Sustainable Conferences — It is a Diversity Issue

A simple head count from the plenary shows that’s something is up at WCCM. — where are the women? (This talk was amazing btw, Prof Levitt works hard to explore systematic issues in basic science research and I think this approach will enable diversity issues to be improved!)

I’m just back from the World Conference on Computational Mechanics, held in New York City. The conference drew together 3,500 folk interested in state-of-the-art developments in computational mechanics.

The field of computational mechanics is essential to our daily lives, where we use the models and simulations to make bridges stay put, build lighter cars, and even animate our favourite characters on the big screen (yes — the last one is essential — and the mechanics of animating hair is fascinating!).

At the conference, I found the male-ness of the event astounding and even stifling. This is not a ‘bro culture’ comment (our field is far from this!) but the gender balance of the conference just felt wrong.

I’ve emailed the conference chairs and was rebuffed. In an effort to share this more widely, with a view that we can implement wider change, and for some cathartic relief I’m going to explore more below.

Note that I am going to focus on #WomenInSTEM in this post— as this is often a simple yardstick for the success of diversity approaches (or the counter argument, if we haven’t fixed #WomenInSTEM what is the chance we have addressed any of the rest?). It is clear there are issues that overlap with other groups, e.g. LGBTQ+, people of colour, disabilities. I hope that as we get better with WomenInSTEM, we will tackle issues in a manner which is also supportive of other groups (and it’ll benefit the men too — this is not a zero sum game).

Also, I know there are gender queer people too, and there is a tension when framing something around Women vs Men in STEM. I’m not sure how to square that one yet but I hope that in raising diversity issues, and keeping gender-fluid folk in mind, we can make it better for everyone.

New York is amazing — a beacon of culture & diversity, where individual talents are amazing and well rewarded.

Firstly, a caveat — much of the conference was very well organised. We all turned up to the heart of New York City and personally I learnt a tonne of new things, and managed to catch up with a few collaborators too. The individual plenaries were tremendous, and I was really impressed to learn about things like how materials discovery was forming a cornerstone of the IBM research platform (and they think that quantum chemistry is likely to be an early ‘win’ for quantum computing!).

Secondly, I am not on the conference committee and I have not played a huge role in organising big conferences. I can imagine that there is a lot of work to be done, both in front of the podium and also behind the scenes. There is also a significant amount of politics, nuance and history behind any big conference series — all of which I am unfamiliar with. I am happy to redact, improve or address any critiques that substantively change my arguments (e.g. if a WCMM organiser drops me a note to a positive initiative they are doing — I’ll link, and tweet about how awesome it is).

Now we are past the apologies, lets examine the issues:

(1) The organising committee is almost all male.

International Committee: 1F to 14M; Local Organising Committee: 2F to 4M; PANCAM II (a subconference): 2M.

This is shocking. This can be fixed. Fix it.

(2) The ‘featured talks’ are mostly male (25% female).

I got this wrong when I first tweeted this — I said it was 15%. I am sorry, I missed two speakers from the Visionary Series & I mis-gendered one speaker from the semi-plenaries (I don’t know who, and I am sorry).

However 25% is still poor. This is 9 people from 35 visionary talks. In discussions on this, the numbers could have been higher, and I do not buy into an argument that “we tried, but the individuals we invited declined” — its not who you invite that matters, it’s who you get to turn up.

Before I get to comments on “but this community is only X% female and so we should only have X% female speakers”. This is a rubbish idea. There are greater than 9 inspirational and interested female speakers. We use the plenaries to anchor our ideas, drive our community, share experiences beyond the pure ‘research’ and to enable us to change. Furthermore, we have an opportunity to use feature talks to act as a beacon and attract growth of a diverse community.

(3) The conference felt very male.

This is a situational comment, but I had one instance where I saw a session chair actively mansplaining over a speaker. It was infuriating. I had to leave the session. I suspect many other people in the audience were cringing.

I wanted to stay for the science, but I couldn’t stand it. I’d rather read the paper & hope that better people take the lead in this area of the field.

The male-ness of this conference was raised, in passing and without prompting, by a colleague. They had been at a related conference the week before and they said that it felt “very different” and that the previous conference (ICSMA) was much “more welcoming”.

The statue of liberty was (largely) built by men, but acts as a signal for all — we all need to get involved & stuck into to enabling the next generation and sustaining our profession.

I had a few suggestions in my email, which I’ll reproduce here:

“I was not an organiser of the conference, so I am not sure what was attempted/used in practice, so I can only suggest things that have been raised in previous discussions with colleagues that spill out of women in STEM & diversity issues for the conference circuit:

  1. Actively seek women and other diverse groups to be represented on the organising committee. There are plenty of talented female members of our community who are awesome, and happen to be women. I am not saying that any member of the committee is not individually talented and worthy of their place, but collectively the representation is very poor (as demonstrated above).
  2. Support caring provision, perhaps through low risk grants and awards (this may have been done) and make sure this is gender neutral in provision. (This may have been done — but you can highlight this on your website both to enable others, and to provide great “virtue signalling” that you care about equality). There could also be baby changing facilities, signposting / support of on site carers (or local provision). This is performed at the international AGU conference for example.
  3. Support and write a code of conduct and harassment policy. This will improve situations at the conference (I saw one talk where the symposium organiser was chairing the symposium, and giving the opening talk, and then subsequently mansplaining the female speaker that followed him and intimidating the audience — it was horrific to watch and I left the session soon after!).
  4. Issue an open statement to session chairs about equality, diversity and inclusivity, making quotas/targets on invited speakers (in order to be allowed to host a session, and adherence to the code of conduct). This ensure that the values are driven throughout the conference and build upon by everyone.
  5. Ensure that all awards, nominations, and similar are well represented by women and other minorities.
  6. Audit the numbers of people who attend the conference, give talks, give plenaries, and solicit feedback on how to make the conference more inclusive.”

I know the conference organisers are probably just relieved to have completed the conference, and they want to relax, so my criticism is likely difficult to take. I’m sure they worked at addressing some of these issues (and I can add comments, notes, caveats if I’m made aware!). However, the sum total in this forum left me feeling rather deflated.

The conference circuit is a busy place, and if people don’t get this right they are soon going to see people flocking to more welcoming and inclusive events.


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Dr Ben Britton

Dr Ben Britton


Atomic sorcerer, based at UBC (Canada). Plays with metals. Discusses academic life. Swooshes down ski slopes. Pegs it round parks. (Views my own)