Microbial Centennial of Men

5 minute read


I’m sure Jon Eisen will have much more to say on this very shortly, but I just saw a post on Elisabeth Bik’s blog about Wageningen University’s Microbiology Centennial, which features ten keynote speakers who are all male. Womp womp.

A few reactions -

Not surprised. Damn it.

And then when I scrolled down the page to see the keynote speakers for myself, very surprised at how physically worse it felt to see their faces of ten men than to have merely read Bik’s description (even though her description also really hurts):

That is 11 men.

No women. I guess no women have contributed to the success of the Laboratory of Microbiology in the last decades. Thanks ladies for all your hard work. Now move over, please, so that the guys can present your fantastic research!

Then even more surprised to see that the organizing committee has three women on it and only one man - but on further inspection it seems that the three women are admins or communications/marketing staff, and the man is a professor. I imagine he whipped up a list of the ten most influential people he could think of (AKA his friends AKA other successful people like him AKA other dudes like him AKA dudes) and haphazardly gave it to the admins to roll with it.

Okay, maybe I’m bad-mouthing that one dude. Looks like there’s a Scientific Committee as well. Oh, nevermind - five out of five men on there too. Please, tell me more about your friends.

I’ve been on a symposium-organizing committee for the past year and a half, and the thing I’m proudest of is that we’ve committed to inviting speakers from diverse scientific and personal backgrounds. Last year, we accidentally invited almost all female speakers. This year, we’re also on track to have a much more representative group than this centennial celebration. I’ve learned two things from my experience organizing our symposium:

  1. It really isn’t that hard to host a symposium that’s not all male. srsly.
  2. But you have to decide that it’s something you want and be actively aware of it - otherwise, the status quo truly is white and male.

Last week, a graduate student leader emailed our department with student-nominated speakers for a seminar next Spring. All five nominees were male. I emailed the student to point this out, she said she was happy to add more names to the list, I asked my badass female engineer friends for some recommendations, and I sent her five additional names that she added. But the most frustrating part of that experience was that the organizer, a very successful graduate student in engineering and a woman herself, saw the list of five men and sent it out anyway. She mentioned feeling uncomfortable with tweaking the list in any way, for fear of conflict of interest - which I interpreted to mean as not wanting to be perceived of rigging it somehow. Isn’t it amazing that we women in STEM are less comfortable with a perceived transgression on these “conflicts of interest” than we are with perpetuating our own lack of representation? That we’re less comfortable with speaking up (which is only one step away from nagging which is only one step away from being seen as “difficult” or a bitch) than we are with supporting other badass women in science by nominating them and by inflating the list with their names when we see an all-male candidate pool? That even when we have power, we still use it as if we didn’t.

At our last symposium meeting, I proposed to my co-organizers that we publicly post our symposium policy on our commitment to diversity and how we choose speakers. I was really surprised to get some pushback - some of it was deserved (I was not very tactful and the meeting was running late) but some of it I think was based in this exact kind of discomfort. Life has not ever been and will never be a pure meritocracy. Men know this – actually, they’re probably oblivious, since they’ve never needed to confront it! Why do we women hold ourselves to a higher standard on ”meritocracy” than the men in our fields?

I think any woman who’s grappled with these thoughts knows the answer. What would have happened if that Scientific or Organizing Committee had a woman scientist on it? How much harder would she have had to work to convince these men that the women she wanted to invite were as worthy as their buds? How many brain gymnastics would she do to make sure that she wasn’t being perceived as playing with Woman Card? What if she didn’t have tenure, and they all did? How strong would she have to be to push back against an all-male conference?

(Also important to note that all ten keynotes also seem to be white. I left out this aspect of the discussion mostly because I don’t know enough about race outside of the United States’ context to feel anywhere near comfortable commenting about it. Wageningen University is in the Netherlands, where 80% of the population is Dutch AKA probably white.)


eliesbik: Great post - thanks for your perspective and experience!