I Notice These Things Too

Feb 22 2012 Published by under sexism, talks (conference)

Consider this:

Last week I went to listen to a talk by a graduate student. I didn't know this student, as he is in a different department from me, so I don't have any way to understand a particular aspect of his talk: and that is that throughout his talk he referred to some relevant previous work by others by the author's or authors' last name/s for all male authors, but whenever there was a female author whose work he mentioned, he gave her first name as well. I noticed this but it didn't bother me until I realized that he was highly critical of the work done by the female authors he cited by name, but the work of male authors was presented as being useful, interesting or neutral. This bothered me. Should it have?

I notice these things too. Of course, there's no way to know if the speaker in this case was consciously or subconsciously bashing women or whether it was just a coincidence that he did not like the work of the women but he did like the work by male authors on these topics.

It is strange that he chose to say the women's name in full, but gave only male last names. Possible explanations:

- He thought it was disrespectful to refer to women by their last name only. I don't tend to buy this explanation; we cite authors by their last name in papers all the time, and that is not disrespectful if the first author is female, ergo it is not disrespectful to refer to these citations in a talk, using only the last name. In this way, there is a difference between talking about a citation ("Snoopy 2010", or just "Snoopy" for short) and a person ("Snoopy").

- Until we were told that the work of the women was criticized and that of the men was not, a possible explanation was that he was highlighting the work of women to show that there are women scientists, thereby providing inspiration for students in the audience. I think we have to reject that in this case, unless someone wants to make the argument that he was showing respect for the women by highlighting their gender and criticizing them rather than being chivalrous (I really had to twist my mind to come up with that one, but who knows..)

- What else, other than random coincidence with no meaning?

I wrote a post in the FSP blog about a related scenario last year. In that case, a speaker used different words for how he described the work of women and men who had opinions about a particular topic. The women did not fare well in his choice of verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.

It's fascinating how many ways we have to use word choice, tone variation and emphasis, image design/selection, and other methods to display our opinions about people and their work, even while giving a seemingly 'dry' talk on our scientific (or other) research. I think there is definitely a place for criticism in such talks, but there are respectful, professional ways to do this.

Not long ago, I saw a talk by someone who criticized the work of others -- men and women -- by name, directly and by unflattering descriptions. Based on that experience, I can tell you that the direct approach to criticism is not more appealing than the subtle approach.

It is possible to eviscerate someone's work in a classy way. I find a classy evisceration to be much more persuasive.

But back to the original scenario: If I noticed someone doing this in a talk, particularly if it were a student I knew, I would ask him/her whether they were aware of how they cited the work of others in their talk. For example, I might say "Did you realize that you were citing women by their first and last names but the men only by their last names?" Note that there is no mention of the possible woman-author-bashing in this question. Depending on the response to that first question, one could decide whether to proceed or not.

Questions for readers:

- Have you noticed anything like the phenomenon described? Did it bother you? (or do you think it would?)

- What do you think the speaker was doing, consciously or unconsciously (based only on the information provided)?

44 responses so far

  • Alex says:

    I remember once seeing a physics book (a rather old book, from the 50's or 60's, I think) in which male authors were referenced by last name but female authors by full name. So, the book would say "This is consistent with the results of A. Smith" if the work was by Arthur Smith, but "This is consistent with the results of Abigail Smith" if the work was by Abigail Smith. I thought it was weird.

  • femalephysioprof says:

    A similar distinction can be found in the pages of the Journal of Physiology, which until 1987 (I think), listed men using their initials + given name and women using their full names. For example, one citation lists "R. M. Shapley" and his female "Christina Enroth Cugell".

  • femalephysioprof says:

    Correction: "female co-author as "Christina Enroth Cugell".

  • Anon says:

    Only slightly related, but at the last talk I gave, I noticed I was saying the full name of the people I knew (in a professional capacity) in relation to their work and only the surname of the people I didn't know. I think this was as I found it strange to be calling someone by their surname, when I'd normally talk to them and refer to them on a first name basis.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Pronouns. If the field is male dominated, the pronoun he will be assumed by the listener. The first name is a flag. A rather amusing version of this can be found in Tim Lambert's debate with Christopher Monckton, where Monckton not only gets Pinker's science wrong, but her sex, and Lambert. . well go look at the videos.

  • Anonnie says:

    As a biology undergrad I had a male professor who would always credit male researchers for the smallest advances in his lectures yet would spend multiple lectures discussing endosymbiotic theory or the structure of DNA without once mentioning that Lynn Margulis or Rosalind Franklin ever existed.

  • Mark says:

    This phenomenon is not restricted to science or academia. It's quite common in politics, too, for instance. For an extreme example, think of the 2008 Democratic primary battle between Edwards, Obama, and Hillary.

    • anon8 says:

      You can't use this case to prove your point, because Hillary shares the same lastname as Bill Clinton, also a famous politician. Most people, when they hear "Clinton", think of Bill, and I can see why people use "Hillary" to distinguish her from Bill.

  • BikeMonkey says:

    Definitely guilty of what Anon mentions. So if I differ in number of well known to me female/make colleagues then I likely give biased talks. Urp.

  • postdoc says:

    I do the same thing as Anon sometimes- and I work in a small field so I know most peoples' first names. But I went to a talk yesterday where a professor presented work by several of his students (all with glowing praise) and referred to the male students as 'graduate students' and referred to the female one as a 'female graduate student', which I thought was ridiculous.

  • mushrom says:

    It's too bad it was a grad student doing this. It shows that he was aware of gender when it was really irrelevant and that is disappointing.

    I just read some references letters for students. I read that the male students are intelligent and the female students are intelligent young women. The letters certainly didn't say or even imply "intelligent for women", but for some reason people feel that it is important to say something about gender for those who are not of the default gender, as if this is an essential characteristic that MUST BE SPECIFIED.

  • GMP says:

    Yes, there is this strange phenomenon that, in the case of a woman scientist, the gender is something so remarkable (and not necessarily in a good way) that the information about it absolutely must be communicated to the audience.

  • Katie Mae says:

    Just one possible explanation for this phenomenon, in the case of a co-author:

    The woman may have specifically asked to have her first name included. Usually people have a preferred way for their name to be included in the literature for consistency, such as two first initials or a first name and middle initial, etc. I personally started using my first name and middle initial on my first publication, when my supervisor suggested that I only use only my initial to avoid discrimination based on my female-ness. That felt wrong to me, so I used my lady name on purpose and have since.

  • Roeslein says:

    I also tend to use the first names of the people I know personally, but that's equally true of male and female researchers, so I don't see how that would be relevant (presumably the grad student in question hasn't been socialized only around female scientists.)

    As for Hillary, I always assumed it was to differentiate her from that *other* Clinton person. Much like you would say "Teddy Roosevelt" to make it clear you don't mean the other one. I don't see anyone having trouble referring to the German chancellor as Merkel, or to the IMF boss as Lagarde, but maybe that's just me.

  • Anonymous says:

    This is very common, and not just in science. It has to do, as Eli Rabett pointed out, with our default assumptions. Scientists, and in particular, good and/or famous scientists are men. That's the default assumption in our culture. (Just like cats are female and dogs are male and a college's "basketball team" refers to the men's basketball team.) In order to inform the listener that you're not referring to the default, you stick in a modifier: female first name in front of the scientist last name, "male cat", "female dog", "women's basketball team."

    Since I've been very active in sports for a long time (also pervaded with sexism, just like science), the sports default terms have driven me crazy mad for a while. In science, it just makes me a bit sad -- because I do it, too. I'll read a paper I like by author as initial-last-name, and I know that I assume the author is male because I'm always surprised when I find out that it's a woman who wrote the paper. It's just a momentary, "Oh! So-and-so is a woman!" -- and I'm usually pleased that it is, but then also I'm sad because I assumed it wasn't. I have that reaction because I had a default assumption -- the writer is male. Because most of them are.

    I assume the speaker described was using female first names in this way -- unconsciously, because the author doesn't match the speaker's default assumption. Obviously, I can't tell whether the knowledge that authors were female influenced the speaker's opinions of the papers or not. But it's very possible.

    • RenĂ© says:

      Thank you for this honest and explanatory feedback. I think you hit it right on the head.
      I am female with a male's first name, which I can imagine will lead to some surprises when I start publishing. But I can't help but feel that I will circumvent some sexism in the process… we'll see.

  • FEngProf says:

    I have a related problem as a female prof. Most of the other profs are male and all the students and faculty refer to them as Dr. Lastname or Prof Lastname but when they refer to me they call me Dr. Firstname. I am not sure why or who started this?!

  • GradStudentAbroad says:

    I participate in a very male-dominated hobby, and when referring to participants during detailed analytic discussions about this hobby, almost everyone I interact with reflexively uses only male pronouns (this may sound a bit weird, but in this situation it is essentially equivalent to reflexively referring to all authors of scientific papers as "he") -- even when they are specifically talking about me, and I am sitting across the table from them, and am clearly not male. Occasionally, someone notices they are doing this and apologizes, but usually they slip back into their old habits. Those unconscious associations are extremely hard to shake -- it takes a conscious and intense effort to do so, which takes away mental energy from other tasks, like communicating substantive content. And women do it, too -- only somewhat less often than men, from what I've observed.

    But ... I wouldn't discount the possibility that this grad student for some reason thought it would be disrespectful to refer to women by their last name only. Many young men casually refer to each other by their last name only, as a friendly and very informal form of address. Especially in the world of sports, where men are routinely referred to by only their last name. But this is far less commonly used as a form of address for women, and is normally considered less polite as a form of address (except in sports, and even in sports there was historically a double standard in which sportMEN were just called LASTNAME, but sportsWOMEN were called Miss/Mrs. LASTNAME http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2010/writers/frank_deford/05/12/wall.street.journal.titles/index.html). Of course, citing someone's paper is different, but rules of politeness learned in other settings might be running interference on this guy's brain.

  • plam says:

    A couple of other commenters mentioned sports. I was at a tournament in the US a few weeks ago and they were giving out medals. My spouse was irked that the announcer was saying "Congratulations ladies" when announcing female medalists and most often "Congratulations" for male medalists. (Sometimes it was "Congratulations gentlemen", but that was rare, I think).

    I've also seen a climbing guidebook from Greece, if I remember correctly, where the author listed first ascentionists by initial/lastname if male and full name if female. Most guidebooks these days do have full names.

  • maryQ says:

    There is a very prominent woman in my field whose groundbreaking work is universally acknowledged and for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize in the 90's. Of course, her work was not always recognized as groundbreaking, but that is another story. In my scientific lifetime, in my field, the importance of her work has not been questioned. Mind you, not every liked her or even respected her, but most people did at least respect her, or at the very least speak positively of of her work and considered it extremely important.
    Here's the thing I started to notice when I was in grad school. She was always referred, not just by her first name, but by a familiar nickname. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that her name is Susan. She had a very distinctive last name, so if people referred to her by her last name, everyone would know who they were talking about. But seminar speakers, especially men always called her, say, Suzy. Not her last name, not even Susan, but Suzy. Her friends called her Suzy, her trainees called her Suzy, her colleagues called her Suzy, so it was her preferred first name. But How often do you hear people referring to Bob or Jim or Jack in a seminar. They talk about Weinberg, or Robert Weinberg or maybe if they know him Bob Weinberg, but never Bob. WTF?

    • Mark P says:

      I absolutely agree--having worked for the other(male) person involved in that work, it makes me crazy when people who have never met her use that nickname. When I speak about that work in my lectures, I give them both full first names.

      However, I would call Bob Weinberg Bob Weinberg, even though we've only met cursorily. I guess that comes from reading Natalie Angier's book (reads like a novel) about his lab in the 1980s.

      • maryQ says:

        Hey, Mark P! I'm guessing I know who you are. Kind of fun. I haven't read Angier's book that you are referring to, but it is on my list. I read The Cannon-and that is such a wonderfully pleasant read. I am always trying to get my smart, non-scientists friends to read it so that they have a better understanding of science.

        I appreciate your comments on "Suzy", and I also always made the conscious effort to call her "Susan Last-Name", even though I do know her personally.

        My own hang-up about saying something like "Bob Weinberg" or "Jim Watson" in a seminar is that it would be perceived as conveying level of familiarity that I would not be comfortable with unless I really knew the person well, as a personal friend or mentor. And even then, my fear is that I would be perceived as showing off my familiarity, or name dropping. I never felt like that was appropriate for a junior scientist, and since I never made it past "junior scientist", I'll never know how I would have handled it at your stage.

        • ecogeofemme says:

          Hmm, I tend to think that when people (especially junior ones) opt not to use the widely used nickname for well known scientist, they tend to look a bit clueless, not like they're showing off. Like, if EVERYBODY know James goes by Jim even though he publishes under James and he's very famous, then you look sort of out of the loop if you call him James.

          • maryQ says:

            Some would disagree. But most of us are probably smart enough to figure out when EVERYBODY is doing something, or just some people are.

  • In an unfamiliar field, we have to keep open the possibility that the women were the only ones referenced in the one talk that shared last names.

    In my specialty, we have a running joke about the enormous number of (unrelated) Millers in a small specialty, but we also have multiple relevant (unrelated) Robinsons, a handful of (closely related) Khisamievs, and several others.

    Consequently, I have certainly given talks in which I made reference to a result of Davis, Putnam, Julia Robinson, and Matiyasevich. Certainly I didn't mind giving some special notice to one of the great pioneering women in the field, nor to the fact that her work gave us one of the neatest theorems in the field. But really I just wanted to make sure nobody wondered if it was Abraham Robinson. No confusion was at all likely on the other names. If one of my colleagues from another department heard, they might think Davis a more common name.

    While I would have preferred "Senator Clinton" or "Mrs. Clinton," this could explain the 2008 Democratic primary problem, too.

    • kate says:

      My big problem during 2008 was when "Senator Obama" and "Mrs. Clinton" were debating....no, both were sitting senators at the time, please.

      The explanations I heard were basically twofold:

      *first, that the New York Times uses "Mr" and "Mrs" fairly consistently even when people have other titles, so when other news organizations would copy and paste, they would only fix the new guy. To which I say, employ a better copy editor.
      *second, that reporters in DC in particular were so trained to call the former First Lady "Mrs." that it was a hard habit to break. To which I say, get over it.

  • Anony says:

    This isn't entirely related, but I have an ambiguous first name. I recently met up with a potential collaborator at a conference, and we had never met before (only emailed). When I walked up to her (I only specify her gender here because it shows everyone makes these mistakes), she didn't give me the time of day until I stuck my hand out, introduced myself, and stood there stubbornly until she acknowledged me. She did a double-take, and after a few moments realized who I was. She expected a male, not a female. It goes to show that unless you SPECIFY FEMALE in science, male is the default. This appears deeply ingrained.

  • K says:

    I make it a point, in the classroom, to use full names of all scientists for which I know them. I also make sure to share little bits and pieces about the individuals when I know them. I do this to make it more clear that scientists are real people, not just abstract names in a book.

    I have noticed this more biased phenomenon rarely, but as my field is female-biased, it is probably less common than in other disciplines.

    What is more noticeable is the large number of incoming male freshmen that want to refer to me as Mrs. (rather than Dr.), but don't have that bias with male colleagues. Females do not generally have a problem adjusting to calling teachers of both genders Dr. I believe that this is because they are accustomed to female teachers. I don't see this persist past the first few weeks.

  • Anonymous Consultant says:

    I see this kind of difference in, of all places, budget justifications. Both genders are first given the full name at the beginning, but in the narrative following describing that person's role and responsibilities, women often are referred to by first name, and men either by last name, or [title] Lastname.

    • Alex says:

      I don't do that in budget justifications, but in any part of a proposal where I should be referencing my current or former trainees, you can bet that I will use every chance I get to mention female or ethnic minority trainees. "A student is working on..." for the males vs. "Ms. Dirkma [not the real name] is working on..." Or "A former student is currently working as..." vs. "Mr. Garcia [not the real name] has since gone to..."

      As long as contributions to diversity are allegedly positives in grant review, you can bet that I'll be playing up the diversity in my group, and reminding reviewers of it every chance I get.

      • Anonymous Consultant says:

        If the titles are used for both genders, that's fine, and pointing to the diversity of your students by demonstrating (showing, not telling), is fine. My point was that I see this (females referred to by first name only, males by honorific and name) often enough on budget justifications to be noticeable. The other place I see it is in letters of recommendation. The men are "Dr. Doe", and the women are "Jane".

  • young female engineer says:

    Female engineer, worked at a small company with all guys...

    I would say that this behavior is bizarre, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and say that maybe he thought it was disrespectful to refer to women by last name only. The guys I worked with used to call each other names, attack each other, etc...and it was mostly just guys being guys. Sometimes they'd accidentally offend each other and it would be awkward. But they were always careful around me, I guess they thought I was a girl and it wasn't appropriate to call me stuff, even in jest. Of course, I'm told I also have a bit of an aggressive personality and the most chauvinistic, arrogant of guys have been afraid of me. But I guess I did appreciate the fact that they might make dirty, coarse jokes to each other, but not around me.

    • kamikaze says:

      Female computer scientist -- we differ here, I would prefer taking part in the dirty jokes! I would not be offended by being left out, but I would be a little bit sad.

  • alia says:

    I once had to write a paper about non-textual differences between Holy Feast, Holy Fast and Holy Anorexia. I thought this would be really hard, until I looked up one of the interesting saints that both authors repeatedly referenced in the books.

    In Holy Feast, Holy Fast's index, she was easy to find, as she was listed by her name.

    In Holy Anorexia (and I must stress, she was the only noteworthy person in her family), she was much harder to find, because she was listed in the index as "mother of" and "wife of"

    ...At least it made the paper easy to write. Twitch.

  • cb says:

    At a recent conference, a (male) speaker cited my work in a very flattering way, and referred to me only by my last name, but used male pronouns throughout. I introduced myself after the talk and man did he do a double take! He had another talk the next day, and this time, he used my full name when talking about my work, and cited male authors by last name only. Could have been a familiarity thing, I guess.

  • FrauTech says:

    How timely. I'm an engineer so women make up less than 10% of my industry but even less than that at my company. Because women are so few, I am the ONLY person at my company with my first name (out of thousands). Despite the fact there are plenty of support staff, and I have an EXTREMELY common first name, just the way it is. Because there are so many dudes they all have names like Joe and Jim and Scott and there are four to five people each for many of the most common first names. As a result, the guys often get referred to as firstname lastname, or sometimes lastname only. Even if the guy does not have a common first name but is the only guy (maybe at the company) with said first name, I have often heard them referred to as last name only. The women NEVER get called by lastname only. I suspect it is a mixture of the women's names being so uncommon they never need to specify as well as male chummy thing. But it really bothers me. I really wish they'd start referring to me by my lastname every so often. Of course if I voiced any of this they'd just call me crazy and think I'm one of THOSE women...so you know, don't know what to say.

  • a female physicist says:

    One thing that has been documented is we tend to give male speakers (or authors) the benefit of the doubt, whereas we tend to be more critical of female speakers (or authors). This is most often a subconscious bias, and everyone (male and female - I've certainly caught myself doing it) does it. I would not be surprised if this is part of why the grad speaker mentioned was critical of the women's work but not the men's.

    • Anonymous Consultant says:

      Yes, this! Somewhere between fall of 1987 and the end of 1989 I read a report that I have not since been able to find. They hired two actors - one male, one female - to give the same talk. I think the subject was a scientific presentation. The actors were rehearsed to the point where they paused at the same points, said "um" at the same points, etc. Audiences who watched the woman rated her lower in every area of the talk, from the content of the slides to the presentation skills. This was the exact same slide set, with exactly the same presentation, and the woman's data were seen as less important and less credible.

      I wish I could find that article.

  • Physics Postdoc says:

    Some Googling brought this study up (one male, one female actor delivering political speeches...):


    Personally, I make no assumptions about paper authors' gender (or race, etc). Why would I? If I really like their work I may find myself wondering what they (the entity A. Smith) are like... I find it even "funnier" when I get the double-take because not only am I a female, but (based on data collected over the years) a rather attractive one. Last time I checked there was no correlation between attractiveness (or breast size) and brain function... le sigh.

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