Dreams of Diversity for HSS

By Jay Malone

[My deep thanks to Kate Sheppard for her help in revising this piece. Wooden phrasing and other infelicities remain my own.]

I am writing this on International Women’s Day (8 March), a time when the world consciously marks the impact of women. The day celebrates the creative power of women, from my classical music station playing pieces composed and performed by women, to my morning news feed offering tips on empowerment. IWD also includes practical tips for women. On a morning television show, a life coach shared active strategies women can use to feel empowered, with an emphasis on silencing their inner critic, a voice that tells them that their ideas are not worth sharing. She said that the first thing women need to tell themselves is “It’s okay,” that your thoughts should be shared, that you should speak up. And that you should be kind to yourself. These suggestions led me to reflect on those times when I had been a gendered minority.

Because the HSS annual meeting consumes so much of my time, I have been thinking about what women (and others) have experienced at the conferences and have tried to gain a better sense of a gendered experience in our conference.

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference this past February, I attended an 8:00 am session titled “A Feminist Agenda for Science Communication: Necessary and Timely.” Some 100 attendees came to that session, over 90% of them women. I learned that science communication is dominated by women, which explained in part the gender disparity in the audience, but I think it went deeper than that, that there are many other factors at play in that disparity, such as the hierarchical nature of scholarly approaches to science and technology. Being a distinct minority, I was self conscious, wondering if I should say anything, how any shared thought would be perceived, and whether or not any comment would be helpful. I tried to just listen, and I was conscious of my role as an outsider, as someone who could be perceived as part of the problem.

A few weeks after AAAS, Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, came to Notre Dame and led a workshop. Of the 50 attendees, 5 were men. Again, I had many questions that I wanted to ask but ended up just listening. And, again, I was self conscious about being a cis man in a room of women. Several things struck me from that workshop: 1. it was the most diverse set of individuals (gender aside) that I had seen on Notre Dame’s campus, (and I realize that looking around a room gives only a superficial idea of diversity, especially when it comes to gender.) 2. Many of the questions in the workshop (and Tarana Burke asked the most questions) came from a place of injury, 3. Any kind of movement requires enormous amounts of work (Tarana Burke had begun MeToo with girls in Alabama over 10 years ago and she was as surprised as anyone when it caught fire.) But the recurrent theme was the amount of bandwidth harassment occupies in a person’s mind. Mental energy that should be focused on scholarship, on the history of science, is diverted to trying to interpret a gas-lighting episode, or on trying to process a subtle gesture or comment, or on wondering if one’s ideas are being filtered due to appearance. Experiences such as these attenuate scholarly inquiry and diminish our field in many ways, from lost time in dealing with harassment to losing scholars from the field because they are tired of being treated this way. So I asked myself, what can we do?

The goal seems straightforward: Rooms filled with a diverse array of individuals who are focusing solely on the history of science. But these two elements – diversity and respectful behavior – are incredibly hard to achieve. We are working to ensure that HSS is moving in the right direction. We established a Diversity Committee this past November that will be looking at ways to improve diversity in the Society, and the latter objective is being addressed with our respectful behavior policy, which all conference attendees must agree to when registering for HSS. But these mark just a beginning, a beginning upon which we must build. Here are two requests.

For diversity, we need members to answer our questions about gender and race when renewing their membership. If we truly care about diversity, then we need to see where we are so that we can measure our progress toward our goals, which should entail more than a quick scan of a room. Diversity will not be easy because we are an international society and ideas of diversity in the US are dramatically different from what is considered diverse in, say, Mexico. But, at the very least, we must have data.

And as difficult as attaining diversity will be, the second goal, that of minds that are fully occupied with the history of science, will be even harder. The interactions between genders at a conference (a foreign environment that features alcohol, weariness, and fear) can be fraught. It’s also important that everyone (especially men) speak up when we see something questionable.

We, as a tribe, can come together to take care of our own… and as a byproduct, we can bring new energy into the history of science.