The Transparency Project: The scientific panel as a place for feminist science practice

Just recently, I enjoyed reading a great blog post about gender diversity in the constitution of conference panels here. Long story short: Jenny Martin, who runs the blog cubistcrystal, wrote about intervening in the lack of gender diversity on conference panels in her field of crystallography. It’s a great post; well-written, full of pragmatic advice, and some guidelines about what might work and what to do when it doesn’t. That blog post links to a petition about committing to gender equity at scholarly conferences (not just scientific ones). All this got me thinking because thinking is one of the things I like to do.

Recently, I was on a panel that had five speakers, four of whom identified as women and one of whom identified as a man. Eight percent is a lot of women! Also, there was lots of sexual diversity, with folks identifying as straight, bisexual, lesbian, gay, and probably many other identities too. That’s a lot of sexual diversity! But one thing stuck out at me as I slowly found out whom the other speakers were: we were four white folks, plus one ethnic minority (Latina/o). There’s a part of me that wants to name this the “+1 approach”, after ‘you are invited to this occasion, plus one’ that I hear gets put on fancy invitations (but wouldn’t know because I’m really un-fancy) (you’re probably like: really fancy invitations would never do that, and I’m all like: I’m busy rolling in mud with the rest of us un-fancy folks, so whatever!). But I don’t want to be snarky about the presence of any kind of diversity because that undermines the attempts that people do make. I do, apparently, want you to know that I have a good snarky joke ready.

Though I absolutely 100% recognize that you can’t represent all social locations in one panel, the constitution of panels that are diverse by one metric but not others is still worth thinking about. So, thinking about the relative lack of ethnic/racial diversity on the panel I was on, I wondered: should I encourage the organizers to invite some folks of color to the panel, offering my spot if they needed it? There were lots of great scholars doing exciting work I could imagine. Maybe the organizers had invited some other scholars of color, who had declined, and us white folks +1 were all that were left. I knew the organizers to be progressive folks, which almost made it harder for me (poor me, invited to the panel, life’s so hard!). It’s almost easier to say something to folks you know not to be progressive because they will either be like “OMG, sorry, you’re right!” or “you’re a crazy feminist jerk and this is about merit and obviously no minorities have merit and how dare you call us racist?!” Either of which is awesome because in the first case you’ve spoken up, they’ve answered positively and learned, and things move forward. In the second case, you can be righteously mad and push for change (not that being mad is awesome, but it’s a clear emotion and you can have a clear goal). But, if you’re like me, you’ve had experiences of addressing marginalizations within marginalized groups, like thinking about women of color issues within feminist (read: white feminist) spaces, or discussing trans issues within lesbian/gay spaces, and those experiences have sometimes been disheartening. I often think: oy, groan, if these folks don’t get it, WHO WILL? No one. The world is crap and I’m going to live under a rock, if someone can figure out how to get Amazon to ship tampons to a rock. So, I didn’t say anything and, after wringing my hands for months, I feel badly for my not-action and also complicit (and, no, I don’t think my apology and acknowledgement somehow are magically atonement that erase my guilt and responsibility, but I’m also not self-flagellating for a decade either because there is, incredibly, a middle ground, even to us feminists).

What should I have done, in the case of concern about the social locations of a conference panel make-up? Well, when I invite people to a panel, I think a lot about the diversity of social locations of those scientists and scholars I’m inviting. I try pretty hard and lose some sleep (and I really like sleep. It’s up there with milkshakes). It doesn’t always work out how I want it, to be honest, or how I should want it but haven’t gotten far enough, but more often than not, it’s an ok line-up in terms of representing underrepresented groups. I say this not to be like: wow, how awesome am I?! Am I right?! SOMEONE GET THIS WOMAN A MILKSHAKE TO REWARD HER AWESOMENESS. (Obviously, that last part is a lie, because I am all-milkshake-ready, all-the-time.) But more to say that when you think about it, not surprisingly, you have better outcomes than when you don’t. That’s obvious, but still a hard-learned lesson for most of us some of the time. But there’s a second secret lesson in here, to be honest, because I am just that sneaky. I think about the panel line-up before I do the inviting and also while people are accepting/declining. If I looked at my panel’s diversity after I invited everyone, it would be pretty useless, eh? Like, let’s check I have a diverse panel that represents the diversity of my field rather than my own myopia. OH NO! I am shocked to learn that my myopia struck again and the panel’s not diverse! Good thing I can change the panel now, right? OH NO! Apparently once you’ve invited people, they don’t take kindly to being disinvited and it’s seen as “inappropriate”! What shall I do?! Nothing. NO THING. There’s nothing to do afterwards, but suck it up and swear at yourself. And, of course, learn not to do it again. That seems obvious, too, but I think it’s also a hard-earned lesson for many of us.

This was the biggest room I had spoken in in 2011. Luckily I had the photo in my facebook because otherwise I would have had to pay for stock photos of empty rooms, which seems indefensible.

This is an empty room. How would you fill it? I would fill it with milkshake people, but diverse milkshake people.

But what about the panel I was on? That’s where the secret lesson really comes in (it’s like I’m a TV show writer, inserting cliffhangers before each commercial and then never really delivering. Well, HERE’S WHERE I DELIVER. SORT OF). If I’m invited to a panel and wait until after the line-up is announced to peruse its diversity, what can I do then? No. Thing. Yet, I’m on the panel so it kind of looks like I’ve put my imprimatur on it in a way, even though I’m not the organizer. I’m lending my name to the panel (I have no delusions of grandeur, but if I make a hilarious self-deprecating joke about how no one would know me so I wouldn’t add anything, that doesn’t really make women in science look strong, so you can see I’m stuck between a rock [joke about any obscurity I might have] and a hard place [suggesting that my name might actually be known to one person out there and then being thought of as an arrogant stuck-up dragon lady bitch scientist, even though that’s – obviously – my favorite kind of scientist!]), and the panel is lending its authority to me. I mean, that’s probably partly why I said yes, right? Like, being on the panel is somehow good/useful/important/worthwhile for my career. So I can’t have it two ways, I can’t be on the panel and get the small authority boost I’d like from being on it while denying it has anything to do with me. So, wow, here I’ve gone on for some time, promising secret lessons and tricks, but where are they? In the next paragraph. I swear.

I now realize that the time to find out whether the panel I’m on is diverse is before I give a final acceptance. For example, I may be the first person they invite. Should I say no because the other people are nonexistent, and therefore the panel of one is not very diverse? Obviously, no, because sense-making is a good thing. But I could say “Wow – thanks for the wonderful invitation and for thinking of me. I’d love to sit on your panel, though I have a personal/professional/academic commitment to increasing the diversity of conference panels so that they better represent the diversity of our field and involve people who are sometimes left out because of majority groups’ perceptions of people who occupy minority social locations. So, here is my enthusiastic yes assuming that the panel reflects diversity along a number of social location axes that reflect under-representation in our field. Keep me posted, and let me know if I can help in any way. Looking forward to being a part of this great, exciting, cutting-edge, diverse panel that will ignite our field!” (I like enthusiasm just a little bit!)

I think it’s critical to think of under-representation and diversity in a local way. One of my academic homes is feminist scholarship/women’s studies/ gender studies. Do you think having a panel of five women is very diverse? It’s not a problem to have five women, but it’s not really taking any step towards diversity. There are intersectional locations (e.g., women with disabilities, women who have transitioned, women of color, women from low income groups, women who have immigrated, along with gender-diverse peoples and many other important social locations) that experience minoritization and marginalization in some spaces of feminist scholarship. So having 5 white women is not ‘diversity’ for feminist scholarship even though it might be for many fields of science (though we’d still want to think hard about the potential for snow-blindness amidst all that whiteness).

Is thinking about social location variety tokenism? Tokenism is inviting someone to your scientific panel only because of their social location to “diversity up” your line-up and for no other reason. Like, tokenism is adding a stroke of color to make your artwork of presenters visually appealing. Thinking about social locations because you want to balance your own social location myopia or that of your field is not tokenism; it’s acknowledging your limits and biases, and working to change norms in your field so that certain groups aren’t repeatedly ignored, forgotten, or excluded.

I was once on a program committee where a very senior person (VSP) made it a point to ask about the gender diversity of speakers, alongside other considerations (e.g., geographic location). Someone else asked in a mild but still challenging way: Is that important? The VSP said: Yes. It definitely is. What an amazing move! Instead of justifying the ‘yes’, VSP made it the other person’s responsibility to explain why gender diversity wasn’t important. I.e., instead of going on the defensive or reactive, VSP made gender diversity the center rather than the margins. No one did any dislodging because who wants to be the jerk who’s all like “I hate gender diversity”? That said, often people will be that person, so it’s not like this strategy is foolproof, but still: it’s an important rhetorical move (I mean rhetoric in the sense here of thoughtful and strategic discussion/debate) and it worked.

The reason I like the cubistcrystal post so much is because it gives such clear guidelines to something I didn’t know what to do about… So many times, we don’t have an idea of what to actually do. Each time there is a conference or a panel or I’m on a program committee, I see the lack of diversity as a problem on two levels: when I want to deal with it, it seems local, idiosyncratic, and individual; when I recognize it, it seems systemic and structural. And how do you have a systemic response to local problems? The cubistcrystal post provides a model of how to do that. You have a principle (panels should reflect diversity of field and practitioners) and then a plan (I will take part in panels that reflect that diversity). There’s no handwringing, dancing and tiptoeing around, wondering what to do each time the same thing happens in a different costume. You just do the same thing, slightly adapted to each field. Martin focuses on gender for reasons that probably have to do with a glaring underrepresentation of women in her field’s conference panels. The same principle undergirds focusing on any and all underrepresented social locations, using intersectionality as our guide (e.g., is it really all men on the panels, or all white/western/straight/able-bodied/etc. men and is it really just women who are missing?). For me, this principle is social justice in terms of science reflecting its diversity and not further marginalizing marginalized groups, such that adding women isn’t really the solution, even if it’s a start. If it’s an end, then we haven’t really gotten anywhere, to my mind, in the path to feminist science. So my view of feminist science isn’t ‘add women’ or ‘add gender’, it’s ‘incorporate social justice.’

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2 Responses

  1. Stacey Ritz says:

    (a) re: Amazon tampon delivery to your rock. Consider acquiring a silicone menstrual cup before you relocate. One will last you for years and years and years, and then you will also not have to worry about an accumulation of used tampons in your rock vicinity.

    (b) re: “arrogant stuck-up dragon lady bitch scientist”. I want this on a T-shirt or bumper sticker.

    (c) YES to your closing sentence. And to a lot of your other sentences as well.

    (d) In the last couple of years I’ve been turned on to the importance of thinking about one’s own privilege in any question of social justice….that is to say, thinking about the ways I *benefit* from the (unjust) way things are….and not just the ways that ‘others’ are disadvantaged. Cuz it’s relatively easy to focus on the disadvantages of others, but takes more effort to think about how I myself benefit from that situation; and I don’t think we can really address oppression if we don’t address privilege. So I’m trying to apply that lens to this problem here, and my thoughts are still fuzzy and vague. I will reflect further on this and come back when I have something more coherent to say. 🙂

  2. Sari van Anders says:

    (a) Duly considered.
    (b) Who doesn’t?! Someone needs to get on that. I vote not-me. But I definitely want the t-shirt when not-me makes it.
    (c) Yes to your yes 🙂
    (d) I agree. It’s really easy to look at disadvantaged others without considering our own positionality and complicity in the system that, surprise!, disadvantages others. ‘Cause there’s no disadvantage without some overadvantage (I think). I think taking an active role in conference panel make-ups, even when you’re not the organizer, is a valuable one to this end. Because it’s a privilege to be invited, and you can use that privilege to address oppression, or reject that privilege if folks won’t get on the social justice train with you. But come back, even with fuzzy and vague thoughts 🙂

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