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UCD professor turns down lectureship to protest gender inequality

By From page A1 | July 29, 2014

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Jonathan Eisen. Courtesy photo

Two thousand dollars and a public audience edged to the front of their seats to learn about microbes — that’s an opportunity a biologist rarely argues with (especially the latter).

When he opened his email last week, UC Davis professor Jonathan Eisen was delighted to receive an invitation to a lecture series at a well-known university, which he is choosing to keep anonymous for now. But before accepting, Eisen, a microbiologist, researched both this lecture and a second endowed talk hosted by the same institution.

“Both of them were dreadful, in terms of the gender ratio,” Eisen said. “And that’s really weird in biology.”

So Eisen turned it down.

“In my field, there just isn’t that big of a difference in the percentage of males and females at various academic levels,” Eisen said. “And so when there’s a skewed ratio, there’s a sign that something is amiss.”

On his “Tree of Life Blog” and elsewhere, Eisen has championed diversity, highlighting the lack of diversity at scientific seminars and conferences, where speakers and organizers tend to be white males.

“We need to think about whether or not we’re creating systems that are biased or supporting things that have some sort of discouragement,” Eisen said. “Every single one of these things is discouraging participation and advancement of certain groups.”

Additionally, he sits on a committee for UC Davis’ ADVANCE program, which seeks to improve the environment, hiring opportunities and education for women and minorities in science, engineering, math and technology.

“While this is just one lectureship at one university, the reality is that this gender disparity has broad repercussions for our entire society, especially when you consider the loss of discovery and innovation due to a large segment of our population’s either not pursuing or ultimately leaving careers in (STEM),” said UCD Chancellor Linda Katehi, who heads the ADVANCE initiative.

In 2012, he publicly shamed a quantitative biology conference for a male-to-female speaker ratio of 25:1. As part of his campaign, he submitted an abstract called “A quantitative analysis of gender bias in quantitative biology meetings.”

This year, the conference had a 7:6 invited male-to-female ratio, and next year, 12 male speakers and five female speakers have been confirmed.

Upon refusing the lectureship, Eisen received a reply from a representative of the institution; Eisen calls it one of the most positive responses he has received to his criticism, asking for his suggestions about whom to invite. He sent along four names: Ruth Ley at Cornell University, Katie Pollard of UC San Francisco, Jessica Green from the University of Oregon and Julie Segre at the National Health Genome Research Institute.

“I write my blog just to keep a record of things — I don’t imagine what the response is going to be,” Eisen said. “But the response to this was amazingly positive across the board.”

He has been contacted by old friends and colleagues and his post was shared hundreds of times across Twitter.

“It’s not like seminar series and conferences are the only important thing to deal with in gender equality in science,” Eisen said. “But they are so easy to fix.”

— Reach Elizabeth Case at [email protected] or 530-747-8052. Follow her on Twitter at @Elizabeth_Case

Elizabeth Case

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