Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Will Work For Females

At the international workshop I have been attending, I am the only American person, and as usual, I am somewhat exotic in other respects as well.

When I was introduced to a senior scientist I had not met before, we talked about scientific topics of mutual interest at first (I seem to have reviewed two of his papers, apparently positively, because he thanked me and seemed pleased to talk to me). Then he told me: “I once worked with a Female Scientist.” In fact, I think she may even have been his advisor, or at least on his Ph.D. committee.

It’s kind of hard to know how to respond to that. He was trying to make friendly conversation, and perhaps he feared that I had preconceptions about him based on stereotypes of male scientists from his country. But what can I say?

- Me too!
- How did that go?
- I’ve worked with a male Scientist.
- Do you think it will rain later today?

The challenge was increased when he added, somewhat randomly “She’s taller than I am.” Now what to say?

- Most people are.
- How did you feel about that?

I decided to avoid a direct response and return to discussing Science, including the work he did with the Female Scientist.

In the days that followed that conversation, I have found this person to be extremely friendly and good-natured and happy to discuss scientific topics of mutual interest. Even so, as usual when I have one of these FSP moments, I long for the day when such a statement would be considered too bizarre to occur in sane conversation.


Anonymous said...

I haven't had that happen to me, but I often have to deal with the awkward, "Do you know Professor In Totally Different Field and University? S/he is also [ethnicity]!"

It's hard to figure out how to reply to what seems to be the underlying assumption.

PhysioProf said...

If the person is otherwise nice and decent, is there anything wrong with pointing out that drawing attention to your femaleness is disturbing, because it has the effect, albeit presumed unintentional, of reducing you from an interesting, successful scientist to nothing more than your gender?

Hermitage said...

I have encountered this exact same situation, but about my nationality/ethnicity. We have a bad rap about being strident, militant, prickly, whathaveyou so I guess it is other people's way of trying to disarm me before I explode? Perhaps they think you are a nuclear warhead of sensitivity? I usually say something along the lines of 'you've been lucky then,' it doesn't go over too well.

Anonymous said...

He's not the problem. Granted his comment was on the klutzy side, but his heart is in the right place and he's talking to you as a colleague.

The problem is with those others who didn't talk to you because surely you are the token invited female, only got your job because of your gender, or any number of other sexist stereotypes out there.

Candid Engineer said...

Oh, this guy is cute. I think he was acknowledging that it is weird for some men to work with female scientists, but he doesn't have macho issues and doesn't mind.

Habladora said...

This made me snort laugh. People are staring. Thanks bunches, FSP.

Anonymous said...

I hope you're having nice weather in Japan, which is where I had an identical conversation recently.

sandy shoes said...

"...I long for the day when such a statement would be considered too bizarre to occur in sane conversation."

So do I.

Bait said...

a little unrelated, but I've been learking you blog for a bit and wanted to say that I enjoy it! I've since added it to my blog roll.

science cog said...

Sort of like getting "xyz is also from large city of ten million. Maybe you know him?" No doubt. :)

Bait said...

lurking* wow, I can't spell...

Anonymous said...

This does sound like something you would hear in Japan, but I'm sure it was nothing more than friendly conversation. He just comes from a different background where what expectations people have and the way to make appropriate comments is different. If an American made similar comments then it would certainly be strange, but we have to interpret things in context. Poor guy. Maybe he's going to read the blog and feel bad...

Perry said...

I think any of those replies to his comment would have been appropriate (except for the one that draws attention to his shortness).

I don't think there's usually an underlying assumption that a person will know another person based on gender/ethnicity/location... that's just how brains work - they make connections between ideas with similar characteristics. So when someone meets a female scientist / [ethnicity] scientist / scientist from [place], the part of his/her brain that thinks of 'scientist' lights up, the part that thinks of 'female' lights up... and whatever is in both categories gets brought to the surface.

AAAND, perhaps people can't think fast enough to figure out EXACTLY how their comments will be interpreted. I think people are far more complicated than any research project.

Ms.PhD said...

Hilarious!! I'm laughing at your considered responses.

He's trying to say, in a clumsy way, that he's not threatened by women, even ones taller than him, AND sympathizes with your minority status. Hooray!

Except for the part where you're still in such a minority that this is something people want to communicate, however awkwardly.


My gay friends are very used to this, when straight people meet them and try to express, in a heartfelt but very awkward way, that they're supportive of gay rights.

The conversation usually includes something along the lines of Stephen Colbert's one black friend, or your example .

e.g. "Hey, I have a gay friend..."

I get it a lot from my non-scientist friends and their spouses/parents.

"Hey, we someone else who is a scientist..."

It's always kind of weird to be the odd one out.

Lynne said...

I just started reading your blog! I really like it.

I think it's interesting that some other commenters here are suggesting that this isn't a problem because the scientist surely meant well. But sexism (including this kind of tokenism) exists independent of intent. Even if this guy IS incredibly nice and good-natured, incidents like this one are still soooo problematic.

I kind of like the "I've worked with a male scientist" response best. Maybe followed up with, "He's shorter/taller than I am."

Anonymous said...

From a cultural exchange POV- do female scientists in his country have greater barriers? If so, maybe it is his way of saying he does not support the status quo- and could even his 'bizarre' comments be viewed as radical by his local peers?

The Mad Chemist said...

I was always struck at how in grad school I was suddenly a "female chemist" while at my undergrad I was "a chemist".

Never made any sense.

Doctor Pion said...

You left out one possible response:

- Did you have trouble talking to girls and getting dates in high school?

Awkward rhetorical questions from a scientist (who happens to be male) in an attempt to make small talk? I've only seen that, oh, everywhere I've ever been? Might make a good book.

Ewan said...

Oh, good grief!

On the one hand: made me laugh out loud (great prosidy, by the way).

On the other: I may have to just give up on trying to actually comprehend how some folks apparently relate to women; the weight of such stories is clearly sufficient to overcome my initial reluctance to believe such bizarre behaviours. Ye gods.

[I get the "Oh, do you know X?" where X is *anyone from the UK, a nation of 60 million people* a LOT. Usually a short pause is enough to get the questioner to realise the probability of such, though.]

Female Science Professor said...

I think the "Do you know X" phenomenon is just a natural way that people try to make conversation and connections.

I get the "Do you know X" in reference to the college I attended as an undergraduate. When I say no, a common response is "But isn't it a small college?". So then I say "Yes, but I almost never left my room so I don't know anyone."

Anonymous said...

"I think the "Do you know X" phenomenon is just a natural way that people try to make conversation and connections. "

Why don't you think, "I worked with X" is the same thing? The underlying assumption is that because you are a native of a country or of a certain ethnicity/gender you have a good chance of knowing them.

Actually, I find "Do you know X" (where X=Country/Race) more ignorant that giving information about people's you've worked with, whom at least are likely to be in a close field.

Helen said...

Ewan, I get the "Oh, do you know X?" where X is *anyone from from my home state, which is larger than the island of Great Britain*, a lot when I talk to people from the UK.

You've now given me the perfect answer to that one -- say they must know Y from the UK.

FemaleParticlePhysicsPostdoc said...

haha, my previous boss was shorter than I am. I still think that is one of the reasons he deemed me 'difficult to work with' and was glad to see me move on to a new job. Now that I work for another (much better) University (and my boss is two feet taller than the previous one) my difficulty seems to have disappeared.

Ah the joys of postdoc life.