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Breakfast, Women in Entomology, and a Revolution

2013 Women In Entomology Breakfast

2013 Women In Entomology Breakfast

Twenty-four years ago, at the 1989 ESA Annual Meeting in San Antonio, pink notes began appearing in the women’s restrooms. It was a notice for a networking breakfast for women in Section B (now the PBT section). The goal was to help female ESA members to network with other women, and to mentor female students so they didn’t feel isolated.

This might not seem like much of a revolution, and a bathroom usually is the hatching place for Psychodinae, not social change. Several decades ago ESA membership was roughly 10% female.

Personally, ESA meetings were difficult for me to navigate as a female graduate student. I had more than one potential male faculty mentor seem interested in me… but not for my research skills, as it turned out. I’ve included a photo demonstrating how my departmental mail was treated.

Because the 1989 Networking Breakfast was secret (since only women could see the posters), it also was controversial. And they were right to be afraid. Women and pancakes actually turned out to be an effective destabilizing force to the status quo.

Today there is an established Women In Entomology Network, and at 277 members, it is larger than the next two biggest ESA networks combined. A Women in Entomology breakfast is part of the regular ESA Annual Meeting program. You can find most of the ESA Governing Board, past Presidents, Section and Branch leaders at that breakfast, talking to students and early-career women. This year Dow AgroSciences offered to sponsor 100 students at the Breakfast; 76 students attending received their meal for free, and a total of 143 people attended.

How did we come so far? How can we keep improving? And will breakfast pastries still be involved?

To answer those questions, I sat down with Elizabeth F. Beckemeyer, (2012 ESA Honorary Member; Georgia Perimeter College), the original author of the pink bathroom posters, and the primary organizer of the Women in Entomology Breakfast since its inception.  I also talked to Gail Kampmeier (2011 ESA Honorary Member), who has been co-organizing the Breakfast for the last ten years, and pioneering sponsorships for students to help cover the cost of the Breakfast.

Beckemeyer was an AAAS Science and Technology Fellow, and as part of that award she traveled to other professional societies’ meetings. At a Cell Biology meeting, there was not only a networking event, but sessions about the status of women. She described her motivation for organizing the original breakfast as:  “I saw what equality looked like, and I wanted that for entomology.” 

Breakfast Pioneers

Breakfast Pioneers: Drs. Elizabeth Beckemyer, Gail Kampmeier, and Judith Willis, ESA Fellows and First Ladies of Breakfast Networking.

Because women often were in non-entomology departments, or were widely scattered across the US, she wanted to provide an easy way for women to find mentors, get advice, and just generally find out how the ESA worked. Many students don’t know, for example, that ESA Section business Meetings are open, or how to contact a nominating committee. In a society split into disciplinary Sections and then again into geographic Branches, committee memberships and elections to boards were often limited to people who were already connected to the leadership.

The original 1989 Breakfast was intended for Section B, but many women from other Sections attended as well. While there were some occasional misunderstandings in the early years about who was “allowed” to attend, male entomologists supportive of women and of increasing diversity in entomology have always been welcome at the Breakfast. Students were especially encouraged to attend, and more senior entomologists were encouraged to sponsor (pay for the breakfast) of a student. This would often provide an ice breaker when the two were matched on the fly.

In 2012, ESA was invited to participate in a National Science Foundation workshop (AWARDS: Advancing Ways of Awarding Recognition in Discipline Societies) to assess our status in promoting gender diversity, and to discuss the tools found to be successful by the original grantee societies. Gail Kampmeier chaired a 2012-2013 ESA Presidential Committee on Awards Review, which quantified the ways in which, historically, ESA has tended to recognize fewer women than men:

  • Less than 9% of all ESA Fellows honored since 1934 were women; most of that 9% have been nominated in the last 10 years.
  • Only 6% of elected ESA Presidents have been women.
  • Less than 6% of ESA Honorary Members have been women.
  • Women often make up more than 50% of ESA awards recipients at the graduate or undergraduate level, but rarely receive awards given for service or research achievement at the full member level.

So, while the ESA has traveled a tremendous distance in making the membership more inclusive, we still have a long way to go!

Annual Meeting attendees can listen to a summary report of the AWARDS data and ESA information later this week at Kampmeier’s presentation:

Tuesday, November 12, 2013: 7:05 PM #1539 Can’t we just all be entomologists?


Gwen Pearson is the entomologist formerly known as Bug Girl. She obtained her PhD in entomology from North Carolina State University, and her Charismatic Minifauna blog appears in Wired Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @bug_girl.

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