Tuesday, May 03, 2011

He Said/She Crowed

Earlier this year, I went to a talk that mostly consisted of text slides. When I realized that the verbal parts of the talk didn't add any more information than what was shown on the text slides, I fell into the habit of quickly reading the slides and then doing some brain multi-tasking (day-dreaming, plotting etc.) until it was time to read the next text slide.

At some point, though, the speaker captured my attention. Part of the talk involved the speaker's opining about the work of others; e.g., "this person did this" and "that person did that". My attention was caught by the fact that the speaker described a woman as "crowing" about her particular idea.

Crowing? What did that mean? And if a woman was crowing, what were the men doing?

So then I started listening to what he was saying and how he was saying it. It was quite stark, the difference in how the ideas of men and women were portrayed. In the opinion of the speaker, the women "went on and on" in an "unconvincing way" about the topic in question, whereas men made "repeated forceful arguments" and presented "a strong case" for their ideas.

Even when the speaker disagreed with some of the men he mentioned, he said that he "respectfully disagreed" with them. The men "knew what they were doing" (even if they were wrong or misguided), but the women were basically just making things up without having "a complete understanding" of the issues.

It was not an important or interesting talk, but, for me, the speaker's choice of words rather effectively undermined his authority to give an informed or interesting opinion on his chosen topic. Once I realized his opinions broke down perfectly along gender lines in terms of the people he admired and those whom he denigrated, I no longer trusted what he was saying.

Of course, no one is truly "objective" when giving a presentation about ideas and results. We all make choices about what to present vs. what not to present, and we choose our words and tone and emphasis. We also commonly inject our opinions when discussing the work of others, either overtly or in more subtle ways.

Many professional talks include references to the work of others, typically listed on a slide as "Schmo et al. (2010)" or similar. In some cases the speaker may elaborate on the people involved, e.g. "this paper by my excellent former student, Bob Schmo". This is a normal part of many talks.

And of course discussion of the work of others can be critical, e.g. "Although Schmo et al. (2010) proposed X, in fact our data are more consistent with an interpretation of Z", perhaps with some details about how the disagreement or discrepancy arose. This can be useful for understanding the context of the evolution of research and thought on a particular topic.

It is possible to humanize Science (and even Scientists..) and to give some of the personal back-story of a body of work and even to criticize work (and workers) we don't like, but it is also possible to be professional and equal-opportunity-respectful about it. It doesn't seem possible for some individuals, but it is possible in general.

So, do I want speakers to "censor" themselves and "walk on coals" in professional talks so as not to alienate sensitive and borderline hysterical women who will then "crow" about perceived sexism, thereby perpetuating sexism, which would magically go away if women didn't talk about it (or whatever)? Yes, I do want this, or, at least, the first part.


Anonymous said...

...though it may be worthwhile for idiots to out themselves.

Had he been more subtle, you might not have noticed that he was systematically denigrating women, and that his ideas should therefore be dismissed as being based on faulty, wholly unscientific assumptions.

Namnezia said...

"Crowing? What did that mean? And if a woman was crowing, what were the men doing?"


What an idiot. Who uses text-only slides anyway, I would've left at that point.

Jenny said...

Thanks for the Tuesday morning (borderline hysterical) giggles, FSP. I needed them before all the croaking I have to do today.

BTW, I think that you have the wrong citation there. I thought it was Joe Schmo(Science, 2009), not Bob Schmo (2010), your old student, who proposed X.

Anonymous said...

wow... I have never heard anyone be that unprofessional in a talk. That's shocking. Usually people are veeeery careful not to denigrate people who they hate/think are terrible scientists - much more careful than when talking about friends.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

The idea that refraining from sexist editorializing in a professional setting can be equated to "walking on coals" (or eggshells, more likely) makes me feel all stabby.

Anonymous said...

Obviously, if the woman was crowing, the men were cockle-doodle-doo-ing.

Anonymous said...

The men were probably burping.

Female Science Professor said...

I don't know why I wrote "coals".. eggshells makes much more sense. Strange.

Two Wordy said...

Those highly educated men blather with such enviable and unsurpassed talent! I think I might prefer the lout on the couch who shouts, "bring me a cold one, Louise."...(not really!)

Thanks, I enjoy your blog!

Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting post. I will be listening to future talks with my critical thinking around gender and sexism switched on.

Anonymous said...

I once sat in a talk where a female scientist said

"X (Male) is a scientist (insert field specific adjective)
at University of Z who apparently has time to find these..."

Now, if the genders were reversed and FSP was in the audience, I am sure it would be on this blog as an obvious case of sexism.

Anonymous said...

Somehow it seems like a different situation if it is an offhand comment in a talk by anyone (male or female) as opposed to a systematic disparaging of women and praising of men.

FrauTech said...

I knew there'd be *one* comment suggesting it wasn't bias (or that an offhand comment of bias in the other direction exists, which by the way does not negate this situation). Still, 11 comments in? Sad.

Anonymous said...

it wouldn't surprise me if the woman whoom the speaker said "crowed" about her work, really did "crow" about it - that's because women in science tend to be dismissed by the male majority so in order to be heard they *have* to be more outspoken and aggressive, perhaps even more so than men. Unfortunately this means that when they do eventually get heard, they are said to be "crowing." another catch-22