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Nature News Blog: Chemists call for boycott over all-male speaker line up

Scientists are using blogs, social media and other web tools to call attention to inequities in the practice of science and, perhaps more importantly, to create opportunities for redressing them.  Case in point:  

Nature News Blog posting by Elizabeth Gibney, highlighted an effort by scientists to highlight the absence of women on a preliminary list of invited speakers for a major international chemistry conference. The post reads (in part): 

An open letter on the website Change.org has called for a boycott of the 15th International Congress of Quantum Chemistry (ICQC), to be held in Beijing in June 2015. The move came after a list was posted on the conference website that allegedly showed no women among 24 speakers and 5 chairs and honorary chairs. The list, screenshots of which were seen by Nature, has since been taken down.

The letter, which has gained more than 600 signatures in 48 hours, was authored by three eminent theoretical chemists: Emily Carter of Princeton University in New Jersey; Laura Gagliardi of the University of Minnesota; and Anna Krylov of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

The letter prompted a response and a potentially positive (i.e., more inclusive) outcome:

In an e-mail to Nature, Josef Michl, president of the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science (IAQMS), which runs the congress, said that the three letter writers had pointed out “a very serious problem” and were “justifiably concerned” with the partial list, which accounted for two-thirds of the eventual speakers.

According to Michl, Zhigang Shuai, a theoretical chemist from Tsinghua University who heads the conference organizing committee, had already asked Michl to send academy members the partial list and ask for suggestions of speakers — specifically women — to complete the line-up. The response to this had been excellent and the final list would be gender-balanced, Michl adds.

But the response also highlights a reliance on practices the reinforce the inertia of culture change: 

Michl’s letter, a draft of which has been seen Nature, adds that a large fraction of the people already on the list were outside the control of the organizing committee, including medalists and newly elected IAQMS members and previous organizers.

Perhaps such practices that limit opportunities for broader inclusion of scholars in communities of inquiry should be examined?  A systematic and balanced examination of these “the way we do it” practices might reveal their drawbacks and open the way for practices that benefit both the community of scientists and the scientific endeavor.  

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