Are You Overbooked or Overlooked?

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

September 25, 2013

Editor's note: These questions are based on real ones submitted to Female Science Professor's blog. She has paraphrased or combined them to protect the anonymity of the writers.

Question: Most committees at my university "have to have a woman" as a member. That is not hard to arrange at the university-level but is more difficult for committees that involve departments only in the physical sciences, engineering, and mathematics. When a committee needs a senior female professor, there are very few candidates. As one of those few, I would be angry if certain committees consisted only of men, but at the same time I don't have time for all the committees I am asked to join. I also hate it when a request to be on a committee is accompanied by an explicit "we need a woman" statement. What to do?  

 Over the years, I have made decisions about service requests and responsibilities on the basis of a few simple rules. They could apply to anyone, not just to members of groups underrepresented in academe. But the fact is: I have had to develop a "service policy" to deal with such requests, while my husband, who is also a science professor, has not. Although he is a fabulous scientist, teacher, and human being, he has not been in high demand to serve on campus committees. I have, but I can assure you that it is not because I excel at committee work. It is because of the "we need a woman" phenomenon.

My decision about whether to accept committee work involves the following questions, most of which relate to whether my time would be well spent: (1) Will the committee do anything useful? Or will I just sit in a room for hours/days talking about outcomes, deliverables, and stakeholders, and not actually accomplish anything?; and (2) Does the work of this committee relate to my expertise in any meaningful way, or would I very likely be ineffectual?

If I accept a request to join a committee, I try to practice conservation of committee mass and decrease my other service commitments to balance the time spent on the new one.

Some requests get right to the point: "We need a woman, so we are asking you." There is a difference between being recruited by someone who understands (and respects) the need for gender diversity on a committee and by someone who reluctantly invites you to be the token female because of a bureaucratic rule. But the tone of the inquiries can sound the same to the woman being asked, even if the one doing the asking means well.

I have been on committees in which it was assumed that the men were there because of their expertise and I was there because I was female. I had to prove that I belonged on the committee before anyone would listen to me, much less respect my contributions. On some of those committees, I have been ignored or insulted, and on others I have surprised people who expected nothing (good) to come of my involvement but changed their minds upon working with me. I could have done without the first type of experience, but perhaps the second type was worthwhile. And of course on the majority of committees on which I've served, I have been treated with respect from the start.

In the end, I default to my own evaluation of whether the work will be a good use of my time and whether I can serve a useful purpose by being on the committee.

Question: I was recently at a conference at which every important, high-profile lecture or keynote speech was given by a man. The conference was in a field that has many women (not 50 percent, but more than 25 percent, and probably more like 30 to 35 percent). I was offended by that and wish I had known in advance, because then I might not have gone to the conference, although maybe that would have been foolish—because I would have been the only one harmed by not showing up to present my work and be visible in my field.

I have boycotted some meetings or conference sessions that consisted entirely of male organizers with an all-male slate of keynote speeches, but I admit that I have most often done so for meetings that were "low stakes" for me. For important meetings—ones where I want to be visible for the sake of my research group or collaborators—I am more pragmatic and choose to attend, however put off I am by the gender imbalance of the invited speakers. Although women are underrepresented in my field in some subfields and at senior levels, there are enough women so that conferences should be naturally diverse without any particular effort. Even so, some conferences still are not, and that is troubling.

Many conferences now send out a survey after the meeting. That is a good place to register your discontent if you think that invited talks or other prestigious presentations were unnecessarily lacking in diversity. You can also ask the conference or session organizers directly. Tell others what you are doing in case it increases the number of people who make these remarks, adding weight to the complaint.

Perhaps the lack of female keynote speakers at your conference was due to an "overbooking" phenomenon—too few senior-level women receiving too many conference invitations, much as women get more committee-work invitations than they can possibly accept. You might think: "I can see turning down a request to be on a committee, but who would turn down a chance to give an invited talk at a major conference?" The answer may be: "A woman who can't accept all the conference invitations she receives," for a range of reasons involving work and/or family life)

It is possible, however, that in a field with a significant number of women, the conference organizers equate the notion of distinguished speakers with well-known men in the field and are overlooking some talented women, especially if the growing presence of women in your field is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Question: I was invited to give a talk on my research at another university and I was pleased with the invitation until the seminar organizer told me that I was being invited because I am a woman. There are few women in my field at that university. I am also supposed to meet with female students and postdocs and answer possibly personal questions about my life. Should I feel insulted? Should I go? What if I don't want to talk about my personal life?

Is that situation analogous to the "we need a woman on the committee" predicament? There are certain similarities, but also some differences.

On a committee, you are one of multiple voices, you are involved in a service activity (even if it relates to other aspects of your work), and you might not get much credit for the effort (depending on your institution). In the case of an invitation to talk about your research at another institution, however, that is an opportunity—to raise your visibility in your field, to attract students to your program, to meet interesting people in your discipline, and possibly to help or inspire others considering a similar career. I have developed some unexpected collaborations from such visits and gained a broader perspective on my field and on how other departments and institutions work.

So I don't know if you "should" go, but I would. I have accepted those invitations whenever possible over the years, even if I ultimately felt disappointed at best, or a bit humiliated at worst, when it became clear that I was invited mostly or entirely because I am female.

Some universities and other organizations have special programs to bring female speakers to the campus. Because otherwise women won't be invited? Because it shows institutional commitment to diversity? I don't know, but you don't have to talk about anything that you consider too personal. Just describing the basic outlines of your career path might be helpful to some students and others.

When you are invited to give a talk at another university, you can list it on your CV. That can be useful to early- and midcareer academics. And you don't have to add a footnote to explain why you were invited.

Female Science Professor is the pseudonym of a professor in the physical sciences at a large research university who blogs under that moniker and writes monthly for our Catalyst column. Her blog is