A Brief Summation of ESA’s Work to Diversify the Field and Stop Harassment

Blogpost from ESA President Laura Huenneke

December 5, 2018

I’ve often despaired of the slow progress the ecological science community is making toward reflecting the diversity of society overall. One advancement is the acknowledgment that diversifying STEM fields is not just about recruitment, but even more about retention. So many efforts over the past decades to recruit women and members of under-represented groups into science have proven Sisyphean – hostile and unwelcoming cultures in the classroom, laboratory, and field have resulted in too many talented and promising individuals leaving our field for other paths. Today’s #MeToo discussions and a robust social science-based understanding of the issues are now leading to more direct efforts to make science welcoming, safe, and inclusive for all.

Scientific societies and federal agencies are testing ways in which they can contribute to and support the work going on in education and government. The National Science Foundation commissioned a report from the National Academies in 2016 that was released in June 2018 entitled, “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.” Following the report and signaling its commitment to stop harassment, NSF launched a robust effort to improve accountability that encourages anyone with a harassment complaint involving an NSF-funded researcher to report directly to NSF, or to report the incident to their institution that will be required to notify NSF within its reporting guidelines.

A new cultural shift is occurring across science. I thought it might be useful to fellow ESA members if I reviewed the evolution of ESA’s work on gender diversity and sexual harassment over the years.

Jean Langenheim (ESA President 1986-87, our first female president since E. Lucy Braun in 1950; since then there have been fifteen female presidents) launched the Society into a new awareness of the important contributions of women ecologists in her presidential address published in the Bulletin Volume 69. Langenheim’s successor, Margaret Davis, had been part of the momentous events at the University of Minnesota that we can thank for today’s Equal Employment Opportunity approach to hiring in academic settings. The new consciousness led President Hal Mooney (1988-1989) to establish the Women and Minority Affairs Committee – in many ways the precursor to today’s Committee on Education and Diversity. Two major Women and Minorities in Ecology (WAMIE) reports (WAMIE I, 1993; WAMIE II, 2006) stimulated many of the programs and initiatives we recognize today, from the Diversity Luncheon and other events at the Annual Meeting to the SEEDS program.

By 2014, Board discussions about the importance of diversity and inclusion led to the formal adoption of ESA’s Diversity Statement still in force today, including the clear statement that “We strive to cultivate a society built on mentorship, encouragement, tolerance and mutual respect, thereby engendering a welcoming environment for all.” A workshop at the Annual Meeting in 2015, “Recommendations for reducing sexual violence and harassment in the field,” generated a set of summary recommendations to the Governing Board (GB). While members of the GB struggled to understand how ESA might act to affect conditions at field stations or a researcher’s home institution (with their own widely varying policies and more direct authority), they accepted the challenge of working to improve ESA’s Code of Conduct governing its own meetings while they referred the overall topic of sexual harassment to the standing Professional Ethics and Appeals Committee (PEAC).

In August 2016, that committee’s members reported to the Governing Board that they found that ESA’s Code of Ethics  was comprehensive and explicit enough to serve as a strong prohibition against harassment of any sort, including sexual or gender harassment. To this day, the Code and the PEAC set the context for expectations and enforcement of professional behavior for members of ESA in their roles as ecological scientists. However, the PEAC also noted that the Code of Conduct for the Annual Meeting could and should be enhanced and strengthened. The Board voted to establish an ad hoc committee to review the Code of Conduct and related issues; Kathryn Cottingham, then a member-at-large on the GB, chaired this group initially. The ad hoc committee has continued its work since then, with membership consisting of other GB members.

In 2017, the ad hoc committee generated numerous suggestions for improving the Code of Conduct, and for making the Annual Meeting a more inclusive setting. The Code was revised in April 2018 and now covers all Society-sponsored and supported events. Moreover, the Society has increased the visibility of the Code at the Meeting and also beforehand, requiring all those submitting abstracts for presentations to attest that they have read and agree to comply with the Code of Conduct. ESA staff members have taken bystander training and are prepared to serve as resources for meeting attendees. At the 2018 meeting in New Orleans, bystander training and harassment intervention training was offered in workshop format to meeting attendees.

The ad hoc committee continues its work – most recently working to formulate recommendations for how ESA might best modify its awards and fellow recognitions to ensure that the Society does not honor those against whom there have been findings of harassment. We are not the first scientific society to be wrestling with this issue, and the work isn’t complete yet, but we are tackling the difficult conversations. Most recently, ESA became a partner of the new American Geophysical Union Ethics and Equity Center, which provides information and tools for the scientific community to use.

Like other societies, ESA has struggled to move beyond “diversity” dealing only with the concerns of white women. We’ve been fortunate to have some people of color and some LGBTQ+ individuals as officers and members of our Governing Board (and staff) over the years, but full inclusion and equity in all of our operations remain aspirational goals. Our members have been creative in adapting ESA’s section structure to create community and support within the larger organization. Some of the sections are organized around disciplinary (or multi-disciplinary) interests that are to some groups traditionally under-represented in science (Urban Ecosystem Ecology, Environmental Justice); others support inclusion in particular career stages or professional activities (Student, Early Career, Communication and Engagement, Policy), or the Inclusive Ecology Section that supports ecologists across all stages of their career span. Still others provide a focus on particular geographies (Asian Ecology Section, Latin America Chapter) and/or support for specific under-represented groups (Inclusive Ecology, Black Ecologists, Traditional Ecological Knowledge). The diversity of these groups has been a major asset to the Society over the years. We hope that the creation of the new online ESA Community platform (ECO) will help these sections provide the best possible interactions and support within their membership, while aiding the Society as a whole in tapping into their energy and creativity. Since the platform launched, 19 sections and chapters have used it to build virtual community and support one another’s work.

ESA’s Annual Meeting provides a large forum that attracts between 3,500 to over 5,000 ecologists to formally share research findings and to informally network with other ecologists and advance one’s career. Early career ecologists can be especially vulnerable because the informal networking is critical during a job search, pursuing tenure, or expanding one’s network outside of their universities. Although we are making strides in providing a safe venue for all, there is more work to be done. Progress can be measured in steps we have taken for the Annual Meeting: pronoun ribbons; gender neutral bathrooms; quiet rooms; lactation rooms; subsidized child care; free companion registration for those with disabilities and childcare helpers; social media guidelines; Code of Conduct acknowledgement for registrants; clear sexual harassment confidential reporting guidelines with quick staff response times; and bystander training workshops. The Extending the Tent taskforce is continuing to generate and refine ideas for greater inclusion.

ESA leadership is staying informed about ideas and findings from other scientific societies. Executive Director Catherine O’Riordan attended the recent National Academies summit on gender harassment. Our elected members-at-large, individually and as contributors to the ad hoc committee, continue to serve both as leaders on this issue and as valuable liaisons from other institutions to our Governing Board. And we will continue to offer workshops and training at the Annual Meeting (and, we hope, soon in other settings as well) so that our members are supported both in ESA activities and in taking best practices to their own institutions.

While ESA has not been at the forefront of changes in how scientific societies fight gender harassment (though some of our individual members are indeed leaders in this battle), I take pride and hope in the progress that we have made. I welcome your feedback and suggestions of ways in which we can help you, our members, both in your individual experiences and in your roles as leaders and positive influences in your own professional settings.



Laura Huenneke



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