Op-Ed: Stanford 2020 – Approaching gender

April 27, 2012, 12:06 a.m.

This year, I organized the Stanford 2020: Visions of Tomorrow Symposium. The event, which I first organized and co-founded last year, gives seven of Stanford’s top faculty the opportunity to make informative presentations about their research, why it matters, and where it is going. Like last year, this year’s symposium was an unqualified success. The event venue was filled to maximum capacity (with over 200 attendees), our speakers were nothing short of awe-inspiring, and the attendees left happy and intellectually satisfied.

In the days leading up to the event, I received numerous concerns about our speakers. They were all male. These concerns reached their high point a few days ago, when I was accused in an op-ed in The Daily of not valuing gender diversity (“Visions of Tomorrow: Academia still a boys’ club,” April 26).

Nothing could be further from the truth. In planning Stanford 2020, I, along with my co-chair, Philip Bui ’11, reached out to six female faculty members (this represents over 1/5 of the professors we contacted, a number on par with the female-male faculty ratio at Stanford). Of the six, three replied. Two of the three were previously engaged, and one agreed to participate. But, like the best laid plans of mice and men (and women, where applicable), event planning does not always go as expected. Roughly one week before the event, we received an e-mail from the female faculty member who, because of a conflicting event, had to step down. With less than one week to go, what were we to do? Cancel the event? The venue had already been booked and professors had planned other engagements around us. Contact a female professor and tell her that we needed a token woman on the panel and that, with less than one week of notice, she should prepare a presentation? That is certainly not considerate.

Event planning is and should be organic and flexible. When planning the event, Philip and I reached out to professors, both men and women, who we knew, through personal experience, would engage our audience. It so happened that the ratio of female-male faculty members we reached out to was pretty close to the ratio present among University faculty. It also so happened that this year seven men and one woman agreed to participate in our event, while last year, two women agreed to speak, one of which was a professor of gender studies. There was no discrimination, nor was there a lack of consideration towards women faculty members. Instead, there was thoughtful planning that, when executed, led to a fantastic event.

The goal of Stanford 2020 was not to illuminate gender disparity. But it so happens that we now have the opportunity to discuss this important issue. While women outperform men at most undergraduate institutions, there is still a sizable gender gap when it comes to professorships. Perhaps more problematic is that because there are fewer women in academia, and because universities have an interest in promoting the visibility of their women faculty, women professors receive more service and outreach requests (like Stanford 2020) than their male counterparts. Ironically, these service activities leads to a substantial decrease in the amount of time women have to spend on research, which hinders, rather than helps, their prospects of advancement. This does not mean women faculty members should not be invited to events like Stanford 2020. Instead, it means we should recognize that the solution to gender disparity at the university level is not as simple as we would like it to be – instead, the solution requires deep thought, careful consideration, and a true understanding of the problem.

I am a member of the Class of 2012, and my Stanford career is approaching its end. While I am about to move on, it is my hope that the Stanford community will continue to work towards a solution to the gender gap here and at other universities. Philip and I saw an opportunity to make a difference with our symposium, and we did. But we aren’t unique – any Stanford student can make a difference. It is easy to get funding for a summit, or a symposium, or a VSO, or a whatever. Stanford is an amazing place, but with effort, initiative, and energy, we can make it even better.

Adam Adler ’12

Stanford 2020 co-chair

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