"Are there no women in theoretical chemistry?" That question is posed in a petition started by three prominent women researchers after the organizers of the 2015 International Congress of Quantum Chemistry (ICQC), scheduled for Beijing, posted a list of 29 male (and no female) speakers, chairs, and honorary chairs. The petition aims to "condemn gender-biased discriminatory practices of which ICQC-2015 is the most recent example" and to recommend "boycotting this conference." More than 1500 people have signed the petition.

There are, in fact, women in theoretical chemistry, as the petition notes. More than 300 women with tenure or tenure-track jobs or "equivalent" industrial positions appear on a  directory of women in theoretical and computational chemistry, material science, and biochemistry, many of them "far more distinguished than many of the men being invited to speak at these conferences."

Emily Carter, who is one of the petition organizers and the founding director of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University, has boycotted conferences lacking female speakers for almost 15 years. "She said she 'wished' she was surprised that it was still happening 13 years later, but wasn't," Inside Higher Ed reports.

The article also quotes another of the petition organizers, chemistry professor Anna Krylov of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles: "The pattern is always the same: we would alert conference organizers privately; they would patch the program by adding a few female speakers (often after the program has been released), sometimes, we would be attacked and chastised for being pushy; then, the next time around the story repeats itself."

As we recently noted, research shows that including women on conference organizing committees leads to more women on programs. The honorary chairman, chairman, and three vice-chairmen of the ICQC 2015 organizing committee are all male; if the regular membership of the organizing committee was ever listed on the site, it has been removed.

Soon after the petition was posted at change.org, the conference website put up an apology from the organizing committee for having posted a "partial list of speakers … which was imbalanced in several ways and has caused unnecessary misunderstanding." That message, which noted that the organizers were working on a "complete list of speakers with full considerations of area, research field, gender, interests broadness etc.," has since been replaced by a new apology that notes that "[t]he committee understands that the posting of this partial list was inappropriate and offensive" and thanks the three professors for pointing out the error. "We hope that our premature posting of an all-male list will ultimately enhance public awareness of the pressing need for a better gender balance in science," the organizers write. "We extend our sincere apology to the entire scientific community."

The list that raised the petitioners' ire was quickly removed from the conference website. In its place today is a new "partial list of invited plenary speakers"—33 in all, including six women: Sharon Hammes-Schiffer of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne, Carmay Lim of the Academia Sinica in Taipei, Christel Marian of Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf  in Germany, Benedetta Mennucci of the University of Pisa in Italy, Lucia Reining of the École Polytechnique in France, and Tamar Seideman of Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.