Almost a thousand scientists have signed a petition protesting against gender discrimination at a flagship chemistry conference and calling for a boycott of the event. The conference in question is the 15th International Congress of Quantum Chemistry (ICQC) to be held in Beijing in June next year.

On 15 February, the conference organisers published the list of 24 confirmed speakers. They were all men. This provoked three eminent US theoretical chemists – Emily Carter of Princeton University, Laura Gagliardi of the University of Minnesota and Anna Krylov of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles – to set up a petition calling for a boycott of the conference. Time and again, says Carter, she has pointed out gender discrimination at professional meetings. ‘After so many years of doing so, hoping for change the next time around, [we] finally got fed up and decided it was time to escalate it, to raise consciousness finally in a way that hopefully breaks the pattern of a posteriori invitations to women, and all that terribly unfair attendant sense of lack of credibility.’

The three say they have been ‘overwhelmed’ by the response of the science community. Consequently, by 16 February, the conference organisers had removed the list of ‘preliminary’ speakers from the website and Josef Michl, the president of the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science (IAQMS), which is organising the event, had apologised.

Zhigang Shuai, conference chairman, also wrote to the three chemists explaining that one woman had been invited in in the first round of invitations, but had not replied. He says he has requested all members to recommend female scientists, and assures them that there will be more female chemists in the final speaker list.

The three say they will keep the petition open until the situation is ‘completely rectified’. Emily Carter has sent Zhigang a number of names of ‘outstanding females who would give excellent talks’, and so have others.

The petition’s organisers hope that the number of women at ICQC will exceed the historic average of 10%, and also that IAQMS itself will recognise the role that women play in the field. In the past 10 years, only two women have been elected to the IAQMS and only two women have been awarded medals by the academy, they point out.

The problem is not confined to theoretical chemistry. ‘Underrepresentation is rampant in all the fields I work in,’ says Carter, who had the same experience at a condensed matter physics symposium last autumn. ‘It happens over and over again. I know it happens in many fields, because I work at the interface between physics, chemistry, math and engineering, and speak at conferences in each of those fields.’

But why is this still happening? ‘It is a well-known psychological phenomenon that people think of and select people who are like themselves,’ explains Carter. ‘Hence men choose men. The discrimination much of the time is often just thoughtlessness: they just don’t even think about the ramifications of putting on a programme that includes no women – they don’t even think about how deeply discouraging that can be for young women to not see anyone that looks like themselves speaking at a meeting.’

This issue is much broader than merely including women in major theoretical conferences, says Aurora Clark, a chemist at Washington State University, it is about the growth and development of theoretical chemistry as a discipline and not really about gender at all. ‘Omitting women from major conferences affects a very large group of careers, not only politically, but also in terms of the recognition and distribution of the new work they produce and in the recruitment and education of talented young people.’