Jonathan Eisen: A Champion GenderAvenger in the Sciences

Jonathan Eisen

Jonathan Eisen

Jonathan Eisen has been surrounded by strong, can-do women his entire life. It’s no surprise that he grew up to be a GenderAvenger.

“My mother is a chemist who has been heavily involved in women in science and women in STEM issues,” Eisen says. “I heard a lot about the topic and the ridiculous levels of explicit or implicit bias in various fields.”

Although he’d heard about it, Eisen says, “It wasn’t anything I spent a lot of time doing anything about, but the ‘prepared mind’ part of it was important.” And so when he witnessed a simple event at a conference, his awareness of how the science community impedes the progress of women was unlocked, and he began a quest to make change.

“It’s pretty amazing to track something you do to one event, but it really does track to one event I experienced,” he says. About ten years ago, at a conference near Los Angeles, he went outside for a break. Eisen explains:

There was a nice big green lawn with a swimming pool and people playing Frisbee. There was a young woman sitting on a picnic blanket with a tiny little baby. I went over to speak to her and said ‘Oh are you skipping the talk, too?’ The whole conference center was reserved for the conference, so I assumed she was an attendee. But she was a nanny hired to come with a graduate student so the student could go to the talks. I was completely blown away by this. It never occurred to me how hard it was for a graduate student to participate in scientific meetings. And, it never occurred to me that you could do something about it, that you could solve a real problem by hiring a nanny. I learned the University of Wisconsin had a fund where you could get travel funding and funding to hire a nanny. At that moment… my eyes were opened to the challenges that people faced but that were, obviously, skewed toward women, [and] that you could actually fix a problem [like that]!

The creator of the program was Jo Handelsman, a well-known microbiologist who has conducted scientific studies of bias in resume reviews. She is now the Associate Director for Science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Eisen says her scientific work was amazing, but her work on gender bias was different. “It stepped outside the science.”

After his experience at that conference in Los Angeles, he would comment about the lack of gender balance while at conferences, “but it didn’t seem to have much of an effect,” so he began blogging about his observations. As a faculty member at University of California, Davis, he asked to join an NSF project called ADVANCE, a program to work with institutions, mostly research universities, to improve their policies and practices for the hiring, retention, and promotion of underrepresented minorities and women in STEM fields at the faculty level. UC Davis ADVANCE is run by Chancellor Linda Katehi, “an amazing engineer who is completely committed to fixing the problems that exist here,” according to Eisen.

Chancellor Linda Katehi by KianaHooper (own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Chancellor Linda Katehi by KianaHooper (own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Now in its third year, the program has resulted in changes designed to reduce implicit and explicit biases in hiring and awarding of tenure. These include making letters requesting outside evaluations more consistent and not judging productivity by total number of years worked, which may be impacted by time off for family leave. The university instituted training programs for search committees, including how to better write position descriptions. “There’s lots of science that says if you make it too narrow you don’t get diverse candidates,” Eisen says. “If you make a description broad and evaluate candidates after they come into the pool, you open the window to more diverse candidates.”

Eisen says one of the issues for women (and underrepresented minorities) in the sciences is that, on average, women are more likely to do applied work than basic work, which is less likely to be published in the more widely circulated scientific journals. As a result, it’s important that hiring committees understand “that if you’re just scanning CVs for the name of the journal, you’re immediately biased against underrepresented minorities and women.”

Eisen says, as one person, it’s much easier for him to have an impact on improving visibility for women and underrepresented minorities through conferences or “Top Ten Lists” than by trying to change the tenure process overnight. “It is actually so easy to change if you want to change it, and the people who aren’t changing it need to be told and exposed and instructed that this is something that they can and should do.”

He focuses on what leads to an underrepresentation. “It could be you didn’t invite people that are diverse; it could be that women didn’t apply to be speakers; it could be that you only wanted to invite the most highly cited people (usually men and older); maybe women couldn’t come because of issues such as child care. But I have found from personal experience you can end up with an incredible meeting that is successful and diverse. It just takes some effort!”

Eisen echoes what others who have successfully balanced events have told us: opening your pipeline to a wider group of people is key. Expanding invitations “beyond 70-year-old famous people” to include “grad students, reporters, post-doctoral students, and people from other arenas, it’s not hard at all.” And the benefits are far-reaching, he says. “Grad students, it’s transformative for them [in terms of] pride, experience on their CV. Their work gets known by more people. If you’re inviting people who are only famous, what is the point of that? How are you contributing to the community?”

Eisen has gained a reputation for being very vocal about these events, even calling for boycotts. “If the point is to make money for your conference by putting out the most famous people, I won’t go. I will criticize your meeting. There is no good to the community.”

He acknowledges the difficult position his activism creates sometimes. When he received an invitation to a quantitative biology meeting that had “something on the order of 27 men and 1 woman,” he wrote a blog post about the statistical probability that this could have occurred by chance in a field where 35% of the practitioners are women. He was attacked in comments on his blog that said he didn’t know what he was talking about, and he heard the favorite tried and true GenderAvenger excuse “We tried to get women.” After the post, multiple people told Eisen that the meeting organizers had refused to invite more women when the issue was raised before, privately. In the end, his speaking out mattered. In the two years since, the conference has featured almost equal representation. “The people who co-organized that meeting hate me,” but, he says, “They deserved every ounce of criticism that they got.”

Another one that he says “was really painful” was a conference on the future of genomic medicine. He had been a guest speaker at the meeting a couple of years in a row before taking a year off. When they asked him back, the list of speakers was fairly gender-balanced, so he accepted the invitation, but when he got there someone said it was hypocritical for him to speak at an event that lacked gender balance. At some point, the speaker line-up had changed. He took to twitter to express his embarrassment and ask organizers to “Please explain this. We really need to fix this.” Before he left to get a taxi to the airport, “I went to say goodbye and the organizer lost it, said I was stabbing him in the back,” Eisen recalls. “He insisted, ‘We do really well in terms of gender balance’ but that’s not true. I told him ‘RockHealth did an analysis of meetings, and the percentages for this meeting would put it near the bottom of their lists.’ I am sure I will never get invited back to that meeting!”

UC Davis Earth and Physical Sciences building by Daderot (own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

UC Davis Earth and Physical Sciences building by Daderot (own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the biggest difficulties, Eisen says, is that he is criticizing the lack of gender balance at scientific conferences when some of the departments he is affiliated with at UC Davis are not balanced. That’s why he’s joined the ADVANCE program, he says. “I can’t fix it alone, but I am trying.”

He has fought some uncomfortable battles doing that. There is an endowment to bring in speakers for a program at UC Davis. When Eisen was asked to invite a male speaker, he compiled a list of previous speakers to send with his letter. The list of previous speakers turned out to be all men. Eisen sent a letter to the Vice Chancellor that said he would not help because of the historical lack of gender balance. “It’s the same excuse,” he says. “They want people who’ve won the Nobel Prize or the Lasser Award or who are really famous. If you’re selecting people based on prizes, you deserve criticism.”

Eisen pushes the envelope because he is tenured. “They can’t take my job away,” he says. “They can make other things difficult for me, but they can’t take my job.” He is aware this is not the case with junior faculty, so he will be the voice for them. “I tell people if they are not comfortable, I will write about it. I’ve gotten about ten of those requests.”

For Eisen, this battle isn’t just professional. He has a ten-year-old daughter and “a wife who is a scientist who has definitely experienced situations that would never happen to a man.” With his daughter, he says, “It’s amazing the number of times things have come up like ‘why aren’t women doing x?’ It’s so sad to see people and kids who feel like their world is restricted because of what has existed in the past or what exists currently.” His eight-year-old year son doesn’t see the world in those terms. “Other things affect him,” Eisen says, “but not anything about whether or not boys are allowed to do x.”

Despite the criticism he’s received, Eisen says, “I’ve gotten way more support than grief, even inside my own institution and certainly outside. The organizers of meetings hate me for a while, but the communities have been incredibly supportive.” On average, he says, he gets 10 positive comments for every negative one and “probably hundreds of emails from people saying ‘thank you for what you’re doing.’”

At GenderAvenger, we add our thank you and encouragement to keep on doing what you’re doing, Jonathan!

Jonathan Eisen

Jonathan Eisen is a Full Professor at the University of California, Davis with appointments in the School of Medicine and the College of Biological Sciences. Read his blog, Jonathan Eisen's Lab, and follow him on Twitter at @phylogenomics.

Susan Askew

Susan Askew is a serial entrepreneur, optimist. explorer, and questioner: “What if?” and “Why not?” She started out in old media, crossed over to the “other side” of the microphone into politics as a staffer to Republican Governor Mike Castle and with organizations focused on empowering women before discovering a wonderfully chaotic path of technological innovation in the early 1990’s. Founder, womenCONNECT, one of the first websites focused on women in business, and co-founder Backfence, an early innovator in hyperlocal news on the internet. And, in the “you’re never too old category”: recent graduate, George Mason University, Latin American Finance. Follow her on Twitter at @susanaskew.