Berkeley Lab

Greg Bell: On Gender Diversity at Computing Conferences and a Conversation With His Daughter

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.

GRBell headshot_sm

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

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  1. In 1944 I entered college as a freshman in Applied Art, but soon decided to switch to chemistry because of an inspiring woman (spinster!) chemistry professor who emphasized that chemistry has a myriad of applications ranging from fundamental science to applied research and even described Marie Curie’s discovery of radium. When I went to my counseler (also a spinster) to change my major she asked if I thought chemistry was a suitable profession for a woman!! I then realized that these women professors and teachers were all unmarried because in those days if a woman teacher at any level married, she was expected to resign her position–yes, we’ve come a long way since then! This was partially a consequence of WW-II when women (married or not) very competently filled a host of positions formerly held by men. But, still today we are losing many young women who excel in science and math between grade school and high school because it isn’t perceived to be ‘cool’.
    The highly segregated conferences you observe in networking and cybersecurity are not so different than I initially observed in nuclear chemistry and defense-related conferences. However, due to our outreach to young women at all levels I think this is no longer the case. An example is the ACS sponsored 6-week tuition paid, for credit, summer schools in nuclear and radiochemistry that usually included about the same number of young women as men. Young women often have male mentors who should take responsibility for proposing them as conference speakers and for appointments to influential committees. I was fortunate in having such mentors who helped me greatly in my career.