Photo: AP

In September, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard visited Colorado State’s Fort Collins campus to give a talk on conservation. After his remarks, a panel featuring local science, business, and policy leaders discussed the implications of climate change.

All four panelists were white dudes. So was the moderator.

Katarzyna Nowak, a fellow at The Safina Center and research associate at University of the Free State (Qwaqwa), located in New York and South Africa respectively, sat in the audience and felt her frustration grow. She was there with two female graduate students working in conservation and felt acutely aware of the lack of female representation and the example it was setting.

“It wasn’t the first time I had seen an all white male panel, but what made me frustrated was I was here with female students and that’s what they had to inspire them,” she told Earther. “It’s very hard for young women to see themselves up on a panel or as a keynote speaker when prevalence is all male panels.”

Nowak decided after the panel that she’d had enough. She wanted to help change the paradigm and reduce the barriers to having more women scientists represented as the experts they are. Nowak envisioned creating a tool that could help people easily find women experts to speak with, whether it be for a news story, panel, or even high school biology class.

She brought the idea to 500 Women Scientists, a group that boasts more than 20,000 members working in STEM fields. Turns out it was something already on their radar.

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Liz McCullagh, a neuroscience postdoc at University of Colorado Anschutz, had pitched a similar idea. So the two started working on the idea together, and on Thursday, the concept became reality in the form of the “Request a Woman Scientist” on the group’s website.

The group is divided into local pods, which have a high degree of autonomy to take on projects. Nowak and McCullagh are part of the Fort Collins pod that led the charge to build the new feature on the main group’s website.

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The map-based tool allows anyone from journalists (hello) to conference organizers to high school teachers to find a female scientist by location, expertise, and if they’re an underrepresented minority.

The initial crop of scientists featured in the database all asked to be included and they’ve been vetted to ensure they’re actually subject matter experts and whether they’re available for presentations, being quoted, or helping with professional development. Future additions will go through the same process.

Right now, the majority of the scientists represented are in the U.S. and Europe. But Nowak said they really want women from developing countries to sign up because their expertise and perspectives are even more poorly represented in academia and media.

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“With a resource like this, there is no longer an excuse” to get women experts out in front of the public, Nowak said.

By giving scientists a female face, it could have direct real world impacts. Nowak works in conservation biology in Africa and said she’s seen that community members she works with in Tanzania are more open to asking women questions (though as a scientist, she was quick to note this is anecdotal and hasn’t been through peer review).

In the U.S. where climate change is a contentious issue, just offering up a scientist to come talk about it could be a radical way to improve science literacy.

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“At 500 Women Scientists, we’ve thought about what our role is to do domestic science diplomacy,” Jane Zelikova, one of the group’s founders and a research scientist at the University of Wyoming, told Earther. “Part of that is changing the face of what a scientist look likes. But also building trust back with scientists. It’s easy to mistrust or hate someone you haven’t met. In the end, just being a good human is the key here and getting away from idea of us vs. them.”

That dovetails with the group’s mission to make science more open, inclusive and accessible while holding up women as experts.

“If it’s a topic of space weather, a panel of all women would look strange and it shouldn’t,” Zelikova said. “It shouldn’t stand out that there’s a woman on a panel. It shouldn’t seem weird if all women are talking about topics that are not women’s topics.”

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Women are getting PhDs at rates roughly equal to men, which is helping close the gender gap in academia, but it’s still a goddamn steep hill to climb for women to get the same respect their male counterparts are afforded. And
the issue of white dudes as de facto experts is hardly limited to panels (though it’s so notable that there’s a Tumblr devoted to scorning them). Men are more frequently quoted in news stories as experts, paid more in every field of science and grossly overrepresented among Nobel Prize winners, to name but a few other instances of gender inequality in academia. And of course this is hardly limited to science.

“Request a Woman Scientist” doesn’t necessarily address the structural problems in academia that see more men in positions of power or offered gigs at elite labs that make that hill so huge. But it can help reduce some of the unconscious bias issues people—myself included—have when looking for experts.

“People are really busy and I give them the benefit of the doubt,” Zelikova said. “I dont think people want to exclude women, they just have sources they know. If we can make a resource easy for panel organizers, journalists, and teachers (to use), more people will do it.”

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For the time being, it’s likely to be inherently self-selecting because anyone requesting a female scientist is likely to already value diversity and equal representation. But you have to start somewhere, and if there are enough early adopters, it could snowball into something much bigger, similar to databases maintained by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other large groups.

“My goal is to have everywhere in the world represented so if you want somebody from Fort Collins, you could have 20 responses,” McCullagh told Earther. “You couldn’t just say ‘I tried.’”

This post has been updated.