The Joys of Academic Conferences

Just a quick one tonight, rather than one of my usual essays.

I’m at the 14th International Conference of Systems Biology in Copenhagen and I sat through fifteen talks today. One of them was by a woman. One. Just one.

I read the list of names for the conference organisers. There are three women on the committee, out of forty people in total.

Then I looked at skin colour. I’ve seen maybe five people of African/Caribbean origin. I’ve seen lots of Asian people – those from Japan, China and Hong Kong who came from families with money and could afford to pay their own way to study in Europe. I’ve also seen quite a few people from India and Pakistan, and others from the Middle East. I’ve seen one woman who also happen to be openly Muslim, going by her headscarf.

The only person of colour I saw speak was one of the keynote speakers who spoke with an American accent and looked Chinese. He was talking about super computers, so you know, not stereotypical at all. Looking at the names there are maybe two other keynote speakers for this conference who aren’t likely to be White.

I hate it – it’s just wrong, the racism, I mean. It makes me feel so uncomfortable, as it rightly should (!), that I am in the majority and that I’ve never been discriminated against, consciously or subconsciously, because of the colour of my skin. That I know it’s an issue and yet it seems like there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m not in a position to make judgements about who gets asked to speak, or who gets hired, and I don’t know anyone who is. I also don’t think I know any body in most of my circles who is actively racist, but there’s no denying that the Institutions I am a part of are.

At Uni for example, I can’t think of a single Primary Investigator who is Black, yet many of the cleaners are. Institutional racism, poverty, expected achievement in schools – all these things contribute to what I saw today, a stage full of white late-middle-aged men, and an audience that was 90% White, despite having attendees from forty-two countries.

I started this post wanting to rant about the lack of women on stage but it’s a topic that has been done to death elsewhere, and the not-so-subtle-racism has been grating on me for a while, so here you go. The late night thoughts of a tired Nessie.

I would like to add a post-script rant about the people who get to a talk early so that they can bag the seat at the end of the row, when the row has thirty-odd chairs in it. Don’t they realise how inconsiderate it is?!!!