Conferences and Courage

Exactly a year ago I wrote about the annual High Polymer Research Group Conference, held at the edge of the Peak District. Over the years I have watched it transform from an inward-looking cliquey organisation, where I initially sat right at the edge – a rare physicist amongst the chemists, an even rarer woman amongst the blokes – to a welcoming, inclusive and interdisciplinary meeting with an average age at least 20 years less than when I started out (unfortunately the same cannot be said of my own age!).  Now being one of the older attendees, I hope I do my bit (in accord with the wise words written recently about good behaviour at conferences by Rosie Redfield) to ensure each year’s newcomers don’t feel left out, and those scientists at an earlier stage of their careers can use late night chats in the bar to pick my brains if they feel so inclined and reckon they’re worth picking.  I’ve even been using this meeting to discuss Athena Swan awards.

Having previously served on the organisation committee, I know that the organisers are very mindful of the gender composition of both speakers and audience (it is an invitation only conference). This year around 25% of the speakers were women. Not bad, given the community from which the participants can be drawn. The percentage of women in the audience is probably a tiny bit higher, but not much, but is increasing year on year due to determination of the committee to seek out the less familiar female potential attendees. But this year, having read the plea Dorothy Bishop put out on her blog for women to speak up at conferences, I have been looking at the dynamics with different eyes. She felt that too often at conference talks and seminars, women were reluctant to open their mouths, unwilling to utter in case they made a fool of themselves, preferring to wait till everyone else had left to have a private word with the speaker. She says

There’s no point in encouraging men to listen to women’s voices if the women never speak up. If you are one of those silent women, I urge you to make an effort to overcome your bashfulness. You’ll find it less terrifying than you imagine, and it gets easier with practice. Don’t ask questions just for the sake of it, but when a speaker sparks off an interesting thought, a challenging question, or just a need for clarification, speak out. We need to change the culture here so that the next generation of women feel at ease in engaging in verbal academic debate.

Now in principle I agree with Dorothy, but I find in this case that I have a lot of sympathy with those bashful women who prefer not to quiz the speaker publicly. Not that I am usually regarded as silent – in committees or other kinds of meetings – but I do tend to be ‘bashful’ when it comes to the conference/seminar scene; it is one of the few situations where – still – I can feel the flight or fight reaction setting in. So, I have a lot of sympathy for other individuals – female or male – who feel the same way. It doesn’t always stop me chipping in, but I probably do it less than might be expected.

I’m sure most people will be familiar with those smart and confident people who preface their questions with ‘I’m afraid I’m being very stupid but…’ and then jump right into the heart of the matter with some percipient and pertinent question. Most seminar speakers should quail when the question begins that way, although just occasionally the person is indeed being very stupid. However, the people who I recall doing this with style and dangerous disingenuousness are two previous heads of my own department. One of them used to compound their apparent innocence by seemingly being asleep through much of the seminar.

Then there is another class of frequent questioners who are determined that their voice should be heard, come what may. You can count on them to jump in, whether their question is deep or merely about trivial methodological detail along the lines of ‘can you explain what size vial you used’ sort of thing. They are the show-offs, the people trying to prove they’re smart by being vocal. If no one else has any questions this can save the organiser the embarrassment of a totally silent audience, but otherwise this person is little more than an exhibitionist nuisance. Of course there are the genuinely thoughtful who also have lots of questions to ask. Keenly interested in everything, they really do want to know more, and more and more and so keep asking questions. In general they are likely to spark off lively debate. But how many women would I feel I could name who fitted into any of these categories. Very few. So Dorothy clearly has a point.

Why do I myself prefer to keep quiet? Sometimes it is because I assume that I am being thick, or that maybe I dropped off at the vital moment when the bit I fail to get was being beautifully explained or that everyone else had learned it at GCSE and I had somehow failed to pick it up.  I think these are the sort of ‘excuses’ with which Dorothy would have no truck. Maybe these are the excuses of the coward, who is simply trying to hide, but they can feel very real.  At other times I feel, although my question is reasonable perhaps it is just about detail that the rest of the audience won’t care to know, and so can safely be left aside (unless no one else is asking questions at all, in which case it is useful to have up one’s sleeve to save that awkward empty space when the organiser looks round the audience in increasing desperation to see if anyone had paid any attention at all). But when I feel on top of the subject but puzzled, or when I want to tie the work in with something else or someone else’s data then, yes, I’ll pipe up. I can even recall once, at this very same conference I’m currently attending but some years ago, the person sitting next to me saying ‘don’t be too harsh with your question’ when the speaker really didn’t know their stuff and was rather obviously making a hash of a topic close to my own heart. I hope I managed to phrase my question then sufficiently tactfully that the debate was opened up without too much of my incredulity about the work being brutally set out.

So ladies, indeed people, speak up when the situation warrants it and shut up when it doesn’t. And if asking public questions really isn’t your forte, as long as you speak up elsewhere, don’t berate yourself too harshly. If, on the other hand, you have never found your voice in any situation, then you have a problem that you need to address – and fast.

Aside During the conference I put out a tweet remarking that the evening session one day had been particularly good and ‘all the better for having 2 women speakers and a female chair’, for which I was taken to task. I stand by what I said. This was not to denigrate any of the male speakers, or to imply individually the women were better. But having a session – presumably by chance – at which all the participants were women should just serve to remind people that it is both possible to find excellent women to showcase and that when you do the conference continues to thrive. For the younger women in the audience such visible role models too can only be beneficial. Clearly issues around any sort of ‘positive discromination’ are complex, and I have written about this before here and here. But a visual (and audible) reminder to the community, that too easily can think male is the norm, has its advantages. If there was a conference where females were in the significant majority, I would stick up for a session showcasing men in just the same way!

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13 Responses to Conferences and Courage

  1. Michael Merrifield says:

    Since I was the person who took you to task, perhaps I might be allowed a comment as to why, using rather more words than Twitter allows!

    First, it was fundamentally a sexist comment: it stated that something was better because the participants were female. Don’t get me wrong: I think it very healthy that gender has become less of an issue to the point where once in a while women are in the majority or even populate an entire session, and I realize that was the point that underlies your tweet. Nonetheless, in a very blunt environment like Twitter where there is no such context, I think it was an unhealthy point to make, as it, in a small way, legitimizes many less acceptable reasons for expressing pleasure in a particular gender balance. Put another way, I don’t think that even “good sexism” is healthy when the aim is to eliminate sexism.

    Second, and perhaps more controversially, I think drawing attention to such good outcomes actually limits their impact. Surely, the message we would want to send to the more junior female (and male) members of the audience is that there is nothing at all exceptional about happening to end up with an all-female selection of speakers from time to time. By making an event out of it, you immediately undermine its powerful subliminal message that this is normality.

    So I would argue that where there is evidence of sex discrimination, by all means oppose it loudly and repeatedly. But on those (happily increasingly less rare) occasions where things are going right, sit back and let it speak for itself.

  2. Uta Frith says:

    Beautifully put, Athene and spoken from the heart. Like Michael I feel that it would be so nice not to speak about gender at all. But perhaps at present, women still need the extra mention, the extra pat on the back.

    I much prefer people who are silent after talks over those people who give self indulgent and long comments, or usurpe a dialogue with the speaker which would be better done after the talk.

    The advice that Jocelyn Bell Burnell gives is to think of a question at the start of the talk, a question that goes right to the underlying assumptions. This is a great strategy but it needs confidence to do it. I expect that once you master this, you can safely nod off during the talk.

    Here is what I do. I add a Q in the margin of my notes whenever a question occurs to me during the talk. This helps me later to find the point which seems most interesting to probe further and makes it easy to formulate a relevant question. But I tend to ask it only when there are not too many other questions. I make a habit of asking a question when I am chairing a talk. To develop such a habit might be good practice for those shy men and women who don’t like to speak in public. Here is an embarrassing secret: I would be utterly terrified, indeed cannot think of anything worse, than being expected to sing in public. I find it very puzzling that I don’t have this terror with speaking in public.

    • Michael Merrifield says:

      In astronomy, the standard fail-safe for a session chair who has nodded off during the talk is “what about magnetic fields?” since (a) they almost certainly play a role in most astrophysical phenomena, and (b) they are usually neglected. Of course on those rare occasions when the slept-through talk has been on magnetohydrodynamics, it may result in a rather bemused response!

  3. Michael
    I do understand why you feel I was being ‘sexist’ by singling out and celebrating women. In 140 characters it was not possible to spell out the full thought behind the tweet, that by occasionally – and in my field it is only occasionally – having a session populated by female speakers makes a pleasant change and is ‘better’ simply because it celebrates that it can be done. Having thought long and hard about prizes for women (the topic of my very first post , but also other ones here and here. I feel that as long as our community is as imbalanced as it is, this spirit of celebration for women is important. As I said, I would be happy to celebrate men in a women-dominated field, perhaps nursing for instance. I see this spirit as akin to positive action, as opposed to positive discrimination. If we don’t remind others ‘hey look, women aren’t like dogs performing on their hind legs, they’re just, good plain and simple’, those less motivated can just quietly go on as they’ve always done without reflecting. However, I appreciate there are two distinct school of thought on this, and we will probably never agree. But I do assure you I have thought a lot on the topic, as well as being on the receiving end –from time to time – of apparently being one of the invisible women. Roll on the day when we don’t need to think like this, but we most certainly haven’t reached that point yet.

    • Michael Merrifield says:

      It is interesting that with the same data and the same ultimate goal we reach such completely opposite conclusions as to the route to take. I am against celebrating this kind of success precisely because it gets us into dogs-on-hind-legs territory to point and clap at what we should simply identify as the acceptable norm.

      As you say, we certainly aren’t the first to disagree in this way, and I have alway been interested to note that followers of both schools do not seem to divide along gender lines, which I find at least a little reassuring in that it means my position is not necessarily an indication of sublimated sexism!

  4. I see that Female Science Professor has just posted a related post on speaking up by gender.

  5. Sarah Bridle says:

    V interesting post, thanks Athene, and for the additional tips Uta. I usually ask questions because I’m not fully understanding a talk on a topic that I’ve been working on for a few years. I do interrupt because I (possibly wrongly) figure that I can’t be the only one who isn’t understanding it. I like to think I’m being helpful, as well as lessening my pain of not fully following something complicated. I would like it if more people interrupted for this reason, as it would help me to understand the talks better, so in that sense I’d like more women and men to speak up. (And lots more Q&A time scheduled in the programme… and of course clearer talks are always welcome!)

  6. deevybee says:

    Thanks Athene for picking up this topic and giving it such a thoughtful treatment.
    I guess we need to consider what the intended and actual purpose is of post-talk questions. I think there are four kinds of question. The first is the ‘point of information’ question, which is clearly important to ensure clarity of communication. This is the one kind of question I’d use to interrupt a speaker if it’s clear that everyone in the room is confused about what is being said – and speakers are usually grateful if you do that.
    Then there’s the question where you, as audience member, are rather unclear about what was being said, but not sure if this is because you are ignorant or inattentive, or if the speaker failed t make themselves clear. . Here, it seems, many people are reluctant to speak out because they think they will expose their ignorance. But again, I think it’s a question of judgement: how likely is it that other people didn’t understand either? Unless I am the only audience member who lacks expertise in the topic, I will usually ask a question if I am confused. Frequently, though not invariably, it turns out that if I am confused, so are other people. And more often than not, you are doing the speaker a favour by helping them clarify what they were saying.
    The third sort is the non-question. For instance, a questioner may suggest another experiment that could be done, or refer the speaker to other literature that is relevant. These non-questions can be very helpful, but they are often used either to show off, or to avoid that dreadful silence after a talk when nobody has anything to say.
    The most controversial kind of question is the last one, the challenge. When I was a student in Experimental Psychology in Oxford, the weekly seminars were an amazing experience: the speaker underwent a kind of trial by intellectual fire. Basically, if the speaker survived the process, they earned your respect. Nobody was allowed to get away with sloppy thinking, lack of clarity, failure to be aware of relevant literature. At times it seemed aggressive, at times it seemed like the questioners were just scoring points to prove how clever they were, but the overall impression was that speakers came to put forward ideas and those ideas would be tested against other clever minds. I have to confess that on the whole, as a junior observer, I found it stimulating. And I learned that it is possible to ask questions this way without making it into a personal attack. It also made me aware that even famous people could be wrong. I often felt I learned as much from the questions as from the talk – as when an argument I had cheerfully gone along with was exposed as flawed. A similar ethos obtained in the old days at the Experimental Psychology Society, where giving a talk was a kind of rite of passage that you had to go through in order to join the society.
    These days, it is very very different. Aggressive questioning is extremely unusual. That is a good thing. But sadly, I think, even penetrating questioning has become rather rare. This has both good and bad consequences. The good consequence is that the shy, unconfident, speaker is much less likely to be be intimidated. There’s a completely different attitude to junior people: there used to be a kind of ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality that would weed out anyone who couldn’t take the pressure. Nowadays this would be regarded as bullying; junior people are nurtured, and the worst thing that may happen after a weak talk would be either a lack of interest, or perhaps a gently supportive question. I’ve been to talks where a weak argument has been put forward, but nobody has wanted to point this out to the speaker. It’s almost as if it is rude to do so. Afterwards in the pub, everyone agrees it was a rubbish talk, but the social niceties are preserved, and nobody is offended. Personally, I think that’s a shame. We certainly shouldn’t be attacking people just for the sake of it, or bullying inexperienced speakers. But we should be able to disagree with what someone is saying without making it into a personal attack, and do so in a way that is respectful but uncompromising. I see robust public debate as part of intellectual life from which we all can learn. And I do think women can and should contribute to that debate.

    • Kate Jeffery says:

      I must admit I hesitate over “penetrating questioning” and “robust public debate” because it can be very stressful for a possibly-very-nervous speaker. Not to mention off-putting to young people in the audience considering a career in science, who might dread that kind of ordeal and so decide against the career altogether. If I thought I saw something seriously wrong with someone’s data or reasoning I would approach them afterwards, and discuss my concerns with them and with others, but I wouldn’t put them on the spot in front of an audience. Maybe this is because I myself had a terror of public speaking for many years. [I know you weren’t advocating humiliation, but even a challenging question can feel humiliating if it catches you off guard and you can’t scramble together a good answer on the fly]

      I do agree we should encourage people to ask questions more though – question-time is often the most informative part of a talk. I think in general it is something women find harder to do, possibly for the rational reason that the evidence is that they are evaluated more critically when they *do* speak out.

  7. Might it help, when you’re hesitating to ask your question, to consider whether most or all the previous questions have been from men? I don’t expect very junior researchers to ask questions, but how depressing for young women to see, time after time, that only the men ask questions.

  8. My own early experiences of the Physiology Department at UCL in the mid 80s, and the Physiological Society of the same era, closely match what Deevybee/Dorothy Bishop said about Oxford Exp Psychol / the Exp Psych Soc – “Trial By Ordeal’ and so on – as does the sense that that kind of questioning is now rare, and people just shrug at bad talks and bad reasoning.

    Something I was told long ago about conference questions also spring to mind. I recall the boss of a neighbouring lab to the one where I was a PhD student telling one of our postdocs, then hunting for lectureships, that what he ought to do was ask a question after every talk, or at least every other one. This was prompted by seeing another postdoc we knew from a different lab do just that. [Incidentally, both postdocs are now eminent full Professors].

  9. deevybee says:

    On reflecting on all of this, I feel that what seems to get lost in the debate is the fact that questions can be useful for the speaker.
    If I get a question that indicates someone has not understood something, I will make sure to be clearer next time I cover that point in a talk. I’ve also benefitted from really challenging questions – it may be hard at the time if you don’t have a ready answer, but I have had questions that I’ve gone away and brooded over – thinking whether I could have given a better answer, and sometimes changing my ideas completely. And, as I’ve said on my own blog, for a junior person who may be going to be interviewed for competitive grants or fellowships, experience of the questions that arise is really useful.

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