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Changing the climate of discrimination

Female scientists combat the persistent imbalance in their field

by Susan Bell
Gender discrimination against female scientists is rooted in hidden biases, according to a USC researcher. (Photo/courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory)
Gender discrimination against female scientists is rooted in hidden biases, according to a USC researcher. (Photo/courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory)

When Anna Krylov saw the initial program for a leading international conference in quantum chemistry to take place next year in Beijing, she sighed. She was disappointed, but not surprised.

The list of 24 invited speakers and five chairs and honorary chairs touted on the conference website in February did not include a single woman.

“This is a recurring pattern,” said Krylov, professor of chemistry at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “It happens constantly.”

For many years, Krylov and two other renowned theoretical chemists, Laura Gagliardi of the University of Minnesota, and Emily Carter of Princeton University, have monitored scientific conferences for signs of gender discrimination. They then approach organizers privately, bring the issue to their attention and politely request they rectify the situation. Often organizers agreed and even thanked them for bringing up the issue, but sometimes they responded by arguing that no female scientists were sufficiently distinguished or a good enough fit for the scope of the conference to be included.

To counter this argument, Krylov and Carter, with the help of several other scientists, compiled a list of 100 active female scientists in the field. The list illustrates that there are indeed many excellent female researchers who would be a good match for any theoretical conference agenda. Currently, the list (now a Web directory) contains more than 300 names.

However, the Beijing conference, held under the auspices of the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science (IAQMS), was the last straw that made the women decide to go public.

“When we saw this speakers list, we felt so fed up and frustrated, because it keeps happening year after year, so this time we decided to put this conference under the spotlight to make the community more aware of what is going on,” Krylov said.

“Our goal is not to punish particular people, but to change the climate and start a broader conversation.”

Striving for equal recognition

Krylov, Carter and Gagliardi reached out to the scientific community, calling for a boycott of the conference. They also created an electronic petition on change.org, a Web platform for social change.

The response was successful — the petition gathered more than 300 signatures in less than 24 hours. By March 13, more than 1,700 people worldwide had signed and left messages of support. The petition also attracted considerable media attention from leading publications including Nature, Science and Inside Higher Education.

Most importantly, it also bore results.

The 15th International Congress of Quantum Chemistry (ICQC) organizers removed the list of speakers from the website on Feb. 16 and posted an official apology from IAQMS President Josef Michl. The organization then amended the list of speakers to include six women, which exceeds the ICQC’s historic average of 10 percent.

The petition was closed on March 18, and the boycott was officially called off.

Krylov believes the problem of gender discrimination against female scientists is grounded in hidden biases.

researcher Anna Krylov

Scientist Anna Krylov

“Most of the community is relatively enlightened,” she said. “People don’t consciously want to discriminate, yet research shows over and over again that people do discriminate based on gender stereotypes.”

Nor is the problem limited to chemistry. Gender discrimination is pervasive across all scientific fields, Krylov said.

“Quantitative research shows that women are under-recognized and must do much more than men to achieve equal recognition,” she said.

Focused and concerted efforts toward changing the climate in academia are needed, she said. The Women in Science and Engineering program at USC, which was established to advance women in science and engineering, is an example of an initiative that helps women combat biases and achieve the success and recognition they deserve, she said. The program also helps to educate the community about existing problems and develop creative ways to level the playing field.

“Looking to the future, we feel strongly that gender discrimination at scientific conferences and within professional societies must stop. It’s unacceptable to invite women as an afterthought. Given the remarkable achievements of female scientists, this is unjustified,” she said.

“We plan to continue combatting the problem and hope that by raising awareness, educating our community about biases and highlighting achievements of female scientists, we contribute to changing the climate in our field.”

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