Archive for the 'talks (conference)' category

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

Who Talks?

A student reader wanted to present their thesis research results at a conference, but the student's advisor said no -- he would present the results, and the student couldn't even go to the conference. The student wonders why he/she couldn't give the talk or attend the conference.

The easiest way to find out would be to ask the advisor, but in the absence of this information, we can muse about some possibilities. Please add to the list if you know of other possibilities. I think it would be most useful if we confine ourselves to examples we know have occurred, but if you want to throw in some paranoid speculation, go right ahead (though it would be helpful if you noted that you are just speculating.)

Possible explanations:

1 - The advisor is on the tenure-track or otherwise needs the exposure (see point #4 in GMP's recent post). The student may need the visibility as well, but if the advisor doesn't get tenure, that isn't in the student's interest either. If this is the case, the advisor should just explain to the student: "This is really great work and I think it would be best for my tenure case and for the research group as a whole if I present it at the X Conference." Ideally, the student will get due credit for their work, will have other opportunities to 'own' the work (at conferences and in publications), and should feel some satisfaction that the advisor thinks the work is good and important.

2 - No matter what the career stage of the advisor, there may not be enough money to pay for the travel of both student and advisor. Some conferences -- particularly if they involve international travel and high registration fees -- are very expensive. If there is only enough money for some, but not all, people in a research group to go a meeting, the advisor will make decisions, some of which seem (or are) selfish. If it is important for the work to be presented (e.g., to show progress on a grant-funded project), and the advisor definitely has to go to the meeting (to chair a session, serve on a panel, attend a meeting-within-a-meeting, schmooze with funding program officers), the advisor will go and the advisee might not. Again, the advisor should just explain: "This is really great work, but I only have enough travel money for one of us to go to the X Conference, and I need to go for [these other professional reasons]". Note: As a a grad student, I paid my own way to some conferences in the US when I could afford to because otherwise I wouldn't have gone to the most important conferences in my field, so a separate question is whether the advisor would/can forbid a student to present their own work if they pay their own way.

3- If the advisor thinks the student won't do a good job with the talk, s/he may decide to give the talk to make sure it is presented well. This decision may be based on experience or speculation. If this is the reason for not wanting the student to give the talk, the advisor should be clear about the reason and proactively help the student improve for the future. (Yes, I know that advisors can and do give poor talks as well, but we are discussing here why an advisor might choose to present a student's talk instead of the student).

If the advisor is giving the talk on research primarily being conducted by a student, it may not be possible for the student to attend the conference if not giving a presentation. Depending on the source of the travel funds, their use might be contingent on active conference participation.

Mostly, I think the advisor should explain the situation and reasoning to the advisee, whatever the reason. And if that doesn't happen, it would be good if the advisee could ask for an explanation in a non-confrontational way. I know from the e-mails that I get from students that some are very reluctant to ask their advisors these types of questions, as if asking implies criticism, and perhaps fearing negative consequences of some sort.

These students may well have experience that shows this to be the case, and if so, perhaps the information could be obtained in an indirect way -- by asking more senior students, postdocs, or friendly faculty who are willing to explain some of the more mysterious aspects of professorial behavior and decision-making. In other cases, advisors might be happy to explain their decisions, and it just didn't occur to them that there were questions and confusion.

56 responses so far