Making Room

mhYwW9GImagine being given an opportunity to really advance in your career, a once-in-a-blue-moon invitation that comes with compensation and, more importantly, a public soapbox to share your perspectives. Imagine the honor, the prestige, the platform.

And then imagine turning it down.

On principle.

Because of your convictions. About gender equality.

That’s exactly what U.C. Davis Biology Professor Jonathan Eisen did recently, when he opted to turn down an invitation to present a lecture at a prestigious university.

His reason?

After doing some poking around, he noticed that the lecture series had an awful gender ratio. Far more men than women would be presenting. And this in a field, biology, where the gender ratios tend to be pretty even. For Eisen, the skewed lecture ratio wasn’t good enough, and he decided to act. According to this article,

“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.”

And, further,

“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.”

There’s a lot to appreciate here.

First, Eisen’s awareness about what’s happening with the lectures. He did his research, and, based on his discovery, he acts. Gender equality is something that is on his screen. He is curious about it, and he’s on the lookout. To me responding in a godly way to privilege begins with admitting that it exists. Eisen does exactly that.

Second, for Eisen it goes beyond awareness, to a conviction that things are unjust. And what’s the solution? By not accepting the invite to the event, two things happen. One, Eisen makes a statement about injustice. He’s in the news. He sends a message. Next, Eisen makes that slot available for women. Simply put, by him not going, the ratio can be better. On top of that, he has 4 names of women who can fill his abandoned slot. In responding to the reality of male privilege, men need to commit to lay down their privilege in order to empower the women around them. Eisen provides us with a prime example.

Finally, in the big picture, Eisen knows that his discipline, biology, is better served when women and men are both empowered. He knows everyone is needed to, in this case, advance the body of academic knowledge. In the article, Eisen’s boss, Linda Katehi, the UCD chancellor, is quoted. She notes,

“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.”

Come to think of it, according to chancellor Katehi, this is beyond just the advancement of academic knowledge.

It’s about the advancement of our society, our culture, as a whole.

Imagine that.

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