Celebrating Alfred Russel Wallace with … a symposium of only straight white men?

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A sample of Alfred Russel Wallace’s butterfly collection, which is a lot more colorful than the panel of speakers UCLA has chosen to celebrate his legacy. (Natural History Museum, London)

Update, 31 October: Elizabeth Long asked me to post the following statement about developments since the letter was sent last week:

Perhaps rather naively, I didn’t anticipate the amount of publicity our letter regarding the upcoming public Wallace Centennial Celebration would generate. I had hoped to start a discussion about the issues surrounding diversity and safety in STEM that were raised, and I’m glad to say that this has happened. I have had several very thoughtful and productive conversations with the event organizers and I can confidently and emphatically say that issues surrounding diversity and equality are very important to them. In various ways they’ve each shown this commitment, throughout their careers, through concrete actions.

I asked one of the organizers to help summarize the history of the event. Paraphrasing our discussion: In this specific case the original grant submission included women speakers (4 of 8 speakers) but for various reasons they were ultimately not able to participate. The event organizers wanted to host speakers who are not only excellent scientists and speakers but are also knowledgeable about Wallace and his legacy, which led to a narrow set of selection criteria and led to the original publicized lineup. The revised lineup includes two remarkable women, one an historian of science, and the other an evolutionary medicine specialist.

Update, 29 October: It’s been brought to my attention that the list of symposium speakers now includes Soraya de Chadarevian and Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, which suggests that the organizers are making some changes.

Update, 25 October: I’ve amended the headline of this post to better reflect, I hope, that what the letter and its signatories object to is not the inclusion of white men on the symposium panel, but the lack of inclusion of similarly accomplished folks from groups that are systematically underrepresented in science. As I note below, the panelists are highly accomplished, and appropriate for the Wallace Centennial—but the panel could include women as well without compromising the prestige or topicality of its membership.

2014 marks a century since the death of Alfred Russel Wallace, who is recognized as co-discoverer, with Charles Darwin, of evolution by natural selection. Appropriately, the University of California Los Angeles is holding a symposium of biologists and natural historians to celebrate Wallace’s life and work. Unfortunately, the panel of speakers chosen for the symposium doesn’t exactly reflect the diversity of humanity, or even humans who are biologists and natural historians. Although there are lots of very accomplished folks on the panel who will likely give interesting talks, they’re all straight (so far as I know) white men. That’s right, the Alfred Russel Wallace Centennial fails the gay bar test pretty spectacularly.

Elizabeth Long, a biologist at UCLA and the Natural History Museum of LA, has organized a group of folks to write a letter to the symposium organizers pointing this out—and, just to make it clear how unnecessary an all-male panel is, included a list of accomplished ecologists and evolutionary biologists who are not men. The letter, which I’ve co-signed, also points out that an all-male panel exacerbates problems that women already encounter in academia, and is at odds with Wallace’s legacy as a supporter of equal rights for women. But I’ll let you read the full text, which is after the jump:

Dear Drs. Lee, Blumstein, Grinnell, and Gowaty,

We are writing to you today regarding the upcoming Alfred Russel Wallace Centennial Celebration at UCLA. We are pleased to hear that Wallace’s important contributions to numerous scientific fields are to be recognized by UCLA. Wallace is undoubtedly an under- appreciated figure in the history of evolutionary biology, and for many of us his contributions have been foundational for our work.

Upon viewing the information on the website, however, our enthusiasm quickly turned to extreme disappointment. Several components of this upcoming event are troubling, including the involvement of the partner organizations and Michael Shermer. But perhaps the most glaring concern is the complete lack of diversity in the speaker lineup. As we are sure you are aware, STEM fields are struggling with a very real and very public problem concerning diversity, sexism, and discrimination against underrepresented groups. Schroeder et al. (2013) found that, in the case of women, one contributing factor to this type of underrepresentation is the lack of visibility afforded by being invited speakers at organized meetings.

Past experience suggests that conference organizers are often unaware of suitable candidate speakers from underrepresented groups. This lack of visibility creates a self- perpetuating cycle. To assist the organizing committee of this particular event we have included here a list of 47 women, across all career stages and spanning multiple fields of expertise, who would be excellent speakers on the topic. We are confident that there are many, many more women with the relevant skills who would be good additions to this list. The same could be said for members of other underrepresented groups including ethnic and racial minorities and the LGBTQ community.

We find it encouraging that an increasing awareness of this issue has led prominent scientists to turn down invitations to speak at conferences or seminar series that show a history of this type of lack of diversity ([link]). We hope that in the future UCLA, EEB, and the organizing committee will show a greater commitment to increasing diversity among speakers, and thus contribute to correcting the imbalances that are rampant in our field. Members of the community can do so by making a commitment to hosting a more diverse group of speakers at these type of events; turning down invitations to conferences, meetings, and other venues that do not share this commitment; and insisting that partner groups such as those contributing to the Wallace symposium also share this commitment. In cases where these types of partner groups are unwilling to host a diverse speaker group, these partnerships should be declined or dissolved.

If we truly wish to honor and celebrate Wallace, we should recognize that he was a public advocate of women’s rights. “As reported in The Times on 11 February 1909, he wrote:’ All the human inhabitants of any one country should have equal rights and liberties before the law; women are human beings; therefore they should have votes as well as men.’” (Kutschera 2014). Many of the same hurdles faced by women also inhibit other groups, and it is important to actively recognize and correct these imbalances whenever possible to be truly inclusive and welcoming of diversity in STEM.

Sincerely,
Elizabeth Long, Ph.D, UCLA and Natural History Museum of Los Angeles
Catherine Newman, Louisiana State University
Emily Hartop, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles
Oscar Johnson, Louisiana State University
Christine Thacker, Ph.D, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles
Kayce Anderson, Ph.D, Colorado State University
Jeremy Yoder, Ph.D, University of Minnesota
Jann Vendetti, Ph.D, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles
Kathryn Picard, Duke University
Genevieve Mount, Louisiana State University
Matthew L. Brady, Louisiana State University
Sarah Hird, PhD, UC Davis
Heather Dwyer, Ph.D, Carnegie Melon University
Sarah Brown, Ph.D, UC Davis
Jessica Eberhard, Ph.D, Louisiana State University
Michael G. Harvey, Louisiana State University
Leslie Rissler, Ph.D, University of Alabama
Ryan Runquist, Ph.D, University of Minnesota
Morgan Kelly, Ph.D, Louisiana State University
Prosanta Chakrabarty, Ph.D, Louisiana State University
Melissa DeBiasse, Ph.D, Louisiana State University
Sarah Duncan, University of Alabama
Clare Brown, Louisiana State University
Melissa Whitaker, Ph.D, Harvard University
Estella Hernandez, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles
Lisa Gonzalez, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles
Terry McGlynn, Ph.D, Cal State Dominguez Hills
Bernie May, Ph.D, UC Davis
Andrea Schreier, Ph.D, UC Davis
Mariah Meek, Ph.D, UC Davis
Arthur Shapiro, Ph.D, UC Davis
Andri Gretarsson, Ph.D, Embry-Riddle University
Rena Schweizer, UCLA
Ryan Ellingson, Ph.D, Cal State LA
Marisa Tellez, Ph.D, UC Santa Barbara
Allison Fritts-Penniman, UCLA
David Gold, Ph.D, MIT

Suggested speakers:
Lynn Adler
Amy Angert
May Berenbaum
Alison Boyer
Janet Browne
Diane Campbell
Ana Carolina Carnaval
Jeannine Cavender-Bares
Deborah Charlesworth
Melinda Bonnie
Fagan Vicki Funk
Monica Geber
Rosemary Gillespie
Emma Goldberg
Janet Goodall
Catherine Graham
Rosemary Grant
Shannon Hackett
Tracey Heath
Hopi Hoekstra
Helen James
Fran James
Felicity Jones
Kathleen Kay
Rebecca Kimball
Sandra Knapp
Lacey Knowles
Danielle Lee
Jane Lubchenco
Jennifer Martiny
Nancy Moran
Sally Otto
Lynne Parenti
Catherine Parr
Leslie Rissler
Erica Bree Rosenblum
Joan Roughgarden
Eugenie Scott
Beth Shapiro
Kerry Shaw
Stacey Smith Dewitt
Victoria Sork
Melanie Stiassny
Marjorie Weber
Mary Jane West Eberhard
Anne Yoder
Kelly Zamudio
Marlene Zuk

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5 comments on “Celebrating Alfred Russel Wallace with … a symposium of only straight white men?

  1. ccwlobo says:

    Wow, that’s a seriously heavy-hitting list of suggested speakers… but I think I could double that list off the top of my head without dipping in achievement-level or quality of science (which makes an all-male cast that much more inexcusable).

  2. The suggested speakers that I added to the list are established biogeographers, whose expertise would fit in well with the current slate of speakers. It’d be disingenuous, or counterproductive, to suggest speakers to add to diversity who do not have an expertise aligned with the purpose of the conference.

    While trying to think of the best possible speakers, I browsed the editorial boards of J. Biogeogr., GEB, and Ecography. The first two have horrible female representation, while it’s clear that Ecography has chosen an inclusive approach.

    It hadn’t really occurred to me until this episode that, compared to other subfields in eco/evo, biogeography is a lot more of an old boys’ club, and (even ignoring editorial board composition), there proportion of women among the senior scientists in biogeography is mighty low. However, there is no shortage of women who are excellent biogeographers. Rather than using this fact as an excuse, this makes having a diverse panel all the more important.

  3. I followed the link to the symposium https://www.eeb.ucla.edu/arwallace/index.php#speakers and two of the 10 speakers are women: Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Soraya de Chadarevian. I don’t know if this changed after this post was put up, but… the premise of the post is certainly wrong now.

    • Jeremy Yoder says:

      Yes! That’s changed, which is great news. Elizabeth let me know earlier today that there was some sort of update coming—I’ll update the post as soon as I hear from her.

  4. […] highly-accomplished speakers but, as pointed out by Jeremy Yoder in his recent blog post, “Celebrating Alfred Russel Wallace with … a symposium of only straight white men?“, there is a conspicuous lack of women contributors in the lineup.  In fact, there are only […]

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