Historic Conference Quite Possibly the First All-Women Academic Line-Up in Paleontology

Last week some 30 paleontologists presented long-format talks and posters at the Burpee Museum of Natural History’s Annual PaleoFest mini-conference.  Designed to lure both academics and the public alike, PaleoFest consists of unopposed half-hour presentations by scientists that share novel research in paleontology with specialists, interested amateurs, and the public.  In conjunction, the museum runs kid-friendly activities throughout the exhibits both days of the weekend.  This year’s conference was unique and historic for one reason:  every presenter was a woman paleontologist!(1)  With the only common theme being a love of fossils and being women, this congregation of talks was inspiring, fascinating, amazing, quite probably the first of its kind, and an example of how to intentionally work toward gender equality in paleontology.

Having been one of the co-founders of the Women in the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (WSVP) group within the Society, and also a woman, I have long been aware of the disparity between the number of women entering vertebrate paleontology as undergraduate and graduate students and those at the top tiers of the field.   Numbers vary by discipline, but work that Robin Whatley (Columbia College Chicago) and I presented at PaleoFest suggests that some 50% of SVP student membership consists of women, compared with a mere 10% of upper-level professional membership (Whatley and Beck, in prep).  Despite this issue, which spans all science and technology disciplines, the Society has been surprisingly ahead of its time in welcoming women into its ranks.

Mary Anning and her dog Tray. 
Credited to 'Mr. Grey' in Crispin Tickell's book 'Mary Anning of Lyme Regis' (1996) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Some 200 years ago Mary Anning (1799-1847) became the first well-known woman paleontologist by taking over her family’s business of collecting, cataloging and selling marine fossils in Lyme Regis, UK.  She did not receive full recognition for her discoveries (including plesiosaurs and pterosaurs) until after her death, but she is widely recognized as a seminal figure in vertebrate paleontology.  It wasn’t until nearly a century later that Johanna Gabrielle Ottelie "Tilly" Edinger founded the field of paleoneurology in Germany.  The daughter of a Jewish neurologist, Tilly was forced into hiding in WWII, and later immigrated to the US with the assistance of many people, including Alfred Sherwood Romer, to take a position at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.  Edinger was the only woman present at the inaugural meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in 1940 and was named its first female president in 1963.  Yet it was another decade before another woman would lead the Society when Mary Dawson was elected in 1973.  There would not be another woman at the helm, however, until 2004.  But now, four of the last five past presidents are women!

The good news in vertebrate paleontology is overshadowed by the fact that we really do lose so many of our promising young women as they progress through their careers.  The reasons are many, and often due to the larger culture of the US than anything specific to our field.  But we have an opportunity to lead by example, and we should take that opportunity and seize it.  There are many ways to reduce the gender inequality in our field, not the least of which is to have women in leadership positions.  The SVP really has this covered, at least for now.  But perhaps more importantly, we need to mentor younger women, and offer them support, both professionally and socially.  A study by Bozeman and Boardman (2014) on research collaboration found that women are more likely to collaborate, and when they do, it is more likely to be with other women.  We all know the importance of publication and CV-building for early-career paleontologists, and fostering these collaborations certainly will help.

Another way to boost the number of women in the advanced career stages is to invite more women to speak at symposia and conferences.  Enter Scott Williams, Director of Science & Exhibits at the Burpee Museum of Natural History, at the behest of museum members, who took the bold step to invite solely women to present at PaleoFest 2016.(2) Because of the nature of the audience, the talks were put into a broader context, so that members of the public could be included in the story.  Talks ranged from research on dinosaurs to pterosaurs to microfossils to public tracksites, and from ammonoids to bone paleohistology to trilobites, each one highlighting not only new work, but also what drew the presenter to paleontology in the first place.  Each speaker shared her “origin story” and reminded us all of why we do what we do, despite the lack of role models.  And that was what really made this conference unique in my mind—the common love of fossils that we all share and the awareness that we really are not alone, despite what he numbers say.  Speakers were as long-established as Anna K. “Kay” Behrensmeyer (a 40-year field project!) and as new as early Ph.D. students.  Each of us had a unique journey to our current positions, and it became clear that most of the presenters had benefitted from mentors and advisor who were also women.

In the two days that we celebrated women in paleontology, we discovered how important it is to connect with one another when we can, and how important it is to simply give women an opportunity to shine.  With the hope that the next generation of female paleontologists won’t even notice a gender gap, we look forward to continuing our discussions online, in person, and through our research.

(1) There was one male speaker, who presented the night prior to the meeting, who described his experiences recruiting women to a new program in a nation where women are traditionally kept out of higher education and careers altogether.
(2) Those interested in purchasing abstract volumes from PaleoFest 2016 may contact the Burpee Museum of Natural History to do so.

Whatley RL and AL Beck. in prep. A History of Paleontology from Anning to Zanno and Beyond. From a presentation at PaleoFest 2016. 12 March 2016.
Bozeman B and C Boardman. 2014.  Research Collaboration and Team Science.  Springer.  DOI:10.1007/978-3-319-06468-0.

Posted: 3/22/2016 11:02:21 AM by allisonbeckadmin | with 0 comments
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