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?

Saturday, November 08, 2014

This is Your Brain on Administration

Certainly I am not the first to realize that a proliferation of administrators at certain levels of academic institutions results in an increasing number of tasks passed down to lower levels. This year, it is like a fire hose spraying a deluge of new administrative tasks directly at my head (and at department staff, without whom I would collapse into an inert heap). It is causing me to face one of my greatest anxieties about being a part-time administrator: losing my research brain (not to mention my blogging brain).

There are many things in life that can encroach on our creative-thinking time and abilities -- babies and illness (to name just two) -- and over time can make it difficult to sustain an energetic research program. I have experienced those; now my major distraction is of a more mundane sort: administrative thoughts are taking over my brain.

It is not just that I have less time for research. Realizing this was a bit of a surprise. I guess I always assumed that administrators who complained about the negative effect of administrative duties on their research were talking about how little time they had for research. The lack of time for research is of course a factor. But now I think that a more insidious factor is what spending so much time on administration can do to your brain.

Administrative work (in my experience) can be broadly classified into two general (admittedly imperfect categories): Stupid Tasks and Other Tasks.

Stupid Tasks are classified as such by me because they are unnecessarily time-sucking. These tasks include things that:

- a robot zombie computer could do;
- are the result of shiny new policies that are meant to change but not necessarily improve anything for anyone;
- are the result of someone else doing something stupid, unnecessary, immature, or unwise;
- are involved in documenting that we are not spending federal, state, or any money on illegal drugs, yachts, massages or alcohol, and -- just as bad -- are not spending this research money on that research project instead of on this research project, and we can prove it by documenting how everyone spends all their time, 24/7, whilst working on this or that research project; oh, and by the way, the system by which we monitor all that is going to change every year or so and in between you will spend a lot of time figuring out the new system, which will have bugs, but there is training you can attend to learn the new system before it is superceded by the next one, which will cost the university a lot of money and will be bewildering;
- require lots of meetings but don't need to;
- involve people who work for the University Facilities unit.

Some Stupid Tasks are actually important, many are urgent, and all are annoying.

Other Tasks are ones that require some higher level of thought or decision-making than the Stupid Tasks. Some of these are stressful and some of them are the only reason why being a department/unit head is at all rewarding (examples: hiring, supporting faculty/researchers/staff/students in various ways, solving problems that are worth solving, being an advocate for the department in the university and the broader Science community, connecting with alumni, and just generally being helpful so that bright and hard-working colleagues and students can do their great work as well as possible).

Being an administrator requires some creativity, and that may help keep the research part of the brain from atrophying too much. But I have found that it is easy to let a focus on Stupid Tasks take over, narrowing my vision and withering my imagination (I fear). And again, it isn't just about time. I can make time for research (most weeks). It's just that during random times when I might previously have been thinking about research -- such as when walking on campus, exercising, or sitting quietly with a friendly cat -- instead of thinking about Science, I find myself thinking about all the Stupid Tasks I have to do that day/week and how to solve a certain short-term problem and so on. Not good.

I recently talked with some colleagues who are or were department heads for a substantial amount of time (>5 years) and whose research careers came to a crashing halt as a result. Talking to them was dispiriting. It helps to think of examples to the contrary (and I know some good ones), so this is what I try to do. Perhaps some day it won't be important to me to have a strong research component to my work and life and I will happily spend my days thinking about parking, plumbing, provosts, policies, and printers. For now, though, I will try to stop thinking so much about Stupid Tasks that don't really require as much brain-space as I have been giving them.