The science of equality

Jonathan Eisen, scientist

photo by lauran fayne worthy

The gender gap in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—is a big-time national issue. For the past five years, evolutionary biologist and UC Davis professor Jonathan Eisen has been trying to do his part to help the cause: rejecting invitations to scientific conferences with a disproportionate number of male speakers. He's even created an acronym, YAMMM, for when he inexplicably finds himself in “Yet Another Mostly Male Meeting.” On his blog,, he highlights certain cases, notes where improvements can be made and propels the diversity conversation forward. Eisen, who teaches various microbiology courses, took a few minutes to chat about childcare, snarky abstracts and old, white men.

You are a man. Why care about women in STEM?

[Laughs] There are multiple answers here—there's the historical reason and the rational reason. The historical reason is that my mom is a scientist—she's a chemist—and heavily involved. She ran a program for women in science at George Washington University, so I had heard a lot about these issues in the past. … The more rational part of it is that I'm a bit obsessed with fairness in scientific activities. I'm involved with various movements that try to make sure people get credit for their work. One aspect of fairness in science is clearly purposeful and accidental bias toward particular groups. I've gotten more and more interested in this in maybe the past five years, partly because of blog posts I started writing.

Was there a catalyst in particular?

The thing that made me think about this as a systemic issue was at a conference maybe 12 years ago in Lake Arrowhead, down near Los Angeles. I go to conferences, but can't sit through all the talks. So I took a break and went outside, and there was a woman with a little toddler. The toddler padded over to me—I love kids so I was making goofy faces—and I asked the woman if she was there for the meeting, if she just skipped many of the talks to take care of her kid.

She said, “Oh no, I'm not actually attending the meeting. I'm hired to be a nanny for a graduate student who is attending the meeting.” As it turns out, University of Wisconsin had a program for graduate students who had kids and a fund that would pay for a nanny so they could attend the conference. … In that one moment, I realized there were massive challenges to women in scientific fields that I had never thought of—it just never occurred to me that having a kid and going to a conference would be a problem—and that you could do something about it.

And now you focus on conferences. Why?

The main reason I do this is because it's just so easy to fix if you just a give a shit. If you just care at all about your field and about society, these things are really easy to fix. For example, I got invited to a conference a few years ago. I was already skeptical—it was in some fancy resort in Hawaii, and I cringe at these things because they just smell of wasting government money and that just riles me up. Anyway, I went and looked at the list of speakers and the organizers, and it was something like 26 people involved. Of them, 25 were male. It was completely ludicrous. I was literally flabbergasted. It just showed that either the people involved were explicitly and purposefully biased, which is bad, or clueless about their accidental biases, which is also bad. I wrote a blog post that was really not polite.


I submitted an abstract to give at the meeting: “A Quantitative Analysis of Gender Bias in Quantitative Biology Meetings.” [Laughs] They did not accept me as speaker. Long story short, they got eviscerated on the web and [their members] hate me now. But the next year, their meeting had an almost 50-50 gender ratio. It seemed like a good meeting, it didn't seem to cost anything extra. They were just being lazy, lame and probably biased before. It's not like we can fix all gender bias in the sciences by fixing conferences, but they're prominent. It's where people get recognized for their work, young people can get exposure, and it literally can take 20 minutes to fix them.

You mentioned childcare earlier. What are some other practical ways to make conferences more women-friendly?

The first thing you need to do is invite a diversity of people, and not only old, white men. That is what a lot of conferences are—they invite the famous people. Because of historical reasons and on average, as careers progress, more and more women drop out of scientific fields, the most famous, established people are frequently white males. If the point of your meeting is to have famous scientists speak, I say, “Fine. I think we as scientists should boycott your meeting.” That's just stupid. The point of a scientific conference is way beyond that, to give people experience, to let new people give talks, to learn new things, to let people meet each other, to have a diversity of opinions in fields representative of the audience—all those things together make a good conference.