Skip to content

One good and one bad response to statistics’ diversity problem

(This is Dan)

As conference season rolls into gear, I thought I’d write a short post contrasting some responses by statistical societies to the conversation that the community has been having about harassment of women and minorities at workshops and conferences.

ISI: Do what I say, not what I do

Let’s look at a different diversity statement by the International Statistical Institute, more commonly known as the ISI.  Feel free to read it in full–it’s not very long. But I’ll reproduce a key paragraph.

ISI is committed to providing a professional environment free from discrimination on the basis of sex, race, colour, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, and politics.

On the face of it, this looks fine. It’s a boilerplate paragraph that is in almost every code of conduct and diversity statement. But let’s actually take a look at how it’s currently implemented.

One of the major activities of the ISI is a biennial World Statistics Congress, which is one of the larger statistics conferences on the calendar. Last year, they held it in Morocco. Next year it will be held in Malaysia.

In Morocco, the penalty for same-sex sexual activity is up to three years in jail. In Malaysia, the penalty for same-sex sexual activity is up to twenty years in jail (as well as fines and corporal punishment).

That the ISI has put two consecutive major statistics meetings in countries where homosexual activity is illegal is not news to anyone. These aren’t secret meetings–they are very large and have been on the books for a few years.

But these meetings manifestly fail to live up to the new diversity statement. This reflects a lack of care and a lack of thought. The ISI World Statistics Conferences do not provide a professional environment free from discrimination.

By holding these meetings in these countries, the ISI sending a strong message to the LGBT+ community that they do not value us a statisticians. They are explicitly forcing LGBT+ scholars to make a very difficult choice in the event that they get invited to speak in a session: do they basically pretend to be straight for a week or do they give up this career opportunity.

The ISI has released a diversity statement that it does not live up to. It is a diversity statement that anyone organizing a session at the next ISI World Statistics Conference will not live up to (they are participating in organizing a hostile environment for LGBT+ scholars).

This is pathetic. It is rare to see a group release a diversity statement and actually make the situation worse.

That they did it at the beginning of Pride Month in North America is so bleak I actually find it funny.

ISBA: A serious, detailed, and actionable response

For a much better response to the problems facing minority communities in statistics, we can look at ISBA’s response to reports of sexual harassment at their conferences.

ISBA has taken these reports seriously and have released a detailed Code of Conduct that covers all future events as well as responsibilities and expectations of members of the society.

This was a serious and careful response to a real problem and it’s a credit to ISBA that they made this response in time for its forthcoming major meeting. It’s also a credit to them that they did not rush the process–this is the result of several months of hard work by a small team of people.

The level of detail that the code of conduct goes into in its complaints procedures, its investigation procedures, and the rights and responsibilities of all involved is very good. While it is impossible to undo the harm from not dealing with this problem earlier, this code of conduct is a good basis for making ISBA a safe place for statisticians from now and into the future.


PS (added later): There was some concern shown in the comments that the two countries I mentioned were Muslim-majority countries. There were no other ISI meeting I could see in the same time period that happened in places with similar anti-LGBT legislation. (Although such places exist and the laws are justified using a variety of religious and social positions.)

The last ISI WSC to be held in a Muslim-majority country before Morocco was 20 years previous is Turkey, which, to my knowledge, did not have anti-LGBT laws on the books then or now.

It is always a mistake to attribute bad laws to faith groups. People who share a common religion are diverse and assigning them responsibility for a law would be like assigning every American blame for everything Trump (or Obama) wrote into law.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Point well made regarding the ISI – I guess they’re trying spread their conferences around but they definitely put more thought into it if they’re trying to be an enlightened organization.

    As for the ISBA, time will tell. Let us not forget that this organization fostered the “let’s party!” atmosphere to its conferences that allowed sexual predators to flourish.

  2. jason farnon says:

    “contrasting some responses by statistical societies to the conversation that the community has been having”

    Before getting to the responses, for those of who aren’t in the know, might it be possible to have a summary or link to the conversation that are being responded to? Google of course misinterprets “statistics harrassment women conference”.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think that you are conflating attributes with actions/choices. The laws above mention activity, not just orientation/identification.

    What if we look at a different group. Being a Christian is an attribute, on which the ISI statement says should not be used to discriminate against or in favor of in the work (and presumably conference) environment. Proselytizing to try to convert others to Christianity is an act/choice which is illegal in some countries. Is the ISI (and other group) responsible to make sure that Christians have the right to proselytize? only hold meetings where it is legal? I don’t think so.

    I don’t think that LGBQ+ need to pretend to be straight while at the conference, just don’t participate in any illegal activities while there.

    • Sam says:

      So it’s okay to _be_ gay, just don’t bring your partner to the conference dinner and dance with them. Got it.

    • mark says:

      How would you feel about a law criminalizing Christian prayer in a private own hotel room? Would you say a people who ahve the “attribute” of Christian are being welcomed?

      Because that’s the equivalent. Sure, prayer is an “act” but also a basic right.

      • Dan Simpson says:

        I think a better analogy would be the case where straight statisticians worried about bringing their partner with them to the conference because it would be illegal (with very harsh penalties) for them to have sex.

      • Anonymous says:

        I admit that I would not like it, but I would not put the blame on the ISI or other professional organization that is trying to function in an imperfect world.

        If the ISI (and others) are not allowed to have meetings in any country where any person of a particular group based on “sex, race, colour, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, and politics” would feel the environment hostile, then I expect the list of countries would be very short. And if they eliminate any countries, isn’t that discriminating based on “national origin”?

        I am not defending the laws of the countries mentioned, I just don’t think it is fair to blame the ISI for what participants may want to do outside of the conference.

        • Dan Simpson says:

          To quote the former Chief of the Australian Army David Morrison (who was talking about sexual harassment, but the sentiment holds): “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept”.

        • Sam says:

          > And if they eliminate any countries, isn’t that discriminating based on “national origin”?

          No, because they’re not discriminating against the participants on the grounds of their nationality. They’re choosing not to hold an event in a country because of its laws.

          It sounds like you don’t think it’s a serious issue, or that if LGBTIQ+ people would just control themselves for a few days then nothing would be wrong, and that you don’t think the ISI has any responsibility to ensure that its members are safe at its events. And just because there’s no session being run at that exact time, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not at the event. LGBTIQ+ statisticians can hardly just jump on a plane from Morocco to France to kiss their partners goodnight.

          The issue at hand here is that the ISI have a diversity statement that they’re not upholding when organising events.

  4. Hmm says:

    I’m sympathetic, but if conference organisers only choose countries with progressive laws and customs then all the conferences would be in Canada and Scandinavia. Then people would complain about how academia discriminates against non-western countries and is racist towards Africans, Asians and Arabs.

    • Dan Simpson says:

      That’s reasonable (although the list of places is bigger than that and includes several countries in South East Asia). But it doesn’t really change my point about the ISI putting out a diversity statement that they don’t live up to (and, I will venture, do not mean).

      • Hmm says:

        I know, I agree – you’re probably right about this specific instance. It’s just hard when you’re trying to be progressive – to not discriminate and be inclusive. The people most likely to try and bite your head off are other progressives. I mean, somehow you got accused of being racist and anti-muslim when all you were trying to do was to point out this one issue.

        • Dan Simpson says:

          It’s always good to talk about these things. I looked at the WSC history which conveniently came up with Turkey as the previous majority Muslim country to host the conference. It’s never had anti-LGBT laws on the books (although as Australia and the US and the UK and Canada that does not mean the story is rosy)

          • Hmm says:

            I don’t think it’s really fair to blame you for an imagined anti-Muslim bias. I don’t believe you ever had any ill intent towards any particular nationality or religion. My comment was intended more as a lamentation of what ended up happening in the thread with Anonymous (June 16, 2018 12:07pm). I find it sad that saying something as reasonable as you have said has turned into the suggestion that you could be seen as supporting a muslim ban.

            But I think I would feel safer in Malaysia than Turkey right now – Malaysia does not sit on the border of a long-running war and did not recently have a bloody coup…

  5. Anonymous says:


    You might want to reflect on how the two countries you want to boycott are majority Muslim countries. Your call to action could be mistakenly seen as an attack on Islam and a refusal to respect the culture of the “dangerous other”. You could even be mistakenly seen as supporting a “Muslim ban”.

    Would your energies be better directed in a way that doesn’t generate more hatred against Muslims or Orthadox Jews? Perhaps you could make a difference by working to combat homophobia in a Christian group of some sort? I think we can all agree that there is too much hatred in the world against Muslims and Jews, and that we shouldn’t be adding to that hatred.

    • Dan Simpson says:

      I think that seeing this post as anything beyond not supporting the ISI is a stretch.

      • Anonymous says:

        If there is one thing that social justice activists have taught us in the past few years is that bias is often unconscious.

        I am sure that consciously, you believe you hold no anti-Muslim animus, and it may even be true that you actually do not hold any anti-Muslim animus. But your actions can be seen by others as springing from an unconscious xenophobic fear of Muslims. This would work to undermine the work of activists who are desperately trying to gain equality for Muslims. No can be equal until we are all equal. You could be unintentionally strengthening negative stereotypes of Muslims.

        There has been path-breaking work on identifying unconscious bias recently. Hillary Clinton bravely told us during the campaign that we are all a little bit racist, and she paid dearly for this and other brave stands she took. Perhaps, in honor of her bravery, you could look more deeply into your heart to confront your own bits of racism and how your current actions might spring from unconscious anti-Muslim bias.

        • Dan Simpson says:

          Ok I will be very specific about this. My view is that if a professional society is committed to providing a safe work environment for the various groups listed in the ISI’s above, which includes gay, bi, and trans people, it should. That means no North Carolina as strongly as it means no Malaysia.

          The ISI could back out of its commitment to protecting LGBTQ+ people at work events they host, which was the status quo until earlier this month. In that case, everyone would be able to make their own case by case determination.

          Or the ISI could work actively with both local groups and LGBTQI+ scholars to find a path to meet their (voluntary) commitment.

          Neither Malaysia nor Morocco are theocracies. Criticising a bad law is not a dog whistle for criticising Islam. It’s a reflection of me not wanting to go to jail for 20 years.

          (Incidentally, these laws have huge impact on the loca LGBTQ+ communities in both communities, but this is a statistics blog, so I didn’t talk about that. I talked about a hypocritical diversity statement by a major statistical society.)

          None of this means that I don’t have unconscious anti-Muslim bias (like everyone else, I’ve got a pile of biases both conscious and unconscious). It just means that the post exists mostly because I’m angry at the ISI’s hypocrisy,

          • anony says:

            > Criticising a bad law is not a dog whistle for criticising Islam

            True. That said, it should be 100% OK to criticize Islam or any other religion for its attitudes towards homosexuals, women, apostates, etc. There’s a difference between bigotry towards muslims (or christians or any other religious group) as people and criticism of ideas expressed in their holy books.

            • Dan Simpson says:

              In this case, I don’t think it’s necessary to critique any religious text or practice. To start with, I’m not nearly qualified to. And it’s peripheral to the problem.

              But mainly, it’s not the point of my complaint here. My point is that the law exists and the ISI has now listed goals that they will uphold as a professional society. There is a tension between these two things that the ISI is completely ignoring, which strongly suggests they have not put adequate thought into this. It makes the whole statement come across as a “well everyone else is doing it, so I guess we have to too” type of deal.

        • Dan Simpson says:

          Anonymous: Is there a version of this post with the same content that you would see as less problematic?

          • Anonymous says:

            My concern is that your post will have the unintended consequence of focusing negative attention on Islamic countries whose laws reflect Islamic teachings. Muslims are important allies in our fight against fascist white-supremacists in America and you might unintentionally aide such repulsive groups by appearing to highlight a negative aspect of Islam. Haters will see a link between these countries’ homophobic laws and Islam, and I think you need to be more aware of that.

            I know that you don’t actually intend to aid homophobic fascists, but the fascists will be heartened by your actions. White-supremacists have already asked Muslim bakers to bake a gay wedding cake so the bakers would refuse them. Of course, no decent newspapers gave such bigotry a platform, so little actual harm was done. Trump supporters have also tried to sell his Muslim ban as a way to protect the LGBT community from Islamic homophobia. Your campaign might also be perverted to support that narrative.

            I would suggest that you find a way to raise awareness about ISI insensitivity by picking another place ISI holds conferences where there is no danger of aiding hatred against an important ally. Perhaps there is a southern state that would serve. Find a state where a public official has made homophobic comments perhaps. Perhaps the state where Chik-Fil-A is headquartered could be targeted.

            • Dan Simpson says:

              Thanks for your comments.

              I’ve added a postscript that points to this conversation and talks more about the issue in context of the ISI meetings. They haven’t had any other WSCs in places that have similar anti-LGBT laws in the last 20 years, so it’s not possible to talk about the issue without using Morocco and Malaysia as examples.

              I think this is worth talking about still, but hopefully the post script I added gives more context to the post.

            • Joe says:

              This series of comments from Anonymous really reminds me of Poe’s Law. I really have trouble not seeing them as parodies of the position they purport to represent (although at times I’m not sure). Sorry if they are meant sincerely.

              • Dan Simpson says:

                It’s much more useful to engage sincerely. (Also – the anons in other parts of the comments are different people, if you can’t tell from content/style)

              • Andrew says:


                Yes, in my experience when I engage sincerely with rude or troll-like commenters, they usually either respond constructively or they simply don’t respond at all. One reason, I think, is that these comment threads rarely provide the oxygen that trolls are looking for.

              • Joe says:

                Sorry, I realize that invoking Poe’s Law might mean that I was commenting on your response, which I wasn’t. I was/am just genuinely uncertain whether the Anonymous in this thread (I was knew there was more than one of them) was advancing a belief they held or a parody of one they disagreed with
                But as you said, it’s more useful engaging sincerely.

                Anyways, I think your post is spot-on.

              • Dan Simpson says:

                FWIW, I think they were engaging sincerely, albeit with a first post that was a bit scattershot. (These being blog comments, that’s not unexpected :p)

      • Jonah says:

        Dan’s post was about the obvious conflict between the ISI’s claim and certain _laws_ in the places where the ISI is holding conferences (laws that make attending those conferences uncomfortable (at best) and potentially actually a real risk). I don’t see how any honest interpretation of Dan’s post could possibly be that he supports a ban on Muslim _people_.

      • Gat says:

        Yeah Dan, you should be more tolerant of the people who would jail you for having gay sex (and Jews), and concentrate on attacking other groups.
        Attacking Chic-Fil-A is always nice (that’s the fascist company that handed out food to the Pulse nightclub survivors/ blood donors).
        In the mean time, stop complaining about it and enjoy your celibate conference.

        • Dan Simpson says:

          Chic-Fil-A’s relationship with the queer community is more complex than that. We should also keep in mind that the people who’d put me in jail are the people who made the laws not the people they share a religion with. I can and should be tolerant towards the latter even while repudiating the former.

          • Carlos Ungil says:

            > the people who made the laws

            Wouldn’t that be the British in Malaysia’s case?

          • Gat says:

            I’m of the opinion that these laws reflect social norms. Besides, will you take comfort in knowing that “the people” are on your side as you’re being led to a Moroccan jail?
            Keep in mind that the whole controversy went down two years before Hillary Clinton changed her mind on same sex marriage, and not long after President Obama changed his mind on the issue. In the seven years that have past, the Cathy family/ Chic-fil-A execs have kept their opinions to themselves.

            What I’m saying is that the text you originally posted was absolutely on point. It’s a shame that a legitimate issue is so reflexively deflected into apologetic nonsense, and is derailed into fighting windmills (windmills that surrendered seven years ago).

    • jason farnon says:

      “Perhaps you could make a difference by working to combat homophobia in a Christian group of some sort? I think we can all agree that there is too much hatred in the world against Muslims and Jews, and that we shouldn’t be adding to that hatred.”

      This is pretty funny, is your argument actually: there is enough hatred around the world being directed toward Muslims and Jews, why not spread some around to Christians?

  6. Dale Lehman says:

    I often find your posts too long to digest, but in this case I think you are right on target. It is getting absurd to worry that calling the ISI on their hypocrisy is somehow discriminatory against particular countries or religions. Yes, the practice you are suggesting will affect certain groups and not others – virtually any policy will do that. If the result is we cannot recommend any actions, then we have surely degenerated into … what I’m not sure. In this case, I’d like to see an organization stand behind the policies it is willing to state. Stating that it supports LGBTQ+ should mean it will not schedule meetings anywhere that explicitly conflicts with that stance. So, either don’t adopt that policy stance or actually live by it.

    For anyone concerned about how this may differentially affect particular groups, let them lobby those groups to change their policies. If those groups find it important to deny rights to LGBTQ+ people, then their choice is simple – either live by those beliefs (and the consequences should organizations such as the ISI adopt policies to support such rights), or change the beliefs.

    • Anonymous (another one) says:

      “It is getting absurd to worry that calling the ISI on their hypocrisy is somehow discriminatory against particular countries or religions. Yes, the practice you are suggesting will affect certain groups and not others – virtually any policy will do that. If the result is we cannot recommend any actions, then we have surely degenerated into … ”

      It sometimes seems to me that people use words like “bias”, “racism”, and “discrimination” in such a manner that it (aims to?) preclude any critical stance towards X. I think that’s not very helpful for discussions in general, but perhaps ironically i think it may actually increase the “bias”, “racism”, and “discrimination” concerning X it aims to (?) stop/prevent.

      I never understood the “we are all biased”-narrative. I think that narrative might result in 1) falsely assuming someone is biased because they belong to X, or something they say or do can be tied to X, 2) not making any distinction between (possibly) biased thoughts and actions, and/or 3) not critically examining whether certain thoughts and actions are really biased.

      I think these possible results of this “we are all biased”-narrative could actually result in more “bias”, “racism”, and “discrimination” instead of less because you may be (on your way to) taking out rational thought as a potential ally against “bias”, “racism”, and “discrimination”.

  7. Steven says:

    “Sure, we can all accept that it was a bad idea the last few times that the West decided to use its dominant political/military power in order to push its own idiosyncratic cultural values onto every other country in the world under the guise of promoting universal values and truth. I mean we dont want to condemn colonialism. But this time its different – our new set of values actually are correct, and its disgusting that some countries aren’t on board with them yet. I mean we’ve had them for at least 2 whole decades now!”

  8. I think that if these societies start off their conferences with statement of their values, it’s a good idea, wherever they hold conferences. Maybe even include a workshop’. Remember even in the US, it’s only recently that we have forged more acceptance of LGBT community.

    • Dan Simpson says:

      I agree with this. As long as their stated values are consistent with their actions. “Faith without works” etc etc.

      • I think that the notion that the LGBT community, in Muslim countires, has been egregiously attacked and persecuted is still anecdotal. In stating this, I am not condoning existing laws in Muslim countries that punish Gays. I’m suggesting that rules are relaxing in this regard in several Muslim countries. Recall that sex outside of marriage in this country is discouraged. And to be frank there is enough prudery and hypocrisy to go around in US. I could never figure out why people with the least sex in their lives were so obsessed with the sex lives of others. BORINGGGGG

  9. Yusuf says:

    These laws reflect a belief about reality that Christians and Jews (at the very least traditional, orthodox believers) share with Muslims. Homosexual acts are intrinsically contrary to right reason. Therefore, it is in the best interest of the common good to regulate and restrict these acts. Although these laws might be rarely enforced, they highlight the physical and moral danger involved with partaking in these acts.

    The unfortunate thing is that now, given the large marketing triumph of the homosexual movement, the eminently reasonable laws are cast as wrong. The only way forward is for professional organizations to stop conflating moral discrimination based on sexual orientation with true discrimination based on truly immutable characteristics.

    -Yusuf M

  10. An important point to be made here is that it’s one thing what foreign countries and their politicians choose to do with their laws, it’s another thing when an international organization states a particular set of beliefs about justice and then holds their meetings in countries that have laws that directly conflict with that organization’s beliefs. The point here isn’t really to force Morocco or Malaysia to change their laws to match the beliefs of say white gay Australians who migrate to Canada (that’s just basically a separate discussion)… it’s that ISI, having claimed support for one set of things, shouldn’t hold its meetings at locations where those things are illegal. There really isn’t anything controversial about that. Sure it’s potentially controversial for ISI to espouse its particular set of values, but if it does hold that policy, it’s not particularly controversial to say that it makes no sense for them to throw that policy out the door when choosing a meeting location.

    • Carlos Ungil says:

      The choice of meeting locations may be quite limited if the local laws have to be fully compatible with the organization’s stated beliefs. For example, in most countries the only recognized genders are male and female (and you may not even be able to pick freely between those).

      • Sure, but this isn’t an all or nothing thing, try to maximize the match. I kinda doubt either Morocco or Indonesia come close to being near the top say 5 locations in terms of maximization of the match. Of course, as long as you’re in the protected group, they’re probably both really interesting and fun locations, so I have to imagine there’s a lot going into these decisions about “what would be a good place to vacation after the meeting” rather than anything else.

Leave a Reply