The LCGC Blog: How Should Gender Equity Be Addressed at Conferences?

Oct 02, 2018

I am the co-chair (together with my UT Arlington colleague Prof. Daniel W. Armstrong) of the 2019 International Symposium on Capillary Chromatography (ISCC) and GCxGC symposia to be held May 12–19, 2019 in Fort Worth, Texas (www.isccgcxgc.com). This is the US-version of the extremely popular ISCC and GCxGC Riva del Garda conferences held in even years in Italy. Although I have been involved in the organization of ISCC GCxGC 2015 and 2017, this is the first time I have substantial oversight of the development of the program. Obviously, we have a strong desire to design an attractive one. As always, the primary goal is to highlight recent developments in the science, technology, and instrumentation around micro-scale pressure- and electrically-driven separations, including comprehensive techniques and supporting sample preparation and detection methodologies and applications. This is the premier annual international venue for communication of modern gas chromatography and comprehensive chromatography (including GCxGC and LCxLC) advancements, which is in itself makes the conference very attractive, given the new developments in these areas. However, we are also seeking to broaden the ways information is communicated, including highlighting those scientists in industry, academia, and government who are driving innovation.

For an international conference, highlighting the diversity of research, and the people performing it, is important. Diversity comes in a lot of different flavors: Industrial vs. academic; different cultures, values, needs, and resources; age and gender; among others. Representatives from all different backgrounds and experiences should be given a voice.

Gender inequity in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines often gets significant attention in the media and this inequity ultimately shows itself at major conferences. Studies have shown that there is still significant inequality in degrees awarded at the bachelors (55% male versus 45% female) and PhD (60% male versus 40% female) levels in STEM disciplines, and that this situation has not changed greatly in the past ten years (1,2). Further, the gap widens at the higher-level positions: Only 9% of professors of chemistry in the United Kingdom in 2014–2015 were female. Studies have shown that not enough women get a chance to speak at conferences, because more of the slots go to more senior researchers, where there are fewer women, and because male organizers are predisposed to pick male speakers (1).

Studies have also shown that women publish fewer articles than men; they are also underrepresented in terms of prestige authorships (first author, corresponding author, and so on) compared to men. Articles with women key authors are also cited less, and this trend, as well as the overall gender gap in employment, is a problem that is declining only very slowly (4).

In Canada, there has been evidence of bias in the peer-review process for grant applications (5). Women systematically received lower scores than men, and thus received fewer opportunities to advance their careers and move into senior positions.

As it is the season for Nobel Prizes, it is also telling that of 599 Nobel Prizes awarded, only 17 have been awarded to women.

On a brighter note, closer to home, the field of chemistry is not characterized by as large of a gender gap as other disciplines, such as surgery, computer science, physics, and math. In those fields, some have predicted that gender parity will not even be achieved during this century (6). Chemistry in the United States in 2016 was characterized as having one of the smallest gender gaps in compensation for graduates compared to the rest of the world (7).

So, back to a pertinent question. Should major international conferences, such as the one we are organizing, make a special point of highlighting gender disparities or other issues of lack of diversity? I suggested that we should possibly have a session specifically highlighting emerging or leading women researchers in the fields of comprehensive chromatography. I had some conversations with various people whose viewpoints I respect, and the answer was not so clear.

Many saw value in this, but the feeling was that there might not be a large consensus for support of such a session. I got the feeling that although it would likely be well received as highlighting a disparity that should not be there, the people who were being highlighted might not want to be possibly perceived as having been given a special opportunity of this type only because of their gender, or that their inclusion in such a session might somehow imply that they were only leaders among women, not leaders among all scientists, male and female, in that field. Should we, at this day and age, simply acknowledge there is disparity and work to rectify representation in the program as a whole (behind the scenes) without bringing attention to the issue openly?

I do not know the answer to this question, but frankly I have been leaning towards a more open acknowledgement of this disparity. We would like to have a session of this type in our conference, but it would be necessary to have some company or entity to step up to support this initiative.

I am still not sure what will be prominently displayed at the 2019 ISCC and GCxGC symposium with regard to openly promoting diversity. I do know that as co-chair, I will work toward highlighting diversity, even if behind the scenes, in a way that is not immediately apparent. We need to have more voices in the direction of our research, and these will be achieved by being more inclusive rather than less.

Maybe diversity training for conference organizers is not a bad idea. It is a requisite to attend this training if you are part of a hiring committee at UT Arlington. Because of this, I understand that implicit bias is present for all who make decisions, and it is important that such bias be recognized so that it can be countered to favor increased diversity (3). It should be further noted, 0.4% of the UK population does not identify with a binary gender classification, an additional consideration (2). This topic needs more open attention, in my opinion. Equity is essential for all.

References

(1)            R. Frame, Education in Chem. Feb. 28, 2018. https://eic.rsc.org/analysis/gender-inequality-problems-remain-in-higher-education/3008712.article

(2)       Royal Society of Chemistry, Diversity Landscape of the Chemical Sciences (RSC, London, 2018). http://www.rsc.org/globalassets/02-about-us/our-strategy/inclusion-diversity/cm-044-17_a4-diversity-landscape-of-the-chemical-sciences-report_web-2.pdf

(3)       H.L. Ford, C. Brick, K. Blaufuss, and P.S. Dekens. Nature Commun. 9, Article number 1358 (2018). http://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-03809-5

(4)       M.H.K. Bendels, R. Mueller, D. Brueggemann, and D.A. Groneberg. PLoS One 13, e0189136 (2018).

(5)       R Tamblyn, N. Girard, C.J. Qian, and J. Hanley, Can. Med. Assoc. J. 190(16), E489­­–E499 (2018) doi: 10.1503/cmaj.170901

(6)        L. Holman, D. Stuart-Fox, and C.E. Hauser, PLoS Biology 16(4), e2004956 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2004956

(7)       R. Trager, “Chemistry best science in US when it comes to gender pay gap.” Chemistryworld.com. January 19, 2018. https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/chemistry-best-science-in-us-when-it-comes-to-gender-pay-gap/3008538.article



Kevin A. Schug is a Full Professor and Shimadzu Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at The University of Texas (UT) at Arlington. He joined the faculty at UT Arlington in 2005 after completing a Ph.D. in Chemistry at Virginia Tech under the direction of Prof. Harold M. McNair and a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Vienna under Prof. Wolfgang Lindner. Research in the Schug group spans fundamental and applied areas of separation science and mass spectrometry. Schug was named the LCGC Emerging Leader in Chromatography in 2009 and the 2012 American Chemical Society Division of Analytical Chemistry Young Investigator in Separation Science. He is a fellow of both the U.T. Arlington and U.T. System-Wide Academies of Distinguished Teachers.

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