Gender Imbalance in Plenary Lecturers at the BBOCS conference

[Update 9th Feb. Added live link to Chemistry In Australia February issue web edition]

First a disclaimer, I have been on the BBOCS organising committee twice in the last decade or so.

The Brisbane Biological and Organic Chemistry Symposium is the annual one-day meeting for chemists in the south-east Queensland region, with delegates from industry and academia. One of the principle purposes is to give young researchers especially students an opportunity to present their work and get exposure to touring, usually international speakers. Last year there were no female plenary speakers. Nor the year before. In fact in Brisbane we have seen only 1 female plenary speaker in the last 14 years, and none since 2007.[1]
ratiosSo back in October I wrote a letter to the editor of Chemistry in Australia, magazine of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute pointing out this imbalance. Happily I received same-day confirmation that they would publish my letter, and it has just appeared in the February print edition of the magazine.[2]  I have also just been given permission to republish he letter here, so here it is in full:

Gender Imbalance

I wish to highlight the gender imbalance in RACI-invited speakers to the annual Regional Organic Chemistry Symposia, typically held in Late November/early December.

These regional symposia are run by the local branches but the invited, typically overseas plenary speakers are chosen at a divisional level, and typically visit several cities where the branches host them. In Brisbane, this conference is called BBOCS (Brisbane Biological and Organic Chemistry Symposium), which evolved from BOCS in 2001 to reflect the increase in biologically focussed chemistry being done in the region. BBOCS is typically rotated amongst the 3 major campuses in Brisbane – University of Queensland, Griffith University and Queensland University of Technology, with these institutions themselves rotating the event between the hemistry departments themselves and various research institutes. The Melbourne event is known as the Melbourne Annual Organic Synthesis Symposium, and the NSW/Canberra event is the One-Day Symposium.

Drawing upon my own collection of local BBOCS programs, and limited publicly available programs for Victoria and New South Wales, it is disturbing that Brisbane has seen only 1 female speaker in the last 14 years (out of 26 speakers), although one of the 2010 RACI invited speakers was female but could not make it to Brisbane.

Please note that this is not a complaint directed at the regional organisers who organise the program around the speakers that the RACI provides, and generally perform excellently in providing a balanced program, particularly with regards to student and early career speakers.

I would like to suggest that the Institute consider developing a policy regarding the selection process for invited speakers. This might include, for example, ensuring that the committee selecting speakers is gender-balanced itself.

This letter is a personal letter from me, and does not reflect the views of any employers past or present. Martin Stoermer MRACI CChem

First published in Chemistry in Australia, www.chemaust.raci.org.au

At some point the e-version of the magazine will become available and for readers who are also RACI members I will post the link here. The e-version of the magazine is now available here.

Why is this situation the case? I have in the few days since the appearance of the print edition received emails from Australia and overseas RACI members. One respondent has told me, although not yet confirmed, that the visiting lecturers are not chosen by the RACI per se, but rather by the organising committee of the Melbourne Annual Organic Synthesis Symposium and that the RACI then facilitates their travel within Australia to the other centres.

Whoever is reponsible, this needs to change. It’s a pretty poor example to be setting, especially for local female honours students who never get to go to a major conference and so this is their only chance of seeing role models. As I suggested in the letter there needs to be a clear policy regarding the selection process for invited speakers. and that the committee selecting speakers should itself be gender-balanced.[3]

So what can we do about it? Well the main reason I did this via a letter to the editor is to raise awareness of this issue in those people who have the ability to be the agents of change: RACI members. I would hazard a guess that very few of them follow me on Twitter or read this blog, so going straight to their main RACI new source seems, to me at least, the best way to get the message out. Secondly delegates to these conferences should get in the ear of the organisers and let them know that a more inclusive program is required. A good opportunity for this might for example be next months Chem Beers or Women in Chemistry events in Melbourne. Next time the RACI board voting papers come into your mailbox, take a good close look at the individual candidates policy on gender equity.

I don’t have the data for other chemistry divisions within RACI and the symposia they hold but I’m also a firm believer in “Think global, act local”. In this case speak of what you know. Does anyone has similar data for other symposia and divisions?. I also foolishly threw out my pre-2000 abstract books for the old BOCS symposia so I can’t be more comprehensive. Unfortunately not every BBOCS symposium included a list of delegates, nor an easy breakdown of whether the local speakers were students, postdocs, PIs or industry delegates but if anyone has this data I’d urge you to either add it in the comments or even better upload the details to Kat Holt’s excellent web site.[4]

[1]. Raw data below, drawn from my own collection of BBOCS emails and abstract book, plus limited interstate data from available websites. If you have any of the missing data feel free to drop me a line either on Twitter (@MartinStoermer) or in the comments.

Year BBOCS Melbourne Sydney/ACT
2001  Sungak Kim, A Ganesan
2002  Chris Easton, David James
2003  James T Palmer, Philippe Renaud
2004  Richard Taylor, Keith Jones, Ernst Schaumann, Paul Savage
2005  Jonathan Claydon, Rainer Herges
2006  Mukund Sibi
2007  Youla Tsantritos*, Chris Abell
2008  Cancelled
2009  Garry Taylor, Antony Fairbanks
2010  Chaozhong Li  Margaret Brimble*, Chaozhong Li  Chaozhong Li
2011  Barry Trost , Philip Chan  Barry Trost, Dirk Trauner, Philip Chan
2012  Scott Rychnovsky, Derek Pratt  Scott Rychnovsky, Derek Pratt Scott Rychnovsky, Derek Pratt, Rainer Herges
2013  Tom Rovis, Samuel Gerritz  Tom Rovis, Samuel Gerritz  Tom Rovis, Samuel Gerritz
2014  Regan Thomson, Chris Vanderwal  Regan Thomson, ChrisVanderwal  Regan Thomson, Chris Vanderwal

[2]. I do note the irony that a 4-month lead time for publishing in print has necessitated me waiting his long to blog, plus the added wrinkle that the paper version appeared before the online one.

 
[3]. See for example: Martin JL (2014) Ten Simple Rules to Achieve Conference Speaker Gender Balance. PLoS Comput Biol 10(11): e1003903. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003903 

[4]. Holt K (2014) Gender balance in scientific conferences (Australia). https://sites.google.com/site/aussiescience/

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About martin

almost on holidays
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