Friday, December 13, 2013

My Year of Meets

[Note: the title is a subtle reference to the book "My Year of Meats" by Ruth Ozeki, but not for any particular reason, though I did like the book.]

Somehow I ended up going to a lot of meetings again this year. What is "a lot"? This year, for me, "a lot" = 6. There might be some years in which 6 is a good number and other years in which 6 is excessive, so the concept of "a lot" is flexible.

I do not regret going to any of the 6 -- each one was interesting in its own way, and very useful for discussions with colleagues and prospective colleagues/postdocs/students. Some of the 6 meetings were large, some were small, one was less than 500 miles from my home, the others were more than 500 miles from my home.

As I was musing about my Year of Meet(ing)s, I decided to try to think of the Most Strange meeting-related experience that I had in 2013. It will not surprise any regular reader of this blog when I say that my Most Strange meeting-related experiences (MRE) involved gender-directed weirdness.

There were several contenders for Most Strange MRE.

There was the incident when a colleague I have seldom met in person (although we have corresponded extensively by e-mail for years and written several papers together) came up to me and gave me a startlingly emphatic and prolonged hug in the presence of his wife (who walked away). ick.

There was the potential postdoc who had corresponded with me and who had supposedly done extensive investigating of a large project I am directing and that he wanted to join but who somehow thought that one of my male colleagues must be the lead investigator despite massive documentary evidence to the contrary.

And there were numerous small incidents in which men went out of their way to explain to me that they supported women scientists -- some of them had even worked with women and the experience had been surprisingly good. etc.

But the "winner" was when a scientist with whom I have only a passing acquaintance came up to me after a session that I co-organized and congratulated me on putting together such a "diverse" session. I don't mean to be thick, but my first thought was that he was referring to the subjects covered in the talks.

He said, "You must have worked really hard to have such a diverse session."

I said, "No, the session easily fell into place, given the general theme. We were all very pleased that there was such a diversity of approaches." [note: we = my male co-organizers and I]

He said, "I meant diversity of the speakers."

I said, "Oh, right, yes, well, we did deliberately invite two early-career speakers and two more established speakers, but it was mostly good luck that the session ended up with such broad representation from across Europe, Asia, and North America."

He said, "No, I mean that there were so many women in your session. I congratulate you on finding so many women." (FSP note: "so many" in this case: ~ 35% of total speakers, 50% of invited speakers)

I said, "That was not deliberate." I paused and thought about it for a moment, then said, "but maybe this was a good example of how a session can easily be naturally diverse."

He said, "It made me think that we are spending too much time focusing on the problem of women in science."

I said, "That does not follow."

That was depressing. It seems that at least one person assumed that those women speakers were selected because they are women, not because they are doing interesting work (even the one who is a hot-shot professor at a Top-Two institution?).

What has been your Most Strange MRE of 2013? Please share.


Nick said...

Sorry this is somewhat off-topic. For me (English, in an English university), 'meetings' in an academic context means the kind of things that have an agenda and are mostly about administrative things (the ones I go to are called things like Faculty Board, Education Committee etc.). So I spent most of the first half of your post admiring your good fortune in only having to have to go to 6 a year.

Am I right in inferring that by 'meetings' you are referring to conferences, symposia, colloquia etc.?

Female Science Professor said...

Yes, conferences etc.

Alicia @ Financial Diffraction said...

I am in the process of organizing (with others) a Women in Science event that is directed at teenagers, and some of the remarks I've gotten when I mentioned that boggle my mind. "Why do you need that event?" "Are you just trying to pad your CV?". Ugh.

Anonymous said...

Probably the one where an old male professor constantly felt the need rub my arm or shoulders during the conference dinner. I don't care how touchy feely your culture is. This is not a date.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, experiences similar to the ones you describe happen to me regularly at my own university, and most often from colleagues in my own department. Getting away to conference meetings - usually but not always - gives me some relief. This year an administrator decided my class teaching schedule based on my gender (female) with the sole purpose of trying to get more students to see a female faculty as a role model - yet on the very same day - did everything he could (illegally) to prevent another woman from being hired. The upper administration supports this behavior.

Collin @ Window in the Ivory Tower said...

I'm glad you said it because I also hear the diversity point a lot. Usually someone complains that the environment "is not diverse enough." My comments, that in fact the research presented and intellectual background of each attendee is actually quite diverse, are not welcome.

EliRabett said...

You are being more that a bit oblivious on this.

Female Science Professor said...

True. I thought about it later -- why did it take me so long to realize he was talking about Women? I came up with 3 possibilities, all of which likely contributed:

1 - At the moment this man intercepted me, I had been musing (in my head) about the session, and was thinking in particular about how diverse it was in the sense of topic and age/origin of speaker. I felt very good about this, and that is the track my mind was on. I guess it stayed on that track (for a while) because it made perfect sense to me (at first) that this other person was thinking the same thing.

2 - I don't actually wander around conferences viewing my every interaction as having something to do with my being female. I had spent an entire morning of the conference just being a regular Scientist and was still in that mindset when I encountered this person.

3 - I did not expect this particular person to speak to me about Women in Science issues. 100% of our previous interactions had been 100% about Science. I have not ever even had a conversation about life/hobbies/cats. So I thought we were talking about the "science" of the session, not the gender of the scientists.

Sorry if that sounds defensive. I do not feel defensive. The 'why was I so oblivious' question was something I have been pondering.

Anonymous said...

I had a strange thing happen at a recent conference. I was in the audience watching a talk by a grad student at another university (not anyone I knew) and soon realized that part of his talk consisted of figures from my papers. He took my figures and rearranged them to create a new and complicated model that didn't make a lot of sense. There was no direct discussion of my ideas from the papers he was using. I was not offended, it was just very very strange.

Anonymous said...

I had never worked in a University until after having my family. Following a 2yr research fellowship, that openly recognised my career break, I was offered funding to continue the project by transferring into yr 2 of a PhD. Recently for the first time I applied for an additional research grant to allow me to access equipment in another institute in another country. A research grant for a number of weeks was awarded but I cannot source a grant to take my dependents with me. I have been offered part of the additional costs (about 20%) as a good will gesture by a previous sponsor. The University are currently looking at this, but as this has never occurred before there is no policy. My only defence before I hand back the grant is 'what you don't know, you just don't know' and hence this was not raised before I submitted the application.

Looking forward to 2014 -Anonymity always preferred but rarely possible.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous @1:20 - why were you not offended that someone had stolen your work? just curious.

Anonymous said...

from Anonymous 1:20: Oh, I should have said that my name appeared next to many of my figures in small-point font that I could see because I was sitting near the front. The speaker never mentioned me by name but gave credit in writing on the slides. It was just strange to see my work cut into pieces and rearranged in a strange way without explanation of what was inadequate about my original work.

Anonymous said...

I have two, both from the same conference.

1. Being sexually harrassed at the omlette station one morning. I was so perplexed that this still happens, I didn't even know how to react at the time.

2. 17% of the speakers were female (which, considering the overall representation in this particular field was not too disturbing), and they were, on average given 6 minutes less time to speak than the male speakers (to me, this doesn't add up). Over 50% of the male speakers were given more than 30 minutes to speak, but none of the female speakers were given more than 30 minutes to speak. I followed up with the organizers and pointed this out...hopefully this conference seeks less skewed speaker times in the future.

Not sure what can be done about the sexual harrassment issue, aside from waiting for the dinosaurs to die off?

Anonymous said...

35% of the speakers were women and his comments suggest he felt you must have had to beat the bushes to find so many women - and based on that he concludes that we don't need to worry about women in science. Sorry but this guy doesn't sound like someone I'd want to do science with - basic logic being an important starting point for good science.

I've had several incidents of gender-related weirdness recently but today's favorite was someone on a team of PIs that I'm leading replying to a message about the project like I am their student - 'revise this' and you should consider X. This after having made zero of the previous meetings that clarified why X was a bad idea. The good part of today? When another male colleague got that the e-mail was an issue without having to have it explained.

Hy said...

At a (physics) conference a couple of years ago, I sat in a pub in the evening with a large group of people from the conference. A new guy, also attending the conference, joined our table, and everyone introduced themselves. When I did, he immediately asked me: "are you his wife?", pointing at random conference guy sitting next to me...

Phindustry said...

I've tackled this before, and can't seem to find a single freaking good solution to this. If women get something, people claim they got it because they're a woman, or minority, or disabled. There must be a way to convince people that they're actually talented, but how?!?!?

I organized an industry women in leadership conference and many people, both guys and gals, claimed that this is detracting. They claimed that fewer women are experienced, and hiring is based on experience rather than skills. Instead of teaching women to be leaders, we should be teaching them how to get experience to get into leadership. I still don't know. And I'm sure there are a ton of theories. I wish I could just talk to Jiminy Cricket and he tell me how to fix the system.

Anonymous said...

I am a female mathematics faculty member. Here is a conversation I had at a recent conference with a young guy (who turned out to be a first year postdoc.)

Guy: Hello.
Me: Hello, I'm XXX XXX.
Guy: Oh. I'm supposed to introduce you tomorrow. I have no idea who you are. I know nothing about you. Tell me what I should say.
Me: What sort of information are you looking for?
Guy: I don't know. So who is your advisor?
Me: I am not a student.
Guy: where are you?
Me: I am a [Prestigious] Fellow at Famous University 1. Next year I will join the faculty at Famous University 2, and after that I will be a faculty member at Famous University 3.
Guy: You have this all figured out!
Me: Yes I do.
Guy: Who is the PI for your grant at Famous University 1?
Me: I am.
Guy: But surely there is....surely you have collaborators?
Me: Yes I have collaborators. But I am not a research assistant. It is my grant. I have an easily accessible webpage, where you can find out everything you need to know.
Guy: You have a webpage!!!!!
Me: Of course I do.
Guy: So I won't confuse you with VVV.
Me: Who is VVV?
Guy; VVV VVV. She's at Famous University 1. [He's clearly naming the only other female he can think of.]
Me: She does not do research that is related to mine.
Guy: She does lots of stuff.
Me: You should figure out who I am. Then we can talk.

The next day, when I give my talk, the guy introduces me as "Miss XXX XXX, who will speak about xxxxx". Everyone else he introduces as "Dr."

OMDG said...

At a recent academic job interview, I was asked how I manage to do it all (I have a small child in addition to being a scientist). I said I have an au pair who takes care of all the baby related chores, and that I do very little housework. The interviewer said, "Well, *I* have an au pair, and she doesn't do anything like that." Then she proceeded to tell me that since I am a mother, I most certainly will never be interested in pursuing an academic career, and that I will most certainly opt out. And, "No good mother would want to spend so much time away from her child," she said.

Oh -- The interviewer was a woman. Forgot to mention that.

Anonymous said...


I feel your pain. I am not in math but a closely application-related field. But, I have a grant with another math faculty. His male postdoc, however, is a different story.

Case in point: I have 50% women and 50% men in my lab. Everybody sort of specializes in different things. So, if they need help with something, then they can go to someone else in the group to get help and then proceed with their problem.

So, I have to force the male math postdoc to meet with me.... (He refuses to call the meetings but occasionally I do... and I'm putting words in his mouth here but I know it's because he thinks that there can't possibly be anything to be gained from meeting with me because I'm a woman). When he did, he said he had problems with data and asked about X male grad student of mine knew how to pre-process it, and I said -- X hasn't ever dealt with it but Y (my female graduate student) knows how to deal with that. He had a bizarre look and then asked if Z (another male grad student) could teach him about it. I found it odd that he didn't accept that he should just go to Y, and I repeated to him that Y has extensive experience in working with that kind of data and that he should learn from her. P.S. He never asked her how to do it and proceeded to indepedently ask my male grad students for help.

So.. in your story, the voice of above math postdoc was placed into dialogue.

EliRabett said...

02:24:00, and 02:40:00, you basically let people like that sink.

You mention at the top of your talk how exciting it will be to take up your new position at FU1 next year.

You tell the postdoc that you are going to have a talk with his adviser cause the roads must roll.

Anonymous said...

Totally Useless Comment Here: I keep reading these stories and have found myself thinking that academia is has more GDW than industry.

*slinks away now*

Anonymous said...

Anon at 02:40, where is that postdoc from? When I was in grad school, I had similar issues with grad student peers from certain countries where women are held in very low regard. (I must say that now, as a prof, I am extremely reluctant to recruit students from those same countries for these reasons, I don't want the risk of ending up with someone who thinks I am not fit to be his advisor because I am a woman. Yes, a few bad experiences can ruin it for everyone else.) You should talk to his advisor, and the advisor and you should sit him down and confront him. Chances are he's incorrigible, but hopefully at least you will feel better.

Anonymous said...

Top this: I (young assistant professor) had a former NSF program manager grab my ass (I guess spank/slap more appropriately describes it...) while on a field excursion, immediately after I explained where he could find my publication on the topic in question.
Me: "you can find the paper in ___ journal"
Program Manager: "great, I will have to check it out (spank, walk away)"

Anonymous said...

I go to the leadership meeting for my big physics-like society every year, where only big wigs are invited, and there are always lots of administrative staff in attendance to help run the meetings and work with the scientists there. Last year, one person came to our lunch table and introduced himself, then asked me what administrative position i work in at the society, assuming i was not a scientist. When i corrected him, he apologized, and then had to sit through the one hour lunch watching no less than TWO other people come to the table and make the same assumption! I think seeing others foolishly making gender-based assumptions after being corrected on yours was a good learning experiences, and it was certainly a fun topic of conversation for everyone.