#EverydaySexism / Chris Cramer
February 16, 2014

Twitter: @ChemProfCramer

It all started with this.
which led to discussion on the Computational Chemistry List including this.

To which I offer:


I've been a Computational Chemistry List (CCL) member since 1989 or so. (Is that about right, Jan?) During that time, I have not posted particularly frequently; but, when I've felt that I could contribute in a productive way, I've done my best to advance our field and assist friends and colleagues by commenting on issues raised in this forum.

The recent exchanges about International Congress of Quantum Chemistry (ICQC) 2015, focusing on the lack of gender diversity in its original speaker list, and the subsequent back-and-forth as to whether that is a suitable topic for CCL, or even an issue to be concerned about in general, prompts me to this post. Especially, I feel obliged to reply to Jim Kress, in what I hope is a respectful fashion.

Jim, you make a living at computational chemistry, i.e., it probably pays your mortgage. Moreover you are a supporter of CCL with actual dollars; thank you for that -- your generosity benefits all of us. As such, I can understand how for you, the value of the forum is in the degree to which it helps you stay on top of the nuts and bolts of the field, and in that regard I hope that my own occasional posts on topics like partial charges, solvation models, etc. have proven useful to you. We've also exchanged email outside of CCL, including very recently, in what I hope has always been a cordial fashion.

However, I now hope that you will accept that I, as an academic who is charged in part with training the next generation of computational chemists, may have a more expansive view of what is appropriate for CCL than your own. From my point of view, if there is something that is hindering the most efficient progress in our field, even if that "something" might fall into the dreaded area of "social science", then attempting to address it through CCL is not merely appropriate, it is worthy of advocacy!

You (and others) raised the question of whether the selection criteria of the ICQC 2015 organizers were known, whether anyone had contacted them, etc. Actually, one of the organizers posted on a separate mailing list (devoted to molecular dynamics), that the 26 male speakers had been selected from a slate of 27 (evidently, the one woman had failed to respond). He was shocked that anyone might think that inviting 3.8% female speakers might be regarded as inadequate. He went on to note that upon reviewing the end result, he then solicited suggestions from International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science (IAQMS) members for some remaining speakers, asking in particular for women. Certainly, if I were a woman, I'd be thrilled to know that my chief qualification for a subsequent invitation was not my science, but a desire to achieve gender balance after the "real" speakers were selected. For the record, you can find this post here.

Jim, I've trained roughly 100 undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral co-workers. I admit that it pains me that I know that the women members of that group will face discrimination that will make it much harder for them to achieve their full potential than will be the case for my former male co-workers. I say that not because I subscribe to a belief in "evil" (as you put it), but rather to an acceptance of the extremely well documented phenomenon of implicit bias. We are all creatures of our culture and, worldwide, there is a culture in science that works against women that reflects hundreds of years of history and tradition. There is a lot of scholarship in this area, but the most recent example was published in PNAS in 2012 and showed that, when presented with resumes for lab managers that were in every way identical except for the name of the fictitious individual, scientists (men and women) ranked the man significantly more highly than the woman and offered "him" a starting salary significantly higher than that offered to "her". These weren't "evil" people, they were just people formed by their own backgrounds and experiences. The PNAS study is available here.

But, let me come back to the bottom line, Jim, which I suspect you consider important. What if it's a woman who has the next big breakthrough idea that advances our field dramatically? And, what if she can't get that idea recognized as quickly precisely because implicit bias slows appreciation for her scholarship? You'll suffer, too, as you won't be able to offer your clients a service that you otherwise would have become more rapidly aware of. We all like to believe that cream rises to the top, but, in all honesty, "it's not what you do, it's who you know" goes a long way in science, too. Aurora Clark has already posted eloquently here on the topic of how proactive steps to increase diversity propagate to the next generation, so I won't belabor this point.

Returning to the specifics, I've been around in this field a long time. I think that I can legitimately claim to have earned a certain level of experience to comment. Do I think that the IAQMS is ridiculously dominated by old white guys? (I say this as an old white guy...) Well, yes, I do. Have I attended ICQC meetings and been struck by the cronyism in the field and the repetitive speakers rosters? Um, yes, I have. Happily, I am at a stage in my career and a level of privilege that I can say suicidal things like this and not. really. give a damn. But the call for a boycott by my colleagues Professors Carter, Gagliardi, and Krylov was not motivated by a one-time gaffe -- it followed years and years of frustration, and the ICQC 2015 speakers list was the straw that broke their respective colloquial camels' backs.

You called this entire discussion "politically correct". Hmm. Politics is the means by which groups of people come to collective decisions. Taken at literal face value, politically correct sounds like a good thing to me. In the United States, once it was politically correct to abolish slavery, provide women voting rights, eliminate school segregation, eliminate anti-miscegenation laws, and, most recently, secure the marriage rights of our gay and lesbian citizens. If advocating for gender equality in science puts me in the same category as earlier advocates for any of those positions, call me proud to have them as compatriots.

Some full disclosures: (1) I'm married to one of the three women signatories of the original call for a boycott. I'm ridiculously proud to have her as a partner. (2) As an Associate Dean, my portfolio includes responsibility for trying to increase the representation of women and underrepresented minorities in my college's graduate students, postdocs, and faculty. I care about that passionately. (3) The ICQC organizer to whom I refer above is a member of the editorial board for the journal for which I am Editor in Chief. Small world, no? (4) I write posts that are way too long. Sorry.


For those interested in what happened after this post went to CCL, there was substantial follow up conversation, including a bit more philosophy from Jim Kress (whose opinions were by no means unshared). There was also another very thoughtful post by Aurora Clark (and, again, others). You can find all of them here, indexed by name and subject line.

I confess that what I find most troubling about Jim Kress' point of view is not his message that, when faced with bias, people should dig deep, overcome, and earn the greater glory for having faced adversity. Well, sure -- that makes for a great story, and it's what all we parents would tell our kids when faced with unfair situations, right? No, what bothers me is that Jim's point of view seems to be that, "Bias is like the weather: no point complaining about it, 'cause there's nothing to be done." To the contrary, bias is a human construct, and unfair human institutions should be made to change so that they are not manifestly unfair. Imagine you're not the parent of the child being bullied, but of the child who is the bully. Would you really just shrug your shoulders and say, "Well, life's a bitch, that other kid's gonna have to learn that at some point." or would you try to change your own child's behavior?

Finally, Jim shared a piece of out-of-forum hate mail that came his way. While I can understand the frustration of the individual who wrote it, I think that such personal attacks are inappropriate and, frankly, ineffective. When faced with someone with an utterly opposite world-view to your own, you're no more likely to change their mind with ad hominem attacks than you are with a civil argument, but to the extent that you may be speaking to a broader audience (the internet is forever...), you're far more likely to be persuasive with the latter than the former.

Oh, yeah, and a little journal called Nature chose to talk about the broader story in their news blog.

Addendum of 2/18/2014

Whoops! A good scientist should correct errors. Based on his email address, signature block, and status as a donor to CCL (for which he is thanked by me above), I had assumed Mr. Kress was a consultant in business for himself. However, he actually operates a non-profit organization, so computational chemistry probably does not pay his mortgage. That kind of slip illustrates why I'm a chemist and not a journalist, I guess...

Addendum of 2/19/2014

Sometimes, you touch the zeitgeist. The above all got escalated next to this Salon.com article (access to which appears limited to US IP addresses, sorry).

Addendum of 2/20/2014

And then, reaching for legendary status in the "Just Can't Let Go" category, we have J.K.'s posts of 11 months later: forehand, backhand, and, uh, smash?. Gonna let my tweet close this one out...

Addendum of 1/21/2015