Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Jekyll-Hyde Q&A

During the question-and-answer time associated with talks at conferences or in department seminars, have you noticed any difference in how questions are addressed to male vs. female speakers? By "how", I mean things like tone of voice and level of politeness/aggression.

This difference is one of those things that I keep expecting to go away with time as a result of the increase in numbers of women as speakers and audience members. It has definitely decreased in frequency but it has not gone away.

Something I noticed at a conference earlier this year was that audience members were commonly quite polite and encouraging of student presenters (of any gender). The fangs mostly seemed to appear when there was a non-student early-career female speaker: postdocs/research scientists, assistant professors, and even in one case an associate professor.

This is of course a completely unscientific anecdotal subjective observation. Nevertheless, over the years I have observed some mid-career and older male colleagues who consistently go through a sort of Jekyll-Hyde transformation when a younger woman gives a presentation. They are rude, aggressive, patronizing, and make it clear that the answers given to their questions are inadequate and probably wrong. They do not do this with male speakers. Ever.

I know that some male colleagues who also noticed this phenomenon and were uncomfortable about it tried to talk to at least one of these colleagues. I am curious to see if this criticism will somehow sink in and modify behavior.

A concern is that whatever subconscious impressions are triggering these negative reactions to female speakers also seep into reviews of papers and proposals, decisions on hiring and promotion, or any other circumstance involving evaluation of a less public sort. Or perhaps (total musing alert) it is the public nature of the rude questioning of a female speaker that is the (subconscious) goal, and private reviewing of a paper or proposal does not trigger such a reaction. I am just making this up; I have no insights into the psychology of this behavior. I have just seen it in action too many times.

I do not mean to imply that there is an epidemic of disrespect at conferences and seminars; in my academic world, there is not. In fact (silver lining alert) the examples I describe here are perhaps particularly evident today because they have become relatively rare. I am also encouraged by the existence of male allies who notice and speak up.

So: During the question-and-answer time associated with talks at conferences etc., have you noticed any difference in how questions are addressed to male vs. female speakers?



34 comments:

Anonymous said...

Of course you will be able to find men unkind with women, men kind with women, women unkind with men, and any combination. Why are you only interested in searching for a particular sexist combination?

Because you are an example of the degeneration of modern feminism: females who try to get more privileges by attacking men and playing the victim. Your behaviour is just one example: you are not interested in science, but in tone of the voice of males. Another example is provided by feminists who are not interested in comet landing but only in the shirt of Matt Taylor just to attack and humiliate him. This kind of feminism degenerated in sexism and gender hate is poisoning academia.

Anonymous said...

I have noticed a variant on this at a recent conference. Late-50s white male asking lots of questions after every session. He began every question to a female presenter "thank you very much for an excellent presentation..." or some other ingratiating/patronising remark, but male speakers got no pre-emptive comment. Whatever psychology is at the root of that - it was weird.

Anonymous said...

Sad but very true, and it's something that seems to be accepted by the community.
Years ago, as a fairly new PhD student, I was aggressively questioned by a well-known prof when presenting my poster at a conference. Being a poster session and therefore unchaired, the questions and assertions that my entire research was a waste of time went on and on and on until some very kind passing prof came and stood up for me, pointing out to prof number 1 that he was being unfair to a young student and if he had real issues with the direction of a junior PhD's work, he should perhaps contact my PhD supervisor/head of research group to discuss the wider context.

I mentioned this incident to a colleague, whose response was 'don't worry, he's known for doing that to female students'.

Helen said...

I was the victim of this at my first-ever conference as a PhD student; as I got more senior it has never happened again. I haven't noticed it happening to others though; I put it down at the time to an isolated idiot and didn't draw a gender association from it.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, I see this all the time. This is just the tip of the iceberg; imagine how these same people treat women who have the misfortune to be their postdocs, etc., i.e. who they have an immediate power gradient over. Also, from the examples I see daily around me, this attitude is also a good indicator of how frequently credit is taken away from female researchers.

PS: Many women researchers, established or otherwise, help the men enforce these double standards.

Anonymous said...

Well, at a department colloquium I once saw the male host answer questions directed towards the speaker, without giving her a chance to answer them. Never seen that happen to a male speaker.

steven said...

Some astronomers did a self-study of a similar at a recent large meeting:
http://www.ifweassume.com/2014/03/report-gender-in-aas-talks.html

They measured just number of questions asked with respect to gender, not tone or attitudes. But even the numbers are an interesting start!

AnonAcad said...

I'll leave one encouraging comment - my (senior, male) Ph.D. advisor is known for being the one who asks the hardball questions after talks. He's fair, but tough and sometimes unrelenting, and most people are intimidated by him. After a recent department talk by an early career female researcher he raised his hand and I could feel the department brace themselves for impact. When he complimented the talk they braced harder. He asked her to confirm a technical detail of her work and at that point the speaker answered, looking visibly nervous, and asked why he wanted to know. And his reply was..."well because that's a very nice result then! Let's talk more about it after this." You could feel the confusion and relief in the room.

Female Science Professor said...

steven, that is very interesting. I think it would be great to get more data of this kind from large conferences in various fields.

Anonymous said...

I think this kind of commenting behavior in our culture is far more over reaching than just academics. I'm a woman (35) at a research institution in California and, without collecting data to prove or disprove my hypothesis, believe that folks are generally nice and polite to speakers. However, this summer I was running up/down to Glacier Point at Yosemite which is very steep. I was getting quite a few encouraging comments like "wow!" and "you make it look easy", even a "you're my hero". One young girl stopped in her tracks and watched me run by and I hope she was thinking "women can be so strong!". I got 2 comments of 12 that were something other than positive amazement. One was "be careful" and the other was "go easy on your knees". Both were given to me by older white men, neither of whom I was passing. If you look at who holds power in my country (politicians/CEOs/rich), they are generally older white men. So I think generally older white men in the US think they know more than others, especially women, and don't mind saying so. The fix? More diversity.

Anonymous said...

FWIW: I'm female, a full prof in physical sciences, and give ~7 conference and seminar presentations /year. I have never noticed a difference between the kinds of questions I (or any other female speaker in my sub-field) receive versus those of male speakers. See plenty of bias in other areas, but not the Q&A.

Anonymous said...

As a male scientist, I feel I get more antagonistic questions from audience members than do my female colleagues (both from male and female audience members). My perception is the opposite, that people try to "protect" female speakers by asking less challenging questions. I'm in healthcare research, so it may be different for the basic lab sciences.

Anonymous said...

I collected data on the type of question (ordered by Bloom's taxonomy) and some key words indicating tone at a research conference, sorted by gender and status of speaker vs. questioner. I did this when I was a grad student as a project for a class on scientific pedagogy I was taking. I found that the questioner was more likely to ask more complex and less deferential questions if the questioner was either less senior or female (both was a double-whammy). The conference was small, but I definitely recorded the Jekyll-Hyde transition for one particular audience member, a mid-career man who asked a lot of questions -- his tone and level of question varied A LOT depending on who he was asking the questions to. The professor suggested I develop the project and write it up for publication, but I never did (too much Science to do), and I sort of regret it.

xykademiqz said...

I am a female prof in a very male-dominated field and I get plenty of aggressive questions when I give talks; I did even more so when I was younger. If the question is aggressive and dismissive, I respond in kind. Unfortunately, these Q&A parts of talks are really mostly power plays, so posture means more than the content of the question or answer, because most of the audience doesn't understand either.
It's your basic playground-bullying psychology, bullies go for whom they think is the weakest.

Brook M. said...

In response to Anonymous posting on 11/26/2014 03:12:00 PM: If you still have those data, why not publish them in some searchable public forum, like a blog? Even without formal publication, the data are still likely of interest.

Anonymous said...

I am a junior faculty woman and present relatively frequently at conferences and in departmental seminars. I haven't been recipient of especially aggressive questioning and I haven't really noticed a difference between questioning of male and female presenters. I don't think it's because my field is free of sexism but I think our balance of males and females (not 50:50 but closer than many STEM fields) helps the atmosphere.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I thought they just did not like ME :)

Yes, I have noticed this, but I notice that it varies from conference to conference, depending on the particular scientific community. I am a female (and short!) geology full professor. If I give talks at geomicrobiology conferences or general geology or geochemistry conferences, I have not noticed any harshness in questions to me. But when I present at petroleum geology and planetary geology conferences, I feel like I am being talked down to and dismissed very often.

Anonymous said...

I'm a young female in science, so I'm a data point of one so it is a bit tricky, but I feel like my talks get interrupted more frequently then most male talks. I go so far as to plan enough material for only 40 minutes if my talk is scheduled for an hour because then I have a chance to get through all of it and do the questions justice.
I'm kind of hoping that there are so many questions because I try to make my talks as understandable as possible and I work on something many people are interested in without having direct exposure to it.

Anonymous said...

If you get a rude or condescending question, then answer in a condescending and patronizing way. E.g. say that the question is overly simplistic and naive or myopic or misses the point entirely, and then go on to give the reason why. That seems to work for me.

Whoosh... said...

I'm right now on a conference with a strong engineering focus. So far I have not seen any gender bias in the way the questions were asked. Nor can I remember such a thing from previous conferences. The only thing that once happened to me was a "nice to have such a beautiful session chair" comment by a early50s male colleague. Looking at the other comments I'm happy to be in a field where the guys seem to be quite grown-up/professional.

Female Science Professor said...

I should add that I have not noticed any trends when I am the speaker, and I am not sure I would notice. I have, however, seen what I described in the post while sitting in the audience -- either during a single conference/session or over the years noticing that particular men ask questions in a different way for male vs. female speakers.

Anonymous said...

I'm a junior STEM scientist in a government lab, and female. While the Q&A thing hasn't happened to me, I've certainly witnessed it. One thing I'd be curious to know if others experience: every time I've given a high profile presentation (3-4 times) I've been approached afterwards with "helpful" advice on my work that it totally inane/patronising. Most recently "be careful evaluating against observations because observations have errors" - my specialization is essentially to understand/model the different types of errors in different data sets. I've also been told, after a very high profile invited key note, that my work is too ambitious, and I should learn to walk before I can run. I get the impression that these people (always older white men, not quite from my field) actually think they're being helpful. Someone else mentioned the running thing - happens to me all the freakin time.

Anonymous said...

Oh, fsp, you modern feminist degenerate you. Lol.



Female Computer Scientist said...

Yes. Especially interrupting constantly. Far more with women speakers.

It's very rude. I have no idea why men think it is polite/professional to stand up and shout out "EXCUSE ME!", like their question could not possibly wait until the Q&A. It's awful. And it's no wonder the students in my field of both genders are terrified to give talks at conferences.

Anonymous said...

I do notice tough questions for the younger speakers. Unfortunately I don’t see enough women to really spot a trend. As someone who has grown up in a field but is not yet “old", I understand the tough questions on younger (postdocs/junior faculty) speakers: so many of them do not really appreciate the history of the field they are in, and make strangely condescending comments about the provenence of their work (usually ignoring the fact that someone other than them or their research supervisor invented the method they are using). Superstars often don’t take the time to read the original papers, and simply skim their NAS faculty mentor’s review articles. Can’t really do much about the mentor, but it is possible to influence the protege.

Urania said...

Here's another paper on gender representation at a major astronomical conference, this time in the UK: http://astrogeo.oxfordjournals.org/content/55/6/6.8.full.pdf+html

It's interesting to see the differences between the US and UK communities.

TDG said...

This keeps happening to me. It seems like my knowledge on the subject or my grasp on a foreign language (English in my case) only pisses them off. Recently I was going through some of my recommendations I did not ultimately need - the teacher mentioned "brilliant but arrogant"!

Anonymous said...

On the Q&A at conference. I work in the physics field with the least female members (according to APS statistics).
What I do notice, independent of gender is that if the person presenting looks to have a bad grasp of the physics, people typically don't ask questions or gentle clarification issues.
I have noticed that questions can be aggressive if the woman is considered a threat (i.e. the only female in a tenure-track position in my field, or becoming a potential leader in a sub domain). Typically the women that act nice and play the bubbly personality will not be attacked. Those that act more like the alpha male, will get harsh questioning.
The questioning of men is more random.

What surprises me more, is that typically at these conferences, I end up being the only woman asking a question (and I am not the only woman in the room).

Anonymous said...

@TDG - you just brought back memories from grad school, when a prof I asked for a recommendation when he made being able to talk intelligently on any topic sound like an insult.

Anonymous said...

Surveys of work:
http://www.pnas.org/content/109/41/16474

and one with additional references
http://www.faculty.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/downloads/2.2.1%20Mentor%20Resources%20-%20Columbia%20University%20-%20Summary%20of%20Finding%20on%20Bias%20and%20Evaluation.pdf

I am a senior CS female faculty. When anyone asks me that kind of bullshit question, I burn them a new asshole. When it is the work I am presenting my knowledge of it is superior. It is, after all, my work. It is easy to illustrate their ignorance. Often, I end with a recommendation that they learn to read research papers. It gives me a reputation as tough, but I am ok with that.

Anonymous said...

I'll tell you what really drove me nuts in a presentation (engineering focused grad class, about 20% female). The female speaker kept talking about how hard the math was for her research project (which she was supposed to be teaching) and how she didn't understand any of what was up there. I was shaking my head and guys in the audience were laughing with (at?) her and called her cute (!). She totally devalued her own work all on her own, I did not see one male student do this. Generally, I notice that males offer advice and ask non-technical questions to females. I think it's flattering when I get a difficult question.

Anonymous said...

I haven't noticed it either. Plenty of sexism in other areas, but not here. People in my field do tend to be very nice during Q&A, though.

Anonymous said...

I've actually noticed the opposite of this. I'm a final year graduate student in a field and department known for having mainly incredibly harsh, blunt male professors.

Over the past few years the students have been really pushing to have more female seminar speakers and faculty candidates. However, I've noticed that while the profs tend to offer lots of difficult questions and critique to male speakers, the female speakers get laughably easy softballs of questions.

While I do not condone the behavior and demeanor of these professors during Q&A, I dislike the double standard. These are incredibly accomplished and capable speakers who deserve to receive an equal level of feedback and discussion.

EliRabett said...

Best to all for the New Year.

Eli Rabett