Friday, March 21, 2008

No Country for Old Women

In the latest episode of my continuing, angst-ridden saga of the search for the perfect set of Invited Speakers for an upcoming conference, I recently suggested to my colleagues that we invite a European FemaleScienceProfessor whose work I have long admired and whose research is perfectly in line with the theme of the session. I do not know her personally, and may only have met her once or twice, but I've read a lot of her papers. Also, I have heard her give talks before, and she is a very good speaker.

One of my colleagues, who is in a different field, was unfamiliar with her work. He told me that, although he respected my attempt to "help a young woman along by giving her a prominent spot in the batting order", .. he didn't like the idea. [<-- sports analogy alert!]

I was amazed that, based on no information other than the potential speaker's gender and country of origin/employment, my colleague assumed (1) that she is a young woman, and (2) that my primary motivation was to help out an early career woman scientist.

This was amazing to me because:

(1) This woman is at least 60 years old. She is a prominent professor at a major European university and has been for a long time. Her career needs no help from me. I realize there aren't many women professors in the physical sciences in Europe (see the European Commission's report "She Figures 2006" for all the facts and figures), but it was still a bit of a leap to assume that this woman had to be young.

(2) OK, I guess I shouldn't be amazed by the second point, especially since this colleague knows me fairly well. Even so, although I can imagine being motivated by the reason my colleague implied, I don't like that that is the default assumption when a woman suggests inviting another woman speaker. Even if this woman were an early career professor who would benefit from giving an invited talk at an international meeting, is it not possible that she would have interesting things to say and that it would be well worth hearing her give a keynote address?

Another colleague also stomped on my idea, saying that this woman was not as much of a "heavy-hitter" as some of the other people we could invite [<-- another sports analogy?]. Then he suggested inviting a friend of his. I know there's no "I" in team, but I really don't want to be a team player in this case. [<-- sports analogy!]


Anonymous said...

Okay, I'm shocked, too, by both of your colleagues. All I could suggest is taking the high road: demonstrating her prominence in the field and reminding them that you have an equal vote. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

As a friend of mine says, "There's no I in team, but there is a U in butthead."

What was the outcome? Did inclusivity or the old boys' network win the day?

Anonymous said...

So did you point out to him that she was not, in fact, a "young woman" and that you were not attempting to "help her along"? I'm afraid I would have been tempted to rather pointedly tell him that his assumptions were wrong...

Anonymous said...

This sounds like ugly competitiveness. Your colleague is putting you down by highlighting a weakness - in this case the weakness is gender. This same exchange could have happened between two males and the weakness would have been something else. How fair is it to use gender and race as a weakness? It isn't, but it happens all the time. What I'm curious about is how you reacted. A description of what to say, how to say it, how annoyed to get, and how much annoyance to show would be helpful.

Ms.PhD said...


Alethea is right, you should at least try to overwhelm them with her CV.

landsnark- that's such a great saying! i love it.

science cog makes an interesting point.

I've seen nearly everywhere I've worked, that the men are so accustomed to using seminars as a way to get free visits for their friends, they get really adversarial if they think they might have to give it up in favor of, you know, actual science.

Worst case scenario, I'd quit that team (you're tenured, right? nothing is required of you?) and use the campus women in science groups as an alternative mechanism for inviting speakers of your choosing.

I'm tired of trying to jump into games of keep-away. It's no fun.

Anonymous said...

Since your colleague from another field has just put on a blatant display of bigotry, what are the rest of you doing about it? If you let him participate in speaker selection, each one of you is ethically compromised as is the entire conference.

Beth said...

Such madness. Honestly. Grrr.... Also, does it say something about the insularity of the US? But I thought academics were more globally aware?

In these situation, I tend to think that gentle ridcle of the speaker works better than annoyance - I used to be one for getting angry and hitting out at sexist, racist comments like that. But I've found humour and gentle scarism a much more effective weapon.

I'm trying to think of some good comebacks now!

Anonymous said...

Nauseating, but did you fight your reaction and correct them?

chall said...

I think the comment from the second guy is really bad since obviously he was 'very objective and not trying to make himself feel very important by suggesting that his friend was very important and high ranked' but "this woman wasn't as important since he didn't have contact with her".

It all sounds lovely! (sarcasm)

I really think this proves, even more than before, that noone will 'help' or even look at CVs with an unbiased eye so really hope that you are even more convinced to invite this OLD PROFESSOR that you have an interest in meeting with and others would enjoy LISTENING to.

(sorry about the caps but seriously, I have had it with sorry ass people that draw conclusions fast and assume things just because the like to think of themselves as important and know it all.)

Happy easter!

Anonymous said...

Let me give you our local (German) variation of "There's no I in team"

There's always a Schaft in Mannschaft (= you always get shafted in a team).

Anonymous said...

Wow! This is yucky behavior on their part. Good 'ole boys club at work even with a woman on the committee. They have been trained well...We need to start training women.

Well, keep fighting and let us know the outcome. I am sure you can take them. (sports analogy.)

"Make the ridiculous look ridiculous"


Female Science Professor said...

For those asking about the outcome: the situation is still unresolved. I seem to be losing on this particular issue (I am outvoted), but am winning on some other important ones (to use a sports/battle analogy..).

Anonymous said...

(but not the European FSP you are referring to!)

I dream of a science conference with women invited speakers and women session chairs and men in the audience and no one even makes a single smart remark....

I once participated in a week-long workshop eons ago when I was a grad student in which I insisted that since all the invited speakers were for some reason men, the women grad students do the session chairing.

The men found this amusing, but let us have our way. To their utter shock we managed.

Don't back down. They will assume the woman is your friend (I get this all the time because I actually know most of the women in my sub-field. Duh, there are so few of us, it's child's play). Why have your colleague's friend? Just ignore them and bulldoze through. Shock them - women can actually give very good talks, often better than men....

And don't vote on this issue - just remark how much she can contribute to the conference, focusing on content, not on gender, and cut any of the guys the other ones suggest down. They do it all the time to women.

Good luck!

BSW said...

All I can say is, "what jerks". I agree with exactly what you're doing-take the high road, and if you lose a vote, you lose a vote. Use the next opportunity to get her out for a talk.

It's so maddening to still come across this sort of thing. The good news is that the number of us who don't like this *&%^ one bit is increasing. We'll win more and more of those votes. It's

Sorry to say, though, you'll lose the battle (tee-hee) on the sports and military analogies. Not being a sports person myself, I'm always the odd one out, but my female colleagues are becoming pro-sport a lot faster than those analogies are losing favor. Think of it as a minor concession to inclusivity. We can treat sports language as being ungendered if we can treat one another as ungendered scientists.

On a more general note, thanks for your blog. It lets me see the profession through another pair of eyes in a way that I would normally be deprived of. I can't really walk a mile in your shoes because of my y chromosome, but it helps to at least read the diary of your travels.

revintraining said...

Grr...and for a while I honestly thought we had broken the glass ceiling.

Stand your ground, and don't back down!

Anonymous said...

It doesn't sound like this is about the woman at all, but about the guys getting places for their friends on the program -- and they were assuming you were doing the same for your "friend". That is apparently how conference programs work. It doesn't have much to do with stature or whether people attending the conference might benefit from hearing one person rather than another.

Anonymous said...

I'm new here. Just wanted to say thanks for a great blog, interesting topics relevant to both FSP and MSP's!

I just started my independent career, and I struggle with defining what I expect from students in terms of hours. I came from an assistant prof's lab where you were expected to spend ALL your waking hours in lab. Our lab became hugely successful. But now that I'm leading my own group, I wonder if this is really the right and only approach.