A Tale of Two Conferences, Part II

In my previous post, I mentioned that I've attended two conferences for work recently, and I cover the first one, the 68th ISCP in Gent. Today I will talk about the second conference, InsightOut. This post is written in a more informal way, and gets a bit ranty in the end, but I hope it was useful. Definitely consider this one to be Kim's Opinion.

Director of FOM [Physics Organization], Christa Hooijer, welcoming everybody to the conference

On May 24th, I attended InsightOut, a conference for women in science - in the Netherlands ostensibly, as it was presented by NWO, the national science organization here. To be specific, according to the conference website, "Insight Out is an initiative of NWO Chemical Sciences and Physical Sciences, NWO Earth and Life Sciences and Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter." The NWO and all of these organizations are undergoing a period of transition into one big organization to serve the sciences (so I've been told, science in the Netherlands is still a fairly new thing to me), and this conference is the first under this name, but not the first time a conference for women in science has been undertaken within the NWO.

If the ISCP was focused on one aspect of my scientific work, InsightOut focused on a major aspect of my life and career - being a woman in science and what that means. As pointed out by my colleague Marjon de Vos, one thing it means is that in a conference for women, you can feasibly use the men's washroom without causing anyone undue stress.

Before going into the conference, I wanted to be mindful about two things (so of course I tweeted it) - I had no idea what to expect, but that I was going to be paying attention and looking for some intersectional feminism to be at play here. If you weren't aware, I'm a feminist, and I promote intersectional feminism whenever I talk about feminism. Essentially, that means that we're not just talking about women's rights as though being a woman is all we all. We are also members of different socioeconomic classes, we are different races and from different backgrounds, we have different gender identities and sexualities (and these are separate), and we have different abilities in all semblance of the word. All of these differences, all of this diversity, it means that we face issues not just as monolithic women, but as different aspects of our identity that can compound. For more information, use Google. Or go to the Intersectional Feminism 101 tumblr. The main thing I want to get across though is that as a foreigner to this country that can still pass as Dutch, I want to make sure that I ask the question, "How does this issue relate to race/sexuality/ability/etc." Another question that also formed in my head later on that day (due to frustration) was "How does this apply to women who choose not to have a family."

Prof. Dr. Tamalika Banerjee gave the first opening talk about her experience in India and the different stages she experienced as being a woman in science.

So I was pleased that the first speaker was Prof. Dr. Tamalika Banerjee, a researcher at the University of Groningen who is a woman of colour as well as a from a non-EU country. Don't perceive this as tokenism - we need more diverse perspectives in this conversation, and Dr. Banerjee's talk was great. While Dr. Banerjee didn't talk about how her race played into her work outside of India, it was great to hear her perspective of being a woman in science, such as the double-edged sword of self-doubt and perceived tokenism. She was encouraged by a female teacher early on in her life, but was later discouraged by male supervisors. Luckily, she was able to persevere, and eventually got over that feeling of the female 'handicap'. Her biggest push was for fixing it early - disassemble the stereotypes in our culture about the masculine/feminine, especially in respecting diversity as a huge benefit instead of being the differences between us.

What we think about men VS What we think about women - Dr. Corina Brussaard presented quite a few of these as a comparison between herself and her partner, both scientists in similar circumstances, so why are the responses different? [the likely answer is, Because of systemic sexism and cultural expectations]

Following Dr. Banerjee was Prof. Dr. Corina Brussaard, a marine oceanographer and self-professed extrovert. She has first-hand experience of being perceived as 'bitchy' whereas her male counterparts are 'assertive', and while this frustrates her, her biggest piece of advice was to 'mirror' the response - make people question why they feel it's appropriate to say to a woman and not a man. I've seen similar advice regarding dealing with racist jokes - instead of laughing, act confused and ask for an explanation as to why it's funny, then wait for people to stumble over themselves in explaining (or witness unabashed prejudice). She was very lively and funny, and I really appreciated the energy that she brought into the discussion, as well as a lot of comparisons to her work. It will definitely work for individuals who are more outspoken or use d to a culture of speaking up, but for those of us who are timid, shy, introverted, or from a different culture, it may not be the most pragmatic advice (and that's where policies and the support of others is supposed to help). Still, very nice lecture.

Some of the audience questions we were able to ask via a really nifty interface (reliant on smartphones or SMS, but it worked).

Following these two talks was a panel on sexual harassment and intimidation in the workplace, and the panel was led by Prof. Dr. Frances Brazier, who I thought was amazing and wish I could work with her, while the panel was composed HR/Confidential Officers at universities or work for professional organizations for women --- the names of the panel members were not listed on the website and I didn't catch all of the names, apologies. Overall, the panel was related to sexual harassment on campus as well as reporting sexual harassment, but for me, the panel was at a disadvantage to answer some of the questions to anyone's satisfaction. I'm glad that Dr. Brazer held the panellists to their answers and was quick to call out disappointing answers.

After this was lunch, then a really helpful workshop on careers outside of academia presented by NaturalScience.Careers, and then before I knew it, it was time for the final lecture from engineer Gabby Kroes, who works in astronomical instrumentation and again talked about her own experiences as a woman in a male-dominated field (unfortunately no picture, but you can check out the #InsightOut hashtag on Twitter for more!).

And then the day was done! It was a mix of enthusiasm and frustration. I was surrounded by successful women who were intent on at least addressing issues within our field if not being the change that they want to see. Meanwhile, I became frustrated at some aspects of the tone of conference and attendees that I'd like to detail below.

Three things.

1)   Support other women
Women need to stick up for other women, especially those who are at a disadvantage or may not be aware of harassment or different treatment. I am a feminist who is fairly well read on issues of sexual harassment and gender bias in the STEM field, so none of these stories were a surprise to me. I was empathetic, listened, and now I want to know how I can stop this from happening to other women before it becomes an anecdote for them. The answer for that is to call out inappropriate behaviour, report to managers, support other women, and provide advice, and that was missing at times in these discussions.

2)   The effects of having children is definitely a conversation, but not the only conversation
How ironic is it that the only issue that we seem to be able to talk about is the unforgiving nature of academia/science to women for having children -- it's true, there is a lot of shit that women who choose to have a children via pregnancy put up with that others, especially men who do not get pregnant do not have to put up with, such as perceived loss of scientific output, time off, etc. But there are other reasons that you may need to take a career break. Depression, taking on dependents, family loss, injury, visa issues, etc. and if these happen outside of employment, they look like gaps in our career, and we can also be punished for that. And women who choose not to have children are not suddenly *saved* from gender-bias at the workplace.

3)   One woman can not and should not speak for all women
Positive discrimination re: grants for women, this conference, etc... There's nothing that frustrates me more than a woman in a position of authority/status/power saying that because she didn't need a grant or access program, they are unnecessary - she just worked hard and other women just need to work harder... Similarly, women who say that they've just been lucky to get to where they are alongside hard work. Listen, a lot of the times when people say they are lucky, they're not talking about winning a randomized situation. They're talking about being a priviledged position and either not realizing it or not acknowledging it. See everything on white feminism.

When it comes to dealing with gender inequality, it's a two-pronged approach. There are short term solutions, like the kind of programs I've mentioned, that are supposed to fix things in the short term - if you don't see any women at the top, how do you know that it's possible? You can't be what you can't see. Then there are long term solutions, where we try to dismantle problematic systems and educate the next generation. I feel like some people didn't get this memo, and prefer to think of the short term solutions as "positive discrimination" or "reverse sexist." And what I want to say to women who are a part of this problem, is to stop poisoning the well. Instead of talking about how you didn't need help, address your own privilege, support other women, and promote the programs for those who do need them.

*rant over*

For anyone asking, What about Men? I refer you to two articles from Bustle that sum it up:
6 Ways The Patriarchy Is Harmful To Men, Because Feminism Isn't Just For Women
10 Ways Men Can Be Feminist Allies, Because Yes, Feminism Is For Everybody

So yeah, what a do! I will definitely look forward to next year and will do my best to ensure that all of my female colleages attend if they're able.


  1. Growing up in the 60s, your career wasn't perceived as an option. It was teacher, nurse, and if you wanted "cool" you went for stewardess (see your mom's unfinished degree focusing on languages, unfinished by my recollection when she realized she didn't want to be a stewardess and that was the only role that her languages would play into). So things have improved, but there are still mountains to climb.

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