Writing wrongs, righting wrongs: Gender-balance at public events

In October, The Royal Society, one of the oldest and most respected scientific institutions in the world is hosting an event with the Royal Literature Society, marking the 50-year anniversary of Rachel Carson’s death. Taking Silent Spring, her most famous work on the environmental consequences of chemical pesticides (or biocides as she preferred to called them) as the inspiration, ‘Writing Wrongs’ promises to ‘discuss the complementary roles of literature and science in saving the planet.’

The problem is, ‘Writing Wrongs’ has an all-male panel.

Earlier this week I wrote to the Royal Society asking why ‘Writing wrongs’ had an all-male panel.The email I sent and the response I received are below.

As you will see, The Royal Society responded to my email. But I felt their response was inadequate, so I’ve written a blog about it.

The Royal Society told me they’d asked a female chair, but she was unavailable. I was then told they were looking into other female speakers, but had needed to proceed with promotion of the event. Is it really that hard to find a female science writer or a leading academic working on pesticides? Not if you live in the 21st century and know how to use the Internet, write an email or operate a phone. I was then reassured, that sometimes; the Royal Society does have female representation on their panels. This was followed by some blurb and a link to their Equality and Diversity policy. Unfortunately, whenever I have challenged other event organisers on the lack of gender-balance, I have pretty much had the same response.

Gender-balanced panels aren’t a sign of tokenism. They are a sign that event organisers have asked the question: is the panel we’re proposing representative of the community of authority? In this case (and very likely in all cases), a panel of white men is not. The Royal Society should right this wrong.

My email

I am writing to you as a huge admirer of Rachel Carson, Silent Spring and her other works which are all too often neglected.

I am incredibly surprised and disappointed to see that the RS has made the decision to invite three men to speak at this public event. Surely having a balanced panel must be something that the RS is conscious of when running public events. That this is has not been considered in this case is all the more surprising. Not only is Rachel Carson one of the most celebrated environmentalists (she was also the first female biologist ever hired at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries) and nature writers of the 20th century, she was also a woman – a woman who faced discrimination because of her gender. Indeed, some of the attacks she received on publication of Silent Spring were focussed on her gender. For example, Mark Stoll on environmentandsociety.com writes,

Allegations that Carson was just a hysterical woman appeared both in the pages of chemical and agricultural trade journals as well as in the popular press. Women were imagined to be less rational, more emotional, and more sentimental than men, who could be relied upon to study the issues dispassionately and propose rational solutions.

Much more detailed accounts of her life and career can be found in environmental historian, Linda Lear’s biography, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (2009). Running an event comprising entirely male speakers is, therefore, completely inappropriate.

What I’m suggesting is not positive discrimination given that there are many equally wonderful female scientists who could have been asked to speak, indeed many are Fellows of the Royal Society. I cannot believe that the two Johns were the only possible speakers for this event. There are many female science writers (Jo Marchant, Alice Bell, Deborah Blum etc…) you could have asked, and I have no doubt there are plenty of female academics working in the same field as Professor Pickett. Or perhaps you could have invited a female journalist to chair the event. For example Damien Carrington’s colleague at the Guardian, Fiona Harvey; an award winning environmental journalist. Even if the obvious choices were not available for this event, this is still not an excuse.

As one of the oldest and most respected scientific institutions in the world, I am surprised that your events team does not have an explicit policy on gender balanced panels, particularly for public events like this. Otherwise, you risk painting the RS as an anachronistic organisation, unable to recognise its own bias.

I look forward to your reply,

————————-

Dr Victoria Johnson

And their response:

Dear Dr Johnson

 

Many thanks for your email to highlight your concerns about the event that the Society is hosting together with the Royal Society of Literature.

 

Please rest assured that we do try and ensure that our panels are balanced in terms of gender. In fact, as part of our commitment to the Your Life Campaign, we have undertaken where possible to ensure that we will have female representation on our panels. Recent Royal Society events such as ‘The next big thing’, ‘Stem cells and human health’ and ‘Resilience to disaster’ have included female panel members. For this particular event, we did invite a woman to chair the event but she was unavailable on the specific date and we were delighted that Damien Carrington, Head of Environment for the Guardian with a background in writing about pesticides, was able to take on the role. We are still identifying whether we can add another female member of the panel but wanted to proceed with the promotion of the event.

 

The Royal Society runs a number of activities aimed at increasing diversity within science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). For several years, we have had an Equality and Diversity Network (EDAN) which advises Council on diversity and we run a number of diversity programmes which you can find out more about on our website https://royalsociety.org/about-us/diversity.

 

Thank you again for writing to us about such an important subject.

 

Kind regards,

 

Comments
2 Responses to “Writing wrongs, righting wrongs: Gender-balance at public events”
  1. Scientific cavemen… the lame excuse really is a joke. Takes me 10 minutes to make a list with ten excellent female ecotoxicologists. But things are changing: the ladies are slowly taking over. The stupid brotherhood of men shows many cracks. One of our local universities here (University of Essen) currently has roughly 50% female chemistry students, Masters graduations and Ph.D.s fluctuate between fourty and 60%, depending on the year. Also Math and Physics have shown drastic increases of female students. I find that great (being the father of three very clever young ladies). An exception still is engineering. For some reason most women don’t seem to be into tinkering…

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