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How I get gender balance in tech-conference committees

Technical conferences are notoriously male-dominated in my fields of interest: computational mechanics, high-performance and GPU computing, scientific computing and data science. At last year’s ISC High-Performance Computing Conference in Frankfurt, I served as chair of the PhD Forum (the separate session for doctoral students to present their work). The first part of that job is to recruit the members of the technical committee — and I set myself the goal of a gender-balanced group. This is how I achieved it.

I started by making a list of prominent members of the HPC community to invite, and made sure that list was balanced: half of them were women. I sent invitations to serve and kept track of replies, inviting more and more women as necessary to maintain a 50–50 ratio. That’s it — not rocket science!

The only extra effort on my part was the initial brain-racking to come up with the names of prominent women in the field. Because, even though there are many of them, all our brains are conditioned to first think of the male experts, due to unconscious bias. No one is immune to unconscious bias, not even a feminist woman engineer, like myself. You have to deliberately work against bias, using whatever trick you can: checklists, reminders, targets, external reviewers…

A handful of replies to this tweet acknowledged that the gender balance was visible to them.

Then on the day of the event, I made sure to speak to my successor, and tell him of my strategy. Later, I followed up by sending him my list of experts, generously populated by women in HPC. He rose up to the challenge!

This year, I am Program Co-Chair of the SciPy Conference, together with Gilbert Forsyth (my PhD student). Our first job was to recruit area chairs for the various conference tracks. I started with a half-full list of possible chairs that other organizers were putting together, and begun adding more names to it and sending invitations …then it struck me: it was an all-male set! Unbelievable: the moment I distracted from the concern of gender diversity, I became part of the problem. Rapidly, I informed the conference chairs of the mishap, said this simply will not do, and set myself the target of achieving gender balance in our team of area chairs. In just a few days, we reached near parity.

On Twitter, I progressively announced the names of area chairs who accepted to serve. And the parity would be evident to anyone who’s paying attention. Enigmatically, I phrased it as an invitation for reviewers.
First, the area chairs
… then the co-chairs and the main-track chairs.

The fabulous thing is that we ended up with a set of superb experts that worked like a well-orchestrated fancy swim team, and the review and selection of submissions was smooth as a kitten’s ear.

But it was a partial triumph. Area chairs make acceptance decisions based on the submissions’ reviewer reports. Once we opened up reviewer sign-up, the unstructured process quickly built up a strong male-dominated list. At that juncture, the least one can do is outreach…

SciPy already has a Code of Conduct, makes a Diversity Statement, and designates a Diversity Chair. The community is active and trying to move the needle for women and underrepresented minorities in technology. But what more could we do? I reached out to the Diversity Chair, Julie Krugler Hollek, and made this request: could we develop some written guidelines and start a campaign to educate our reviewers on unconscious bias? The result of this initiative is the SciPy Chair and Reviewer Guidelines, which all reviewers were asked to study (and check a radio button on the review system confirming that they did). We can’t be certain that reviewer bias decreased by a significant fraction, but we started the conversation, and we are influencing the community culture to be conscious of our concern. I am happy with that for now.

In my current and future roles of leadership in the academic and tech worlds, I hereby make a public commitment to keep pulling focus to increasing diversity, curtailing unconscious bias, and influencing community cultures towards inclusion. You can, too. Just make a decision.