Monday, March 10, 2008

The Best Woman ..

In the past few months, I have given several invited talks at other universities. These trips have all been interesting and exhausting. Among the many interesting aspects of visiting other universities are: talking to lots of people, including students and other people I've never met before; learning about how different departments operate; seeing other parts of the country/world. Among the most random aspects of visiting other universities (not counting air travel and other logistics) are: whether I have a full schedule with a different meeting with a different person every 30-60 minutes or whether my scheduled activities consist primarily of my talk and maybe a meal; and what the person who introduces me at the beginning of my talk chooses to say in the introduction. At this particular moment, I am contemplating the latter (again).

Just over a year ago, I listed different types of Introductions for invited talks. Although I have particular ideas about the kind of introductions I prefer (in a word: short), I noted in the comments on that post that I prefer to gamble with introductions and not try to get too control freaky about what I want said and not said.

The one constant in an introduction is mention of where I got my PhD. Optional items include: place of origin, undergrad institution, postdoc institution, visiting professor position, first tenure-track position, awards and other ancillary things that go on the CV. I don't really care which of those, if any, are mentioned, though if some are noted, it's best if only some (and not all) are mentioned so that the introduction doesn't start to drag on too long.

Before one recent talk, my introducer (who has known me for 20+ years) said that I was "the most famous woman in the world" in my sub-field of science and "the best woman X" (where X = the name for scientists who do the type of science I do). Reasons why I flinched and felt like taking out his kneecaps when he said that:

1 - It is not true.

2 - It is an absurd thing to say in an introduction, even if it were true.

3 - Do I even need to say that I hated the gender qualifier in those statements?

I realize that my introducer was just being nice and trying to impress people in the audience who were from completely different fields of science, and he may even believe what he said (he knows me, he might not know (m)any other women in the field, hence I am the best and most famous.. to him). Even so, I wish he hadn't said it that way.

This problem with introductions is not confined to gender. Although it is very unlikely to hear in a talk introduction that someone is the Most Famous Man in his scientific field, or the Most Famous Vegan, or some other irrelevant descriptive term, a similar situation may arise when someone introduces a speaker from another country. I have heard speakers introduced as One of the Most Famous Scientists in Obscure Field from Small Country X. Slightly better but still weird is this statement: Professor X is not just known in his/her Small Country but is even known outside of it.

Instead of mentioning whether someone is a big fish in a small pond or a big fish in a cosmic pond or the third most famous female fish of the 5 known female fish of a certain species, it's probably best to just stick to the basic facts in an introduction, perhaps adding a personal touch/anecdote if you are introducing someone you know. Even if you admire the person you are introducing, it is difficult to convey that admiration without being obnoxious. And then if you start adding qualifiers.. it's an introduction to insult.


Anonymous said...

I agree. I haven't yet heard an introduction that wasn't a waste of valuable time that could have been used for questions after the seminar. The latest trend at my school: X is a very well-funded investigator. They got grants from E, F and G, and they're on study section Q. (so really, they control a lot of money and that proves they're very important and doing really great science)

Anonymous said...

Dr. FSP,

You seem to have problems if someone praises you or someone mocks at you! Aren't YOU being sexist, finding gender offense in trivial statements?
Heard of conspiracy theory?

No offense please. I like many of your posts but I feel this way when I read some of your blogposts.

Geoknitter said...

Hear, hear. Having just given an invited talk last week, where I was given a very nice (BRIEF!) introduction, I agree that the things people say sometimes before a talk are often astounding. Personally, I'm usually very ineffectual at coming up with things to say when I introduce someone, so I'm glad to hear that the "short, but sweet" approach is popular with other people as well.

You've probably posted on this before, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on whether things like fellowships aimed at promoting women and efforts by universities to advertise their ability to attract and retain female faculty fall into the same category as pointing out useless descriptors during an intro. It feels like general efforts to improve female retention may be a different sort of thing than what you described here.

Anonymous said...

Of course there's that also equally difficult reaction when you're tasked with introducing yourself because your host didn't! It is hard when people bring all of these assumptions to bear.

butterflywings said...

FSP, I agree with you re: the "best woman" thing.
It would be totally unnecessary to say "the best man" wouldn't it, as male is the default assumption...also it sounds kind of patronising, as in "well you're good FOR A WOMAN" (but not quite as good as the big boys, of course).

Anonymous said...

Similarly, I dislike when guys tell me I'm the smartest woman they know, as if it is an awesome compliment. Gah. For similar reasons.

Me said...

Your Most Famous Vegan comment is a brilliant reminder of why remarking upon sex is such a totally unnecessary thing to do in this context. People would find "Vegan" weird in an intro but still seem to think that singling out a speaker as the "best woman" is appropriate when rating achievements. I've been asked to speak to grad students about how to manage academia and motherhood on a few occasions now and although I value the opportunity to support young scientists etc I do sometimes wonder about whether it's a compliment to be considered a 'role model'. If only they could see the state of my home...!

Anonymous said...

anonymous 11:02: she's rightly offended. What if I start introducing people as "best african american"? "best below-five-feet-tall"? "best Jew" would be hard... there's so much competition!

FSP, your words make me feel so lucky. In pure mathematics, the introduction is: "This is Prof. XX of the university of YY and he/she will talk about Put The Title Here". As anonymous 8:25 said, you want to save time for the questions.

Anonymous said...

Recently gave an introduction and found it really difficult! In our institution, personal stories often get told. I think a useful thing to say, especially for the young students and people not in the sub-specialty, is the person's impact in a field, why their work is important. Which of course is hard to do without getting overly flattering and sounding like a brown-noser... But yes, keep it brief.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently on the job market, and I have to say that I like the longer introductions in this context . At one interview, the introducer summarized my education and neatly emphasized my awards and grants -- accomplishments which I would find awkward to drop into any of the friendly 30 minute chats I have with each faculty member, let alone all of them. My subsequent interviews, which have included "here's X, who can read her own title" fall flat in comparison.

Even if people have read your CV, it's nice to refresh their memory of some of the highlights. It does make me sheepishly smile, slightly embarrassed as the introducer lists things from my CV, but I think it's an effective information distribution tool.

But I am in complete agreement about the "best female" comments. Inherent implied second class status.

Anonymous said...

What about "best young" ?

Ms.PhD said...


I wish I knew what school you're at, so I can avoid it!


The point is exactly what she said: have you EVER heard anyone introduce someone as the most Famous Male Scientist of X?

Nope. I haven't either.

In a way, though, it could be taken as an attempt at saying she's overcome more obstacles than men in her field to get to the same level, but in that case it would have been better to explain that women are scarce in her field in addition to giving her the dreading Woman Scientist title, which is generally viewed as an insult (look around, we all write about it).

Still, when it comes right down to it, always better to have an intro that highlights your achievements and pumps you up before your talk, even if you feel it's a bit of an overstatement (you're probably being too modest anyway).

I recently gave a talk where my advisor introduced me by rehashing all the horrible things that have happened to me over the years. Not very cheery! Hopefully people weren't dwelling on that throughout my whole talk, instead of listening to what I was actually saying.

Tina said...

I didn't know where to put this comment; here, or in your "Ageless" post. But here it is: My current PI is always introducing me as being "not as young as she looks" which is irritating because it just makes people wonder exactly how young I am. Also, shouldn't my CV speak for itself? I always feel that such a qualification is actually more harmful then helpful. On the other hand, with two kids, a postdoc and a part time teaching position... I'm just happy that it still applies!