May 16, 2013

Terence’s Stuff: A Rant

Does ranting help? Would the threat of an in-column suicide galvanize people into action? Would it help if we all shouted out of our windows: I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore! Should we take a leaf out of Aristophanes’ playbook, and withhold some privileges from men until they see sense? To paraphrase:

LYSISTRATA: Calonice, it’s more than I can bear, I am hot all over with blushes for our sex. Men say we’re inferior.
CALONICE:    And aren’t they right?

What has got me going again, in this seemingly never-ending battle for gender equity? Nothing unusual really, just a few things we’ve all come to accept without comment. But on this occasion they happened in the same month, and the combined message struck me forcefully.

First, I opened the brochure we all received enticing us to the JSM in Montreal. Scanning the page headed “Keynote Speakers”, my heart sank. I saw no fewer than 15 faces, and just one woman: the ASA President. Apparently the IMS—our IMS—can nominate seven Medallion Lecturers, one Rietz Lecturer, and one Wald Lecturer, to join our President, who will give his Address, and not notice or not care that there isn’t a single woman among them. I thought back to the Barcelona meeting ten years ago, where we fought hard to include a statement of principle preventing this from happening, and I re-learned the lesson that fine words are not enough. We have no enforcers of our resolutions, and no matter what we agree upon, it can and will be ignored when we want to ignore it. Women notice, have no doubts about that. Should it pass without comment by men? For the record, there were no women at all in the line-up of keynote speakers at the San Diego JSM in 2012, and I didn’t notice until it was pointed out to me—by a woman.

But wait, aren’t things supposed to be getting better? Haven’t people been banging on about gender equity for a couple of decades now? Well, yes and no. This year the US National Academy of Sciences elected 84 new Members, including 21 women, while the Royal Society of London elected 44 new Fellows, and among them nine women. But my learned society, the Australian Academy of Sciences, elected 20 new Fellows this year, and every one of them was male.

What are we to conclude? That the IMS is a society with so few capable women members that it could not find one worthy of joining its male President in giving a keynote lecture at its annual meeting? That women in Australian science are so weak relative to men, in comparison with their counterparts in the US and the UK, that there is not one woman scientist in that nation whose case was as strong as those of the 20 men who were elected? Can’t we do better?

My third and fourth incidents for the month came from a post-workshop dinner, where I was lucky enough to sit with two outstanding women scientists, both active on the gender equity front. One was from a prominent US college of medicine. She had made inquiries concerning the appointment levels and pay of women and men at her institution. Following her request, someone had kindly provided this information, and it was dynamite. The pay disparities were dramatic. She complained, but nothing has been done. Equal pay for equal work in the academy in 2013: forget it!

My other dinner companion was a senior professor in a medical centre in the Netherlands, and chair of her centre’s gender equity committee. Her story was all too familiar. No significant recommendations from her committee ever got acted upon, because the dean of her centre was unsupportive. Her committee was a sham.

In many places around the world, including my own institute, gender equity is in the hands of the powerful men who run the show. If they are supportive, great strides can be made. Please don’t get me wrong: I like this! What I don’t like is the fact that when these men don’t agree, nothing happens. There is as yet no groundswell from the large body of men receiving inequitable, but favorable, treatment in their professions, towards redressing these gender-related imbalances. Most men, in my institute and my dinner companion’s centre in the Netherlands, in the IMS, and elsewhere, are content to leave the matter to their directors, deans or presidents. If these senior men don’t care about gender equity, nothing happens.

This started as a rant, but ends with a call to arms. When will you—all you men out there—join the battle for gender equity? Don’t just leave it to women to challenge the men who rule their lives.



  • Terry is right, it is a shame that not a single woman is among the IMS special lecturers this year, and nobody seems to have noticed until now (The names of special lecturers for 2013 were decided in 2011). I wanted to know whether this is an exceptional year and I counted the
    following number of women among Medallion lecturers:
    2003: 3, 2004: 1, 2005: 0, 2006: 0, 2007: 2, 2008: 1, 2009: 1, 2010: 2, 2011: 2, 2012: 1,
    2013: 0, 2014: 1, 2015: 2
    So generally, IMS has done a bit better in other recent years, but on the other hand the
    last female named lecturer (Wald, Rietz, Neyman, Le Cam) was in 2003.

    In appointing members to committees we better live up to our statement of principle, but
    we need to think again how we can improve the process of selecting special lecturers.
    We will discuss it at the Council meeting in Montreal.

  • Terry, Thank you again for the attention you call to this issue! As a woman scientist, I am saddened that this would still occur, particularly in our field which is probably >50% female… It is unfortunately worse in other fields of science. I have a new opportunity to lead some quantitative initiatives, and I will seek your help and advice as well as make sure that women are front and center.

  • […] lectures of IMS, triggered by the fact that this year all these lectures were given by men (cf. Terry Speed’s column in the June/July 2013 issue). There is a broader issue within IMS regarding how to increase the representation of women, and […]

  • […] reaction to the absence of women among IMS special invited lecturers in 2013 (see the article by Terry Speed in the June/July issue), Council had an intensive discussion at the Council meeting in Montreal and by email during […]

  • […] that the new Bulletin affords; this can be a powerful tool. To give an example, Terry’s “Rant” in the June/July 2013 issue was a thought-provoking article on gender (in)equality and the apparent under-representation […]

  • I had a very similar reaction when I looked at the invited speakers for a conference in my area. 76 invited all up (plenary, tutorial and invited). 2 women, which will be below the proportion attending the conference. It makes me so frustrated.

    I have been thinking of a sort of Bechdel test for conferences. It would go like this:
    Does the organising committee have at least one woman on it?
    Is there at least one woman who is a Keynote speaker?
    Was the woman keynote speaker suggested by someone other than the woman on the committee?
    I’m thinking of calling it the “Franklin” test, in honour of Rosalind Franklin.

    This is a very very low standard to meet- personally I think that if conferences can’t meet even this very low standard they should not receive public grants or underwriting from professional societies.

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