significantly more women than men (in my department) pursuing the same path that I am on. For some of us this is not a choice to seek out an easy, high-paying job, but rather a choice to pursue something that is personally satisfying, and to stand on the right side of history.

I don't think that gender really comes into that choice. I may be wrong, and my experience is limited, but I work every day with women who have made that choice and are pursuing that path. I am proud to stand with them and work with them and support them in their endeavours whenever I can. The problem we are contemplating is not one that can be overcome by any of us alone. Only by working together and pooling all our expertise and ingenuity and will do we have a chance of stemming the tide of extinction and ecological destruction, and at least in my immediate surroundings everyone seems know this.

I am only one person, but for what little my voice is worth I wholeheartedly encourage and welcome anyone, male or female, who feels that the war for the life of the planet is one worth waging, to step up and join in. There is room for all of us, and if there isn't then I for one will try to make that room, because we need you. Earth needs you. Good science is good science, and gender has nothing to do with it.
posted by Scientist at 4:19 PM on September 13, 2012 [9 favorites]


That's for all PhDs, not PhDs in STEM fields, which will be substantially shorter.
posted by grouse at 4:19 PM on September 13, 2012


That was eloquent, Scientist, thank you. But Eisen's post isn't about the choice to pursue a scientific career. It's about whether if you are a woman, once you have a developed career, you will be invited to conferences as a speaker. There is a gender imbalance in quantitative biology but I would be incredibly hard-pressed to believe it is anything close to 25:1.
posted by grouse at 4:23 PM on September 13, 2012


Most people finish between 4.5–5.5 years

Five years after graduating high school and starting university, you'll have a Masters, not a PhD. When education is being evaluated in terms of vocational investment, I think for most people the length of time it takes to get a PhD would be the time from first enrolling at a university until being awarded the PhD.

Viewing the length of time to get a PhD as only the post-grad component of the process strikes me as something that mostly only PhD students would do :-)

I reserve the right to be wrong
posted by anonymisc at 4:23 PM on September 13, 2012


So it takes seven years to get a law degree? Eight to get a medical degree? That's not something I have ever heard anyone say—I think that is a rather unusual convention to use. What about the thirteen years of K-12 education before that? (I think I did, by way of explaining, tell a child once that I was in 20th Grade).

For most of the jobs someone who might get a science PhD would consider, a bachelor's degree will be a required baseline, so it makes sense to compare the delta after that point.
posted by grouse at 4:27 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Eight years for a medical degree (for example) is how I've always heard it described. From the outside anyway.
posted by anonymisc at 4:29 PM on September 13, 2012


Perhaps it's a regional thing. My university was overseas.
posted by anonymisc at 4:31 PM on September 13, 2012


If we're talking about "years at $20k", we're obviously only discussing grad school. Undergrad doesn't work that way.

In my SO's STEM Ph.D. program, 5 years was standard, 6 years was allowed, and 7 years was technically allowed but everyone started tapping their feet and looking at their watches and quietly harrumphing.
posted by kyrademon at 4:34 PM on September 13, 2012


Holy hell what a derail.
posted by rtha at 4:38 PM on September 13, 2012 [10 favorites]


Oh and ladies, if your talents and inclinations tend more towards the mathematical/computational/engineering side of things we can certainly put them to good use over in conservation biology. It's hardly all tromping through the woods and collecting butterflies and such, although there's plenty of that sort of thing too if you want it. We desperately need all the statisticians, programmers, bioinformaticists, and geneticists we can get.
posted by Scientist at 4:40 PM on September 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't understand the difficulty here. Obviously, anyone can put on a new conference and invite who they want to speak. Just do that.* A professional conference does not materialize out of thin air arbitrarily. And as has been said, women are heavily represented in biology so there is no reason why one with many female presenters shouldn't be well attended.

*Yes, I know it's a good amount of work, like all worthwhile things. You, the reader, are doubtlessly too tired and overworked and shy and broke to do this. You can still pledge to attend, promote, encourage your more able peers, etc. Merely enlarging the network of people who support better conferences is valuable.
posted by michaelh at 4:41 PM on September 13, 2012


Perhaps people talking about 8 years for a medical degree are including the time you're in residency. It's not like residents are pulling down the big bucks. You're an MD, but you're still a student. The residency program where I work is 5 years.

Anyway.

Good science is good science, and gender has nothing to do with it.
posted by Scientist at 6:19 PM on September 13


I'm not sure that's true. As much as scientists strive for objectivity (and I think that's a good thing), everybody brings their biases along with them, without meaning to, so I think having a better gender balance (and racial balance, and balance of national origina, and so on) results in better science. Encouraging women to enter STEM fields is not only good for the women who do so, but is also good for their respective fields.
posted by joannemerriam at 4:42 PM on September 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Uhhhh... I'm all for more women in STEM but where's the part that tells you how to help increase the number?


The part that tells you how to increase the number is the example set by the invited scientist Eisen who wrote the letter to the conference pointing out their un/witting? failure to invite female confreres.
posted by jfwlucy at 4:47 PM on September 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


A professional conference does not materialize out of thin air arbitrarily.

No, someone had to decide to invite 25 times as many men as women. And they shouldn't.
posted by grouse at 4:49 PM on September 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


No, someone had to decide to invite 25 times as many men as women. And they shouldn't.

And you should decide to put on a better conference. You could probably do that and still have time to protest this conference.
posted by michaelh at 4:52 PM on September 13, 2012


joannemerriam, I think you misunderstood me. I don't mean that everybody in the STEM fields sees gender as irrelevant to one's ability to do good science (or engineering, or math) but rather that that is how it ought to be and that I, personally, am committed to making my little corner of STEM as welcoming for people of all genders as possible.

I did go a little off topic though, as grouse rightly pointed out. There is definitely still a deplorable amount of sexism in STEM and the ratio of male to female conferees is an example of that. All of us who are working in STEM fields should be vigilant toward these kinds of injustices and should work toward righting them to whatever extent our circumstances permit. We absolutely need to have a representative number of female conferees, and it's ridiculous and embarrassing that in this day and age we haven't managed to get there.

It's important to point things like this out (as the article does) and to identify them as the shameful injustices that they are. Sexism hurts science by driving away people who would otherwise do good work and by minimizing and obscuring the good work done by people in the field. We need to be committed, individually and as a field, to identifying these wrongs and working to right them by encouraging women to participate, shaming people who discourage them, and speaking clearly and unflinchingly about the problems in our field.

We cannot shy away from this, we cannot lose ourselves in our little corner of things and pretend that they are not our problem. They are absolutely our problem, because people are being excluded who should be included, and work is being hidden that should be publicized, and the scientific endeavour as a whole is being held back by that.
posted by Scientist at 4:59 PM on September 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think what I've chosen as a career (conservation biology) is important.

I think your field is incredibly important. But is there money to hire people in it? There is a lot of very important research going unsupported - and a lot of trained people out of work or working in unrelated fields. I know someone who has a PhD studying (human) fertility and demography in contemporary China, but he doesn't have funding to continue this obviously extremely important research and he currently works as a statistician for unrelated research.

Even in the health sciences, one of the most well-funded areas of science, there is a serious crunch on. Only 15% of grant applications to the major health science funding body in Canada are being funded.

I've heard that having a PhD actually lowers your earning potential - is it true for STEM degrees as well as humanities/social sciences?
posted by jb at 5:04 PM on September 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've heard that having a PhD actually lowers your earning potential - is it true for STEM degrees as well as humanities/social sciences?

I don't see how it can't when you include years of post-doc salaries in the mix. Does anyone know if post-doc salaries are included in those "starting salaries" statistics that are always published?
posted by Durin's Bane at 5:09 PM on September 13, 2012


Wow, for biology, that is extremely unusual. Even for "quantitative" biology, which is pretty vague but presumably more male-biased because of dilution from math and physics departments, I would say it unusual based on the only quant. bio department I'm familiar with.

The ratio of full male profs to full female profs in the linked dept Is around 3:1 as far as I can make out.
posted by biffa at 5:15 PM on September 13, 2012


Jonathan Eisen is a fantastic Open Science advocate, and this just makes me admire him more.
posted by unknowncommand at 5:33 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why would you ever schedule a scientific conference in Hawaii every year? Conferences aren't vacations; you'll spend the entire thing in either a meeting hall or your hotel room (with a couple of restaurants thrown in). There's really no reason to care about anything about the location except for picking somewhere cheap to get to and making sure the facilities are nice.

However, scheduling it in Hawaii every year makes it really hard for PIs to afford to bring their students and for new scientists to afford to attend. So there's a huge downside to having it there, and they're having it there every year?

I wonder how serious this conference really is. I think it might be intended as a crypto-vacation that you can justify to your funding agency.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:34 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Eisen had better estimates than I did, at 20%-35%, plus he did the extra leg work to show that the under representation is statistically significant. Which is a calculation that these organizers probably do by rote, given their day jobs. I would be interested to hear how this came about.
posted by Llama-Lime at 5:35 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why would you ever schedule a scientific conference in Hawaii every year?

Some conference sites are chosen specifically for the skiing...the smaller more elite ones especially. What can you say, elite scientists can be out of touch assholes?
posted by Chekhovian at 5:43 PM on September 13, 2012


I think it might be intended as a crypto-vacation that you can justify to your funding agency.

Yeah, that's basically right.
posted by muddgirl at 5:45 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've heard that having a PhD actually lowers your earning potential - is it true for STEM degrees as well as humanities/social sciences?

Probably not in biology, since even in industry a PhD is required to get promoted very far. I mean sure, if you had gone into finance you could have made more money without a PhD but I don't think that's what that statement is claiming.

And you should decide to put on a better conference. You could probably do that and still have time to protest this conference.

So I've never been to any of the q-bio meetings (although for some reason I get all their e-mails), but there are several other systems/quantitative/synthetic biology conferences that already exist and have at least marginally better representation from women (and that percentage isn't great, but it's at least around the lower bound Eisen estimated). I for one am grateful that Eisen is providing information that we can use to decide where we spend our limited grant money.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:01 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Actual statistics from the survey of earned doctorates. This is a little bit of a derail, but if there is going to be a derail on this tangent at least it can be a fact based derail.

Time to degree in the sciences: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf06312/
Takeaway: Median registered time to degree in engineering 6.9 years. This statistic made me feel much better about myself.

Median salaries (all fields): http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf11306/theme5.cfm#4
Takeaway: Postdoc salaries are absolutely terrible. My ratio of postdoc offers to other job offers, 4:1. I took the one.

The average recipient of a PhD is in their early 30's and is generally starting off with little savings and some student loans. If you had instead joined the military at 18 you'd be 3/4 of the way to retirement at 1/2 pay and in a good position to start a second career. If you'd gotten a job right out of college you'd have had a chance to establish some substantial savings.

While it's certainly possible to do well in STEM fields, I'm not unreceptive the the argument that many women might take a hard look at the idea and decide that unless you really love it, it's not a smart choice. The same amount of brainpower applied to medical school or nursing, or a variety of other fields is a vastly wiser financial choice.
posted by pseudonick at 6:22 PM on September 13, 2012 [7 favorites]


I would be interested to hear how this came about.

It's possible that the organizers are some sort of boys-only club, but unlikely (I hope). I've organized a couple of sizeable literary conferences, and unless you're quite deliberate and conscious about putting together panels that are divers (in both subject and panelists), it can be easy to fill panels with people you know and respect/like or people who are known/liked by people you know/like. And if the field is still 7oish percent male, well...

But that it probably wasn't deliberate doesn't make it okay, or a thing that can just be brushed off. No one needs to be tarred and feathered over this; I assume (hope!) that since they are scientists, they will look at failures (or unexpected results) - even those that don't happen in the lab - as opportunities to learn how to do things differently. Right?
posted by rtha at 6:37 PM on September 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


It looks like some more women have been added to the list... still a sad ratio, but it says that the agenda is not complete yet.

Also, don't fear that they will be trapped in a conference room while Hawaii awaits outdoors...that agenda includes plenty of long breaks. I have seen better agendas for this sort of thing where there are distinctive morning and afternoon sessions that are so different from each other that theres no way anyone spends more than half the day in session.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 6:46 PM on September 13, 2012


In the animal sciences there has been a dramatic increase in the number of women seeking graduate degrees in the time that I've been in the field, including the quantitative disciplines like breeding and genetics. Some of the best scientists I know are women, and it's a shame to see women discouraged from STEM fields.

This summer I was a program committee chair at a national meeting, and this included the planning of a morning symposium. While reading this thread I realized that I did not include any women speakers out of a group of five or six presenters. I never thought about it one way or another, but this probably represents a bias on my part towards well-established scientists in my field, most of whom are still men. That is changing, but I cant believe that I didn't even give it a thought. In fact, I'm going to talk to my successor about this. I'm not saying that we'd pick someone only because they're a woman in the future, but I think that we can be more thoughtful about whether or not we're casting our net as widely as we should.

Thanks for the post, jfwlucy, it's given me a lot to think about.
posted by wintermind at 7:06 PM on September 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I could have made more money in industry. Or by doing investment banking or management consulting which are other things I didn't want to do.

Those fields don't just take any intelligent person. You need more than just being smart. And you'd be surprised at the number of ex-college football guys and lacrosse players that work as I-bankers and traders. So unless you've got all that and more, then I wouldn't call it a choice.
posted by discopolo at 7:33 PM on September 13, 2012


Why the shittiness toward grouse, discopolo? What'd he ever do to you?
posted by Scientist at 8:08 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Scientist, I did misunderstand you, and I apologize for not reading more closely. I think we're on the same page.
posted by joannemerriam at 8:26 PM on September 13, 2012


Gender retention in science is a question that's been the subject of much debate recently.

First of all, Eisen's guestimates do seem to be realisitic. One of the better presentations of gender participation is Kieran Healy's breakdown by dicipline for PhDs in the US in 2010. The detailed breakdown by sub-discipline puts doctoral grants at 30-40% for those subfields which would make-up q bio. This only strengthen's his arguments.

However, recent studies [1, 2] show that recruitment of girls into STEM fields isn't the problem. In fact, girls take science and math classes in higher proprtion than boys through the high-school levels. Participation evens out for BScs (mostly), but drops for enrolment in graduate programs and is even worse at the transition from student to post-doc to full-time researcher.

The results from the two surveys are illuminating and echo what fshgrl says above. According to Grunert:
Grunert exposes several hurdles women scientists face in the chemistry field. She cites several responses from the study indicating participants’ expectations of being the primary caretaker in their families, and their struggles in maintaining a scientific career while balancing more traditional female gender roles.

This creates a dilemma for research institutions trying to create a strong, diverse faculty: recruiting women in the chemistry field remains difficult, due to their perceived or desired obligations not only to their career but their families. Her research also discusses the consistent pressure to avoid traditional feminine behaviors in scientific research settings, thereby creating an environment that does not support the lifestyles and goals of its subjects.

While some institutions are making moves to become more family-friendly to their faculty, Grunert argues that this support is not adequately shared with graduate students, and many still feel they have to delay, or ultimately sacrifice, having a family for the sake of their careers.
These findings are mirrored in the Royal Society of Chemistry report. Female scientists, compared to their male peers:
  • Come to view academic careers as too all-consuming, too solitary and not sufficiently collaborative;
  • Come to the conclusion that the short-term contract aspect of post-docing could not be reconciled with other aspects of their life, particularly relationships and family;
  • Come to believe the competition for a permanent academic post was too fierce for them to compete successfully;
  • Come to believe they would need to make sacrifices (about femininity and motherhood) in order to succeed in academia;
  • Been advised in negative terms of the challenge they would face (by virtue of their gender).
  • STEM degrees offer ways out of science into related fields that are both less stressful and much more financially rewarding, in all of the public, private and ngo sectors. The stress to establish oneself for low pay and the poor stability of post-doc, contract and untenured jobs comes right at the time most people want to start families.

    Why not go into banking, indeed.
    posted by bonehead at 8:30 PM on September 13, 2012 [9 favorites]


    The use of the jargon term "STEM" adds unneeded obscurity to this post. I notice that the original article doesn't use it at all.
    posted by w0mbat at 9:01 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


    I'm pretty interested in synthetic biology and on a bunch of mailing lists for it. The sad thing is this is all pretty reminiscent of an exchange I was privy to back in March. I assume it's fine to repost since it's a public mailing list, but I've left out names just in case:

    >> Dear colleagues, we invite you to participate to a workshop on design, optimization and control in systems and synthetic biology in Paris in June 11-12. [list of invited speakers, etc. etc.]

    From a well-established and successful female researcher in the field:
    >> I note that unless I am mistaken - at this time there are no confirmed women speakers. We typically try to be inclusive if possible as we like to set a good example for the future leaders in the field. Perhaps others can suggest some women speakers.

    The reply:
    >> Thanks for pointing this out. I didn't noticed it up to now. It's true that the speakers list is quite strongly biased. However, invitations were send with the sole aim of gathering a diverse but consistent set of scientific expertise on selected topics, given a necessarily limited knowledge of the scientific community. The gender of the person has not been considered as a selection criteria in any means.

    From another female researcher:
    >> "Sorry, but "I didn't notice -- we didn't mean to" is not a good enough excuse. You have excluded women from your speaker list, whether you were conscious of this or not. This is seriously demotivating to female students and trainees. It is also insulting to imply that your goal of "gathering a diverse… set of scientific expertise on selected topics" is in any way in conflict with the goal of including women in the speaker list.

    You should invite some female speakers.

    And finally:
    >> I agree that the current composition of the speakers list is indeed unfortunate. I underestimated the importance of this issue and I apologize for that. I will work on the program to make it more inclusive by inviting talented women who are working in the specific scope of the workshop.

    I'm deeply sorry that my previous response has been understood as suggesting that women do less interesting scientific work than men. This would be strongly against my personal convictions on gender equality.

    So this is about as heartening as the original post - in that at least this sort of thing gets called out - but I wonder if there's something about synthetic biology in specific that leads to this dearth of invited female speakers? Or any nascent field? Or is it just that this kind of pushback hasn't really been showing up until now? Either way, hopefully this is the sign of a trend towards greater female representation at conferences.
    posted by daelin at 9:10 PM on September 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


    You need more than just being smart. And you'd be surprised at the number of ex-college football guys and lacrosse players that work as I-bankers and traders. So unless you've got all that and more, then I wouldn't call it a choice.

    None of my friends formerly in the sciences who decided to go those routes (and there are dozens) had any difficulty whatsoever finding a job in investment banking or management consulting while still working on their degrees. I'm talking about dozens of people here, and none of them were varsity football or lacrosse players either. How bizarre to imply that that would be required.
    posted by grouse at 9:46 PM on September 13, 2012


    So this is about as heartening as the original post - in that at least this sort of thing gets called out - but I wonder if there's something about synthetic biology in specific that leads to this dearth of invited female speakers?

    As others have alluded to, some of it is might be that synthetic biology has closer ties to engineering, which is traditionally more male-dominated. That said, there are definitely well-known women in the field - just off the top of my head, Christina Smolke and Pam Silver come to mind - and when I rotated in a synthetic biology lab it was roughly half female, so I definitely don't think the problem is that there's nobody to invite.

    None of my friends formerly in the sciences who decided to go those routes (and there are dozens) had any difficulty whatsoever finding a job in investment banking or management consulting while still working on their degrees.

    It's true - for some unfathomable reason management consulting firms do have a big crush on science PhDs. Not sure what that's about.
    posted by en forme de poire at 10:33 PM on September 13, 2012


    scheduling it in Hawaii every year makes it really hard for PIs to afford to bring their students and for new scientists to afford to attend.

    There are the real working conferences and the junket ones. The working conferences have big slates of (peer-reviewed) submissions, at several days with multiple sessions per day. They run 8:30 to 5:30. There's no downtime---you're in session, looking at posters or in a side-meeting. Discussion periods are active and infuriating and enlightening.

    Junket ones have light session loads, invited panels and speakers only. There are no posters. Discussions are genteel and polite.

    Junkets are fun if you can get someone to pay your way, but the big ones run by the professional societies are the ones I pay to go to every year. Never go to dinner with industry people if you're on a per diem at a junket though.
    posted by bonehead at 10:48 PM on September 13, 2012


    (1) STEM careers do not all require a PhD and a white lab coat. (Hi, I'm an engineer working in the private sector, making good money and having fun, without the drama of academia!)

    (2) Even if you do get a PhD and a white lab coat there are quite a few private sector jobs available -- say in renewable energy, robotics, commercial space flight, etc.

    (3) Even if you don't have a PhD, depending on the field (like engineering) that can often be a good thing and gives you more flexibility in how and where you move up in the company. (We have PhDs who are senior engineers or just PhDs we have on hand to be smart sometimes. But our department managers, program managers, and upper management team are all PhD-less)

    Okay, so that's out of the way. STEM != PhD. We've all got that, right?

    Now. I go to more tradeshows than conferences (that is, big hall full of booths and technical presentations that are really just cleverly disguised marketing pitches) though there is some overlap, like some IEEE conferences I attend. And part of the reason it'd be great to have a female speaker (or more than one!!) there is because then it means that I, the engineer standing behind our booth or mingling at the reception or whatever, might not always be assumed to be in marketing, or someone's wife/girlfriend, or a hired booth babe. (i'm not that hot, but, well, engineers) It might instead lead someone to assume that I might -- MIGHT -- just be there in a technical capacity and that I might -- MIGHT -- understand their big words! Ahhh, that would be nice. Some day.
    posted by olinerd at 12:48 AM on September 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


    In the animal sciences there has been a dramatic increase in the number of women seeking graduate degrees in the time that I've been in the field, including the quantitative disciplines like breeding and genetics .

    It's the same in the biomedical sciences research that I do yet most of the professors are still male, most of the conference speakers are male, and most of the females just disappear somewhere along the postdoc level. Having a career limit of 4-6 years post-PhD doesn't help (this is the new normal at Irish Universities and is common in Europe) and having maternity leave included in that time ... yeah no wonder we have a problem.

    As for long term employment, that doesn't exist. It's nice to see people all fired up about doing science and all but the reality outside the USA at least is, the industry is fucked and actually staying employed in any capacity at all, let alone the one we trained for 8-10 years for, is becoming an unreasonable goal.

    Addressing the gender imbalance would be nice too (being a female in science etc) but right now I'm more worried about my survival in general.
    posted by shelleycat at 12:51 AM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


    STEM != PhD.

    That's true in Engineering, but mostly only in in Engineering. That's the only of the STEM fields were it is possible to rise to the top of the field with a terminal Bachelor's-level degree. The people invited to speak at the conference which is the subject of the post are almost certainly principle investigators (or co-PIs), the project managers of scientific research.

    Principle investigators with a terminal BScs are rarer than hen's teeth. I know a few with terminal MSc, but they've tended to be exceptional people. A BSc only tends to take one of the related-but-not research jobs like public sector policy, private sector lab tech, sales, management or regulatory compliance jobs. Many take those off-ramps mentioned above. Some may get promoted to management, but almost none will become lead researchers.
    posted by bonehead at 5:47 AM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


    While it's certainly possible to do well in STEM fields, I'm not unreceptive the the argument that many women might take a hard look at the idea and decide that unless you really love it, it's not a smart choice. The same amount of brainpower applied to medical school or nursing, or a variety of other fields is a vastly wiser financial choice.

    But why should we expect women to be making the 'wise choice' in greater numbers than men? I'm not sure the answer is anything other than sexism. Even if field X somehow solved its sexism problem, that does no good if women aren't going into field X because they've been pushed towards something else earlier on. (I'm in math. My high school pushed mathematically inclined kids towards engineering pretty hard, regardless of gender. But you meet people whose schools pushed the girls towards becoming teachers and the boys towards being engineers and, at a lot of universities, it's easier to convert from engineering to math than from math ed to math.)
    posted by hoyland at 6:58 AM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


    Oh and ladies, if your talents and inclinations tend more towards the mathematical/computational/engineering side of things we can certainly put them to good use over in conservation biology. It's hardly all tromping through the woods and collecting butterflies and such, although there's plenty of that sort of thing too if you want it. We desperately need all the statisticians, programmers, bioinformaticists, and geneticists we can get.

    Scientist, I don't know why I'm taking your comment so poorly but it's got my back up. I appreciate your fondness for your field but there really aren't that many jobs in conservation biology (although we're probably better than most other fields since there are a fair number of NGO jobs) and there are a lot of women in the field (not ladies, I hate that word so much).

    I guess my issue is that I started in biology working with a lot of women and over time they've dropped out. Some of them have dropped out for reasons unrelated to their gender (no jobs) but several have dropped out to either follow their husbands and/or have a baby. Until these kinds of systematic gender discrimination get addressed, I don't know that I'd encourage more women into the field. I've thought of myself as some sort of feminist since high school but it's been horrifying to realize that I still have to be the first/only sometimes. I really thought that would all have been done by now and I could just putter along doing my own thing (not that I don't putter along anyway, sometimes I just look up and see only male faces around me).

    Also, conservation biology does need statisticians, programmers, bioinformaticists, and geneticists but that shouldn't be limited to one gender. We do important work and we need good people to do it.
    posted by hydrobatidae at 7:15 AM on September 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


    Is the FPP missing a link?
    posted by lazaruslong at 7:52 AM on September 14, 2012


    But why should we expect women to be making the 'wise choice' in greater numbers than men?

    Up thread, it was mentioned that one of the most vulnerable times in academic careers - whether STEM or not - comes in your late 20s/30s, when you're either in precarious employment (post-docs, fellowships) or the tenure-track crunch. This time of life is totally different for women than for men, for both biological and social reasons -- parenthood. If women want to have children, they can't wait as long as men do, they have to take off more time than men do, they have to do the infant care (if they want to breastfeed). This is not yet counting the social/cultural pressures where women are much more likely to give up their career ambitions in favour of their husband than men are for their wives, and how men are more likely to be have a partner who is younger than they are than women are.

    I read a few years ago that having a wife made a male PhD more likely to get tenure, while having a husband made a female PhD less likely to get tenure.

    My male SO likes to point out that it's like academia hasn't yet realized that 1/2 of the world has uteruses. To be honest, I think it's more like academia (as a whole, not as individuals) doesn't really care -- the competition has been stepped up by economic and social changes (more candidates for every level, fewer positions), and those who don't succeed just disappear.
    posted by jb at 8:21 AM on September 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


    Well I'm a female PI (with a terminal Masters) and a successful grant getter with a couple big papers and I'm not totally sure I'd recommend science unless you cannot imagine doing anything else. I could, quite literally, walk into an industry job tomorrow and I'd feel comfortable asking for four times my current salary as a program manager at a respected organization. Four times!
    posted by fshgrl at 11:28 AM on September 14, 2012


    To be honest, I think it's more like academia (as a whole, not as individuals) doesn't really care

    It's not so much that they actively don't care, its that they don't have to care. They can keep on doing what they've been doing and coast along with basically the status quo, because they are over supplied with plenty of interchangable academic cannon fodder. For example, i went to a great school for UG, but for Grad they're terrible. But for their 10 or so grad students slots a year they get 20 applicants from America and 250 from the PRC. They can basically do anything they want and still get as many students as theywant.

    So you could solve this two ways, limit the supply through some sort of legislation or boost demand. Now I think that society would be much better served by boosting the demand for trained scientists and academics...but that doesn't seem to be a politically feasible approach these days due to the right wing insanity we are faced with...so you're left with limiting the supply.

    That's the only way to boost the "value" of grad students and PhDs, by increasing their cost to the people granting them.
    posted by Chekhovian at 11:33 AM on September 14, 2012


    Excuse me, I should have said "faceless academic units" to continue a long elapsed joke...
    posted by Chekhovian at 11:43 AM on September 14, 2012


    the competition has been stepped up by economic and social changes (more candidates for every level, fewer positions), and those who don't succeed just disappear

    This is my impression too. Outside of health-related funding, I've seen science budgets in decline for twenty years running. Long-gone are the days of dependable government grants and even tenure-track positions. In academia, in particular, those who got in before the 1990s are pulling the ladders up as fast as they can. Most new "positions" are contract sessional lecturers, many staffed by very competent female scholars, who just never seem to get offered a chance at a tenure track.

    Far from being more welcoming to female applicants, my impression is that academia is in a retrograde phase currently. Industry and the public sector, by contrast, seem to have far greater female participation, in my anecdotal experience.
    posted by bonehead at 12:17 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


    Non-profit health research has also been hit hard funding-wise, though that's more of a post-2008 phenomenon.
    posted by jb at 2:29 PM on September 14, 2012


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