In which sexism leaves me speechless

There’s a lot of talk about sexism in science these days – blogposts, op-eds and tweets roll out on a daily basis, and even Parliamentary committees get worked up about it. It’s no longer a minority of isolated people concerned about the problem: it’s entirely mainstream and legitimate.

Despite this awareness, there are still plenty of problems being reported, so much so that all of the anecdotes about sexism in my profession leave me immune enough not to get really pissed off.

Most of the time.

Today I read something truly shocking. Many of you have probably heard about how chemists are calling for a boycott of the The International Congress of Quantum Chemistry for its glaring lack of female speakers in a preliminary list, despite hundreds of possible options. So far, so par for the course in this day and age, when bias and discrimination are quite rightly pointed out and criticized – against a largely supportive background.

But in an article on Salon entitled “Sexism plagues major chemistry conference: Boycott emerges amid growing outrage” (which for some bizarre reason, at the time of this post going to press, is not viewable outside of the United States), an instance of repugnance has reared its head above my normal threshold. As some of you can’t read the article in full, I reproduce here the key material (with thanks to Professor Virginia Valian for providing access to the text via email). The following is a message from one James Kress, who according to Salon is “a member of the Worldwide Who’s Who for Excellence in Science and Engineering, a nonprofit dedicated to cancer treatment research”. This is what he is reported to have written on a chemistry forum called CCL (which I think is this one, though I’m not a member so can’t check). I leave you with it – with no further commentary  – and invite you to draw your own conclusions.

Has anyone bothered to ask the organizers of the “evil” ICQC about their supposed “gender inequality” issues? Has anyone asked about the speaker selection criteria? Has anyone allowed, or asked, the “evil” organizers of the ICQC to provide a response so the members of the community can get BOTH SIDES of the story?

Has anyone determined the number of black/ Hispanic/ Asian/ American Indian etc. speakers to ensure there is no “racial inequality”? How about the number of speakers from every country on the planet to ensure these is no ”ethnic inequality”? How about the height of the speakers? Has any ensured there is no “vertical inequality” by making sure that people of all stature are “properly” represented. What about weight? We wouldn’t want to promote “Girth Inequality”, now would we? What about age? Hair color? Shoe size? Marital status? Claimed sexual orientation? Eye color? Nose length? Ability to hear? Ability to see? Ability to walk? Ability to talk? Every other “disability” status?

As one can see, once CCL starts down this path there is no end to the amount of whining and complaining that the list will have to endure. It will render CCL a wasteland of “Political Correctness”. Perhaps CCL should dedicate a part of their platform to related social issues such as these.”


If people want to discuss “gender inequality” they should start a forum on LinkedIn or Facebook or any of the many Social Media sites; or a WWMWICCL (We Want More Women I Computational Chemistry List) email list to which interested people may subscribe.

If you INSIST on discussing this on CCL, the please place an identifying header on all your emails so that those of us who care about SCIENCE, as opposed to trendy whining about supposed “gender inequality” and other fashionable modes of Political Correctness can at least have a hope of filtering out all of the nonsensical content and peruse the SCIENTIFIC content.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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12 Responses to In which sexism leaves me speechless

  1. There are some people who are so far from ‘getting it’ it’s hard to find words. I hesitate to give publicity to someone who responded wildly to my University’s letter to the Times Higher Education about gender progression, but it’s relevant to this post. (I discuss what the letter is aiming at here on OT here.

    This person’s rant says ‘We need to make it ‘easier for women to advance’, apparently; given the limited number of senior paces [sic] – financed by long-suffering taxpayers – this would equate in practise to making it ‘harder for men to advance’, needless to say. ‘

    So sexism to favour men is fine. He concludes by saying saying that ‘she and her female colleagues should be utterly ashamed of themselves.’ Strangely enough, I’m not. (If people want to know the link, do email me, but I don’t want to broadcast the site if I can help it.)

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    Astonishment and resentment over the choice of 24/24 male speakers at a conference is considered “whining?” The analogies about ethnicity, height, eye color are too ridiculous to even bother rebutting.

    As a father of a 16 year old daughter who loves (and is brilliant at) chemistry, this is extremely discouraging.

  3. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » In which sexism leaves me speechless

  4. Kate Jeffery says:

    Sheesh – somebody needs to drag Kress into the modern age. What he and his ilk fail to understand is that science and social issues are inseparable. The quality of science and the speed of its progress stand or fall on the talent of its practitioners – if you exclude 50% of a discipline’s would-be members on arbitrary criteria like gender, then you have to make up the numbers from the ranks of the less-able. It’s not rocket science to recognise that that isn’t healthy for a field.

  5. And he further demonstrated that he didn’t get it in the way he used race and ethnicity to make his “argument”.

  6. I responded to Kress on the CCL and posted my response as an essay as well. I offer it here, too, for consideration:

  7. James Thomas says:

    It has taken almost 5 minutes to think of a response. Speechless is the perfect answer to this asshattery.

  8. Professor Cramer – thank you so much for sharing your essay, about which I’m in perfect agreement. I think the most frustrating thing about Dr Kress’ original complaint, aside from the patronizing tone, was that it advocated suppressing debate altogether. This was in striking contrast to the petition campaign itself, which is remarkable for having stimulated a positive and productive response in such a civilized fashion. In fact, I think it is a model for how social change should be enacted, and I am pleased that the organizers were sensitive to where they’d gone wrong and to redressing the injustice. They definitely deserve credit for that. But as long as there are people in science who don’t believe there is a problem, or if they do, don’t think anything can be done, we have a lot of work to do.

  9. Kate, I completely agree that you can’t separate the social from the science. The subsequent debate stimulated by the original campaign has been refreshing to observe. Quite a few cobwebs being blown out, by all appearances.

  10. Tom says:

    FWIW the Salon article does now appear to be accessible in the UK.

  11. Fred says:

    I heard something interesting this morning on Radio 4 about the “Bleep Test” administered by the UK Police: run back and forward between two lines, and arrive faster than a bleep played from a HiFi – the bleeps gradually get faster, and the test takers have to run faster until they can’t keep up. Apparently, 2% of police officers failed to meet the minimum standard this year and could be dismissed. 1.3% were women and 0.7% were men.

    It’s hard to see how the bleep test (as described) has any explicit reference to gender, or any means for surreptitious manipulation by a hypothetical sexist – it must be fair – yet nevertheless it turns out that twice as many women fail the bleep test as men.

    In a physical test of stamina and speed it’s not controversial to suppose that men have a slight advantage over women. This is why sports competitions such as the Olympics allow men and women to compete separately.

    Any small difference in average performance between men and women automatically translates into a “large” difference of two small numbers when we compare the two groups at the very top or very bottom of the distribution:

    – when assessing science: the top 20 speakers who are women compared to the top 20 speakers
    – when assessing fitness: the bottom 2% of police who are women compared to bottom 2% of police

    In both cases, we’re deliberately looking deep in the tails of the performance distribution.

    This is to say that the selection process to be an invited speaker at a quantum chemistry conference could be ‘fair’ in terms of having the sole criterion to showcase the best recent scientific achievements – The selection would only have to be gender blind to produce a large excess of males over females, if the academic pipeline leading up to the point where one can submit an abstract to the conference offers a small bias in favour of men over women.

    We have an academic system in which multiple rounds of filtering are applied to kick out the bottom 85% or so at each stage (and we’re told this is a good thing) – but the inevitable consequence is that any small gender biases will be grossly amplified when we examine the very top of small number of survivors who made it through the three rounds of elimination to professor.

    Boycotting a conference will raise awareness – but the problem is almost certainly with the academic pipeline earlier downstream.

  12. Thanks Fred. While I appreciate that the problem is undoubtedly multifactorial, I don’t think the pipeline is the total problem. Unconscious bias has been shown time and again to play a huge role. In numerous studies, identical CVs with a male or female name on top are not judged equally – so when men are drawing up a list of speakers, they see a woman’s scientific achievements as being lesser to a man’s, even when they aren’t. Apparently there were hundreds of potential female speakers with the excellent track record to invite (i.e. women who had made it through the pipeline to professorial or equivalent level), but they just didn’t pop into the committee’s mind as being excellent – because they were women and subconsciously, this made them less enticing.