Who puts the "I" in "D & I?" Entomologists Do!

Ask children in the US to draw a picture of a scientist, and most of them will present you with a white man in a lab coat with wild-looking hair, holding a flask or some wires.* Fortunately, that stereotype is less and less likely to reflect reality. The importance of increasing the participation of people other than straight, white, cis-gendered men has been recognized in all areas of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine. Most scientific societies have acknowledged the value of diversity and inclusion in their values statements and policies.

However, much like the weather, people talk a lot about diversity and inclusion, yet are uncertain what to do about it. As my friend, Joe Gerstandt, describes so eloquently, most of the time we don’t even know what we’re talking about. We lack a common understanding of what “diversity” means and what “inclusion” looks like.

I recently had an experience of what diversity in science means, and what inclusion in science looks like, and feels like.

In September, 2016, nearly 7,000 insect-lovers from 101 countries descended on Orlando, Florida for the 25th International Congress of Entomology (ICE). ICE is affectionately called the “Entomology Olympics” because it happens once every four years, and its location is chosen from among competing national entomological societies.

This year’s host, the Entomological Society of America (ESA), has a straightforward and clear statement of its commitment to diversity and inclusion among its members, and in the field of entomology. Unlike so many such statements, this one has had an impact on ESA’s conferences. I got to see this in action during ICE 2016.

Their commitment to diversity and inclusion was immediately visible in several ways.

The diversity of the gathering is evident in the demographic breakdown of presenters at ICE 2016, and reflected the international stature of the conference. Nearly 40% of the presenters were people of color, and a third of the presenters were women. The majority of plenary and symposium speakers were mid- and late-career scientists, while the majority of poster presenters were students, postdoctoral fellows, and early-career scientists.

ESA also took steps to ensure real inclusion at ICE 2016, and their efforts were visible and tangible.

ESA converted the restrooms nearest the exhibit hall at the convention center into “all-gender” restrooms. Cis-gender, trans-gender, nonbinary, agender, all took care of necessary business with no fuss or muss. By the end of the conference I heard people asking out loud “Why do we need designated men’s rooms and women’s rooms anyway?” This could be a glimpse of the future.

ESA’s Code of Conduct applies to all ESA events (national and regional), and was widely publicized at ICE 2016. The Code of Conduct explicitly addresses behavior that has the greatest impact on full inclusion at events: harassment and bullying.

At the time of registration, it was clear that registering for the meeting signified agreement to abide by the code. The Code of Conduct was prominently placed in the printed meeting book, seen on signs in the exhibit hall, and announced from the stage at the opening plenary session. It was also included as a link in the ICE Daily ‘Congress Connection’ e-newsletters.  Their seriousness in enforcing this included bringing me to the ICE to act as their ombudsman for confidentially receiving and investigating reports of Code of Conduct violations.

ESA sponsored my presentation of a “Lunch and Learn” session on how to trust their initial reactions to harassment, and how to resist harassment in the moment, without escalating the encounter. One of the men who attended admitted to me later that he initially showed up just for the lunch, then realized that he had been the target of some relatively mild harassment during the meeting (a man he didn’t know had momentarily “massaged” his shoulders). His realization that he had experienced the kind of unwanted conduct that is one form of “harassment,” and that women are subjected to it frequently, was inspiring to see. He “gets it” now, and is another ally in putting the “inclusion” in “diversity and inclusion.”

In addition to ESA’s official efforts, a cadre of ESA members wore buttons that identified them as “Ento-Allies,” and made themselves available to assist anyone at the ICE who felt they had been harassed or bullied, in complete confidence.

ICE 2016 was an exciting time, and its importance as a gathering for entomologists at all career stages and from around the globe, from academia and industry, was evident at all ICE events. The good news is that the excitement I was sensing was, with few exceptions, the best kind. It was the excitement of scientific progress, of seeing old friends and making new connections, of sharing a fascination with insects. Over the entire week of the conference I handled only one complaint, that an attendee had made racist and xenophobic bullying remarks at a social event. I quickly investigated the complaint, and the perpetrator was immediately asked to turn in his credentials and leave the conference.

Credit for this success goes to ESA’s leadership - its Governing Board and its chief staff officer, Executive Director David Gammel, who several years ago recognized that ensuring the safety of all meeting attendees was one key step in developing diversity in the field of entomology. Even more credit goes to ESA meetings director Rosina Romano and the rest of the ESA staff, who exhibit a personal commitment to diversity and inclusion and to eliminating harassment and bullying at ESA meetings, and elsewhere. Working with this organization was a pleasure and an honor.  

*Finson, K.D. 2002. Drawing a scientist: What we do and do not know after fifty years of drawings.  School Science and Mathematics 102:335-345.