Among the few non-committee things I did yesterday was attending the AWM Panel Discussion on “Research Collaboration Conferences for Women: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How?”. Moderated by Michelle Manes, and featuring panelists Maria Basterra, Susanne Brenner, Ellen Eischen, Kristin Lauter, Kathryn Leonard, and Ami Radunskaya, the panel mostly focused on spreading information about existing conferences for women. These conferences are not AWM-specific, but they have partly been sponsored by the organization.
I had the privilege of attending two of the WIN (Women in Numbers) conferences, and I was glad to see a packed audience and to hear many questions about these opportunities. These conferences started with WIN, held at Banff in 2008 and organized by Kristin Lauter, Rachel Pries, and Renate Scheidler. According to Lauter, the three were sitting at a number theory conference and realized how few women were in attendance. They wondered if it was possible that there are just not very many women in Number Theory. During lunch that same day, they decided to write down names of female number theorists off the top of their heads, and by the end they had a list of about 75 people. They decided that there was clearly something causing women not to attend, be it availability, inclusivity, and appeal of existing conferences. The goal of the conference was to focus on talking about and doing mathematics, with senior mathematicians at the helm of various projects, and mentoring early-career mathematicians and advanced graduate students. They figured that was the critical transition period in which women were dropping off research mathematics. Another goal was to have a proceedings volume attached to the meetings, in part to have some end result for the participants, but also to encourage continued collaboration and research from each of the groups.
Now, the Women In (Blank) conferences have spread to other areas, like WIT (Women in Topology), WISh (Women in Shape – about shape modeling), WhAM (I forget this acronym), and others. In fact, I have been having fun thinking of other acronyms and how to fit them to this conference (someone needs to come up with a conference for WICKED or WIRED). All of these conferences have followed similar formats: focus on research, pick problems and groups ahead of time, create and maintain an email list and network, and publish a proceedings volume.
Two recent developments make these conferences much easier to plan. The first is that there is now a Springer series devoted to AWM proceedings. The second, more exciting, and more recent one is the award of an ADVANCE grant to the AWM by the NSF. This grant is intended for the sole purpose of creating, supporting, and encouraging more of these types of conferences. What was once an isolated endeavor of motivated individuals is now supported by an organization whose goal is to promote participation in mathematics by women. How cool, right?
Of course, there are many objections to things like this. Some of the common ones are: is it OK to exclude men from this? Are women going to be able to collaborate with men if they only go to these conferences? Is it detrimental to graduate students to have publications in these proceedings rather than by themselves on a “real” journal? These questions have been asked many times.
To the first one, someone in the audience (I forget who, my apologies) gave the best answer: it would be unfair to have conferences for only women if the system was actually fair. But, the mathematics world is not fair in its treatment of men and women (even though it has gotten better), so giving the underprivileged group a small advantage can only tip things in the direction of fairness. Of course, many people will disagree with this statement, but I found it very pleasing.
The second question was a little silly if you think about it: what is the problem if a woman somehow decided to publish only with other women? How is this different from what men have been doing for centuries? I really didn’t understand the point of this question.
To the third, Lauter gave a great answer. These proceedings are actually peer reviewed very seriously, and many of the papers published are high caliber research. And how can a publication hurt you, really?
Anyway, I left excited about coming up with a new acronym and organizing a new conference myself. Would you?