This story started when [Human Resources Director] Vera [Potapenko] sent an article suggesting that conference speakers think about turning down invitations to speak on panels that don’t feature gender diversity. The timing was perfect because I had just participated in a panel that had no women, and there were only one or two women speakers in the entire conference. I thought: I wish I’d read Vera’s email a couple months earlier because maybe I could’ve had some influence.
That same night I was having dinner with my oldest daughter, who is a sophomore at Tufts and an aspiring scientist working on regenerative medicine. I told her about the email, and her immediate reaction was really quite negative. She said, I don’t want any special help.
I respected that a lot. And it led to an interesting conversation. I explained that the way panels and conferences are programmed it’s not always a pure meritocracy. It’s not a conspiracy, either. In most cases, people are not setting out to exclude women or other underrepresented populations, but program committees tend to invite people they know, people they went to grad school with, people they’ve already seen speak at other conferences. And if you apply those rules in many fields, you get de facto segregation.
Once I explained that, she understood that I wasn’t advocating she get a special boost but just that she get a fair shake. So I replied to Vera and told her to be prepared for pushback—at least if my daughter is any indication. Early-career women scientists may not want to be seen as needing help. It can be stigmatizing.
In my view, though, if you end up with a system that produces de facto segregation, you need to take steps to disrupt that system. Some specialties in computing science and IT are among the most segregated that I’ve seen. Networking and cybersecurity are highly male-dominated, for example. I don’t really know why. One reason has got to be a failure to connect with young women who are making choices about their careers, though. Networking is a great path—the jobs are portable, the pay is attractive, and it’s rewarding work because it involves connecting people together.
We’re beginning to think as a division how we can recruit more young women into the field. I suspect that appealing to students will be the best strategy. In general I’m a believer in fixing the leaky pipeline, trying to influence young professionals as early as possible. But we still have a long, long way to go.
-Greg Bell, Director, Scientific Networking Division