What do forests have to do with gender discrimination in science?
"Nothing at all," is what I might have said before attending a colloquium on forests and climate hosted by Columbia last month.
As a part of Climate Week NYC, the Earth Institute's Center for Environmental Sustainability, the Center for International Forestry Research, and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society put together an event designed to address questions about the relationship between forests and climate change. I was excited to see a former professor of mine, Dr. Cheryl Palm, give a talk about agroforestry, which had been one of the primary subjects of the course I took with her.
I got settled in my seat in Roone and unfolded my program. To my dismay, I found that of the six keynote speakers, Dr. Palm was the only woman.
The gender imbalance at this talk may not be the most blatant example of sexism: Its influence extends only to a niche audience, and although Dr. Palm was the only woman presenting her own research, she was not the only female speaker. Lisa Goddard of IRI was slated to open and close the event, and Christine Padoch of CIFOR acted as a moderator. Nevertheless, such subtle, systemic instances of discrimination are not more forgivable than their more outrageous counterparts in the sciences—both in and outside of Columbia—that I have discussed in previous columns.
More importantly, the skew irked me because the selection of speakers is often based on merit of research. This suggests that the work of women does not meet the same rigorous standards as the research conducted by men. As I listened to the first few speakers, I found myself wondering whether Dr. Palm was truly the only high-powered female research scientist affiliated with Columbia who deserved to be on such a panel, speaking about climate.
The answer is a resounding no. From my own reporting on urban ecology for The Eye, I know that there are several other women associated with Columbia who might have provided worthy insight into the relationships between forest functionality and climate change. Take Krista McGuire, a young professor at Barnard whose previous work has focused on how microbial communities have responded to human impacts in tropical forests. McGuire may not yet have achieved Palm's research seniority, but that does not diminish the significance of her work. If concerns over prestige are an issue, why not invite Professor Ruth DeFries? DeFries, who is the outgoing chair of the department of ecology, evolution, and environmental biology, was named by Thomson Reuters in "The World's Most Influential Scientific Minds 2014," recently published a popular science book titled "The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis," and worked for many years on deforestation and changing land use in the tropics.
I'm not alone in arguing that gender equity at such events should be prioritized to a higher degree than is currently done at Columbia and many other institutions. In July, Jonathan Eisen—one of science's most famous Twitter personalities and the author of the popular blog The Tree of Life—was lauded for turning down a paid honorarium at a conference because there were too few women invited to speak there. According to Eisen, there is no basis for an uneven ratio of male to female speakers in biology because there are enough women doing great work to be included equally alongside their male peers—in his letter to the conference host, he wrote, "As someone who is working actively on multiple issues relating to gender bias in science, I find this [gender ratio skew] very disappointing. I simply cannot personally contribute to a series which has such an imbalance and I would suggest that you consider whether anything in your process is biased in some way."
The same argument has been made in chemistry, where women have persistently been excluded from conferences despite their increasing contributions to the field. As Salon reported, the initial list of speakers for the International Congress of Quantum Chemistry was 100 percent male. This was despite the availability of numerous women who hold esteemed positions in theoretical chemistry, according to Anna Krylov, a professor of chemistry at USC who petitioned the event on these grounds and maintains the Women in Theoretical Chemistry Web Directory.
While the issue of underrepresentation at academic symposia may seem trivial, it is a well-documented phenomenon with a pernicious subtext: That even as the number of women in scientific careers increases, their research is inferior to the work of their male counterparts and ought not be afforded the honor of discussion at a conference.
As scientific gatherings around the world attempt to address this attitude through targeted workshops, Columbia should be no exception to endeavors to increase the exposure of women's work in their respective fields. And while Eisen's contribution deserved its accolades, this change should not require a prominent male scientist's scrutiny and advocacy to be instigated. Rather, it should be the obvious next step towards the fair representation of women in the realm of science, both at Columbia and elsewhere.
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