Things do get better, sometimes

I was very excited to see this news this morning:

“Christianne Corbett, a senior researcher at the American Association of University Women (AAUW), will be the keynote speaker at Entomology 2011, the 59th Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of America (ESA). Her speech will take place during the opening Plenary Session on Sunday, November 13, 2011.

An important subtheme of Entomology 2011 is “Entomology and Social Responsibility,” an area where ESA President Delfosse feels there is an important nexus of science and society, and one issue of particular visibility is the dominance of white males in elected leadership positions in ESA. Ms. Corbett’s presentation, “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,” will address these issues.”

You might remember Corbett’s name from the big AAUW release of data in 2010 with the same name.   To give someone  time in the Plenary Session–the biggest session of the meeting–is HUGE.

To understand just how HUGE (yes, I’m going to keep using random capitols because it is HUGE, deal with it), you have to know something about the history of women in the ESA.

When I started in Entomology, the ESA membership was 3% female.  THREE. PERCENT.
It made going to ESA meetings really freaky. And, creepy. I had more than one faculty member seem to be interested in me…and it turned out that they wanted to buy me drinks for something other than my research prowess.  It was not unusual for the Annual Meeting Program advertising to have women in bikinis modeling backpack sprayers.

Here is a little something from grad school I found recently during my packing.  Someone fished this letter out of my departmental mailbox, marked it up, and put it back.

That wasn’t that uncommon; I also had someone take my photo off the departmental board and write “boy are you ugly” on the back.

Those are just two examples I happen to have on hand that visibly show the many little indignities of being a bug broad during that time period.  I have a fair idea who did these things; and I suspect they thought they were being funny.  What I really “heard” though was You Are Not One Of Us.

You don’t belong on the bulletin board with all the faces of people who are really part of this department.

That award you got? They had to give it to a woman, you didn’t really earn it.

It got better; I met a lot of great women at the National Meetings over time, and they encouraged me.  I especially am indebted to Dorothy Feir.  She was a ground breaker all the way: First female faculty member in the St. Louis University Biology department; First woman elected to the Governing Board of the Entomological Society of America; First female president of the ESA society.  As a research scientist, she was the first to demonstrate the presence of bacteria in Missouri ticks that cause Lyme disease.

But it was her taking the time to talk to a lowly grad student that I remember.

Over 20 years ago some brave pioneers formed a Women in Entomology Breakfast group at the ESA annual meeting. It was to help women in entomology network among other women, and mentor students so they didn’t feel isolated.  Suspicions and rumors about what was really being plotted over breakfast were hilarious. The good old boys were terrified of a bunch of women eating pancakes.

So, to travel from having someone write “SLUT” across my first peer-reviewed publication and mailing it to me to seeing a major researcher on women and science be a Plenary speaker–that is, as I have said, HUGE.

Past attitudes within the ESA were that they had a “woman problem.”  Something was wrong with women. They didn’t like entomology. So, if we could just fix women, then the problem would be solved!  It looks like the ESA has graduated to recognition that it could be a problem with the system and the structures of power.

It is really exciting to see tangible evidence of change. I am excited that I’m going to be there this Fall for the Annual Meeting, and that I went ahead and renewed my ESA membership.

Things do get better, sometimes.

And, so, ESA, you’re going to work on the “diversity problem” next, right?

12 thoughts on “Things do get better, sometimes

  1. Speaking as a white Anglo-Saxon guy born in the USA in the second half of the 20th century, it’s good to know that things are improving. I always feel like that’s easy for me to say and small consolation to any segment of the population that’s treated unfairly i.e. all non-white, non-Anglo-Saxon, non-heterosexual, non-males, but I guess incremental improvements are better than no improvements. Keep fighting.

  2. I appreciate the discussion. Ms. Corbett’s opening Plenary Address is the key part of the “Entomology and Social Responsibility” subtheme of Entomology 2011, the Entomological Society of America’s annual meeting (the overall theme is “Identify … Clarify … Speak Out!”) She will also participate in three other activities: a panel discussion during the symposium, “Identifying the Current Status of Women in Entomology, Clarifying Initiatives for Retention, and Speaking Out to Share Experience;” the Women in Entomology breakfast (yes, it’s still going on!); and leading a “Lunch & Learn” discussion on her Plenary Address topic (Lunch & Learn sessions are very informal meetings that we are trying for the first time which attendees self-select based on their interests). There are other symposia, posters and papers that also deal with this subtheme. (There are two other subthemes for Entomology 2011: Providing Informed, Objective, and Timely Communication; and Increasing Global Involvement. The scientific program is also extremely exciting and diverse; see http://www.entsoc.org/.)

    Of the nearly 5,000 ESA members, currently about 1/3 of the regular members are women, and the student numbers are about 50:50. I expect that about 3,000 members will attend the annual meeting.

    I’m also glad you renewed your membership, and hope we get a chance to meet in Reno!

  3. Big props go to You, Del, for being a good ally for women and folks of color in the ESA, and supporting this effort.
    I’ve seen you at many of those breakfasts, as well as Dennis Kopp, another strong supporter :)

    USDA has been out in front on these issues for a long time, and it’s exciting to see things changing for the better at the ESA.

    I need to look up all the names of the Women in Entomology Breakfast organizers, as well as some folks on the Governing board that deserve a shout out too (Gail Kampmeier!).

  4. Gail Kampmeier is awesome. I got to meet her at the 2011 San Diego ECN meeting, along with a bunch of other really cool people. She was, through a chain of events, responsible for me being able to get Clemson’s Acrocerids back after being missing for 10 years.

    Anyway, I’ve said it elsewhere, but everything you had to deal with before totally disgusts me. I’m glad theres less of that now, but it doesn’t give me much motivation to enter academia after getting my PhD. It’s off to a museum for me.

  5. Yeah, I mentioned to someone yesterday that Academia is like Lord of the Flies with a big research budget.
    It does tend to bring out both the best and the worst of folks.

  6. When my mother joined the AAUW back in 1948, only four percent of college graduates were women. Currently, my third graders are researching the lives of someone who made a difference. One girl chose Grace Hopper, who I’d never heard of. I’ve since learned that she was one of the first women working with computers. It’s hard to explain to these post millennial children just what a long road it’s been to get this far. I agree. This is HUGE.

  7. Although I am a postdoc in an entomology department, I don’t usually attend the ESA meetings for various reasons. But now I’m tempted.

  8. It is wonderful to hear this great news and thank you so much for sharing it. Many times the goal of gender equality seems so far off, but “things get better” is important to remember. I hope that everyone sees this step forward, it will give power to the many women pushing forward in STEM careers.

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