Tuesday, September 24, 2013

How hard did they try?

This conference, which seems to be some sort of pop-science event, had this in the FAQ:


Q: I am a fanatical, misandristic ‘feminist’. May I drone on about the lack of women in the line-up and despatch abusive, bigoted, mis-spelt, ungrammatical missives to the organisers and presenters?

A: No, Please save your talents for Twitter and Facebook, that is what they are for.

We’re actually very disappointed that none of our female invitees accepted, but that is just how it was. As scientists we have no choice but to accept reality. Wanting something to be otherwise does not make it so.

Reading very carefully between the lines and squinting real hard, I think I can just about detect a hint of attitude there.

They’ve changed it now:

We tried. We failed. The event was set up at short notice and as it happened, of all the excellent people we approached the only ones available on the day were men. We knew this wasn’t ideal and questions would be asked, so we tried to make a joke about it.

We tried. We failed. Should have been spotted by us, but as soon as our attention was drawn to it – via Twitter – we removed it. That only added to the confusion as some people saw the reactions without always knowing what was being reacted to.

So, sorry. It’s not through lack of effort the line-up is wide-ranging in the nature of their brilliance but entirely mono-gendered, but it is our fault the attempt at levity about it fell flat. And we do appreciate the efforts of all those who drew our attention to the error.

So, to be fair, they apologised.  But it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. 

First, How did they imagine this was an acceptable joke in the first place?  They obviously knew that there was an issue with the line-up being exclusively white and male. They obviously knew that they might (rightly) receive criticism for it.  Rather than saying they tried and failed, they ‘joked’ about the people who might criticise them. And by ‘joked’ I mean ‘created a vicious strawman plainly intended to ridicule people with genuine concerns about a pernicious problem in conferences and in wider society’.  If you screw up, it’s your fault, not the fault of people who criticise you and much less the fault of a deliberately nasty mischaracterisation of the people you imagine might criticise you.

Second, I can’t help but wonder how hard they really tried, especially given the attitude in the original ‘joke’,  I wonder how many women and non-white people they invited to the conference.  I wonder whether they were more willing to be flexible to accommodate people like Dawkins or the other billed speakers. It’s unacceptable that a conference about the popularisation of science is filled exclusively by white men because it reinforces the incorrect but popular view that there are few women in science, perhaps because it’s more of a guy thing. I don’t want to seem as though I’m telling people how to run their conferences, but shouldn’t diversity have been one of the primary motivations of a conference like this?  They really couldn’t find a single speaker who was not white and male? Come on.

For all I know, of course, they tried really hard and things just didn’t work out. But I have my doubts.  The apology doesn’t seem very sincere.  They say that the ‘joke’ should have been spotted by them, not that it shouldn’t have been made in the first place. This makes me doubt their commitment to diversity.

It’s also unclear who they are apologising to. To the people they aggressively mischaracterised as fanatical, misandristic ‘feminists’?  They were not mentioned in the apology.  To the people they hurt by wasting an opportunity to put women and minorities at the centre of a high-profile science communication event and then treated the affair as a joke?  There is no evidence that they even understand the issue.

It looks to me like a standard not-pology.  They’re sorry they got caught.

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