Friday, October 17, 2014

Come on now, make it stop

Over the past couple years, there has been a much deeper awareness and, fortunately, calling out of the lack of diversity and inclusivity on expert panels -- whether they be at conferences, special events, workshops, etc. -- in the science world and beyond. For me, this challenge very much extends into how I see the issue of expertise (which is problematic to begin with) play out in, for example, who is contacted by journalists as well. I would say it's an almost daily occurrence for my blood pressure to spike when I look at an event (or article) that might seem interesting, only to see that, if we're lucky, there is a lone/token female voice on a panel of six or eight or 30. One of the biggest problems with all of it, simply from an intellectual perspective, is that the lack of diversity leads to narrow and less relevant discussions, which at their worst can be downright harmful and at their best are just boring.

There are about a million and one things to say about this set of issues, and I've given it a try here and there. My first real blog post here was about the need to be more expansive in how we think about science in general. And, after reviewing proposal submissions for an academic conference last year, I had to comment on a pretty pervasive trend that I saw play out there as well. There is so much good writing by so many on this topic at this point, and the always helpful BINGO guide to excuses for not having more female representation on expert panels (seriously worth the click if you've not seen it), that it's crazy-making that it's still so pervasive.

The thing that I have the hardest time articulating for myself though is that we might actually need to change what it is we are talking about if it's not possible to find women, much less other underrepresented groups, to address certain topics. One of the biggest excuses used is "we just couldn't find anybody on x topic..." and my response to that is, well, then, we're probably not talking about the right thing. I get that the excuse is one that maintains the status quo and that's why it exists, but I also think there is a very real challenge that sometimes the folks that might be a bit more on the margins are having a different, and likely more interesting, conversation that we aren't being creative enough in including yet. And the truth is that much of the conversation just gets so stuck when so many people are excluded that it can end up being truly harmful.

To make it just a little less abstract, just last week in writing about an article that ran on the issue of "mega-drought" in California, I was largely trying to point out that the way the topic is even framed and explored, and the conclusions that are ultimately drawn, are not super robust when talking to such a narrow set of people. In my own work, I am actively pursuing ways to address how we expand the field. Broadening the conversation would change everything, or at least many things. And that is perhaps the ultimate challenge: not everybody likes change.

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