Graduate student and astronomy writer


Comments on Sexism at AAS

OK, people, so I know that we talked about this during the AAS227 meeting. In fact, there was a whole hour+ seminar about sexual harassment, sexual assault, racism, and gender bias in the astronomical and related sciences. You did go to that session, right? Good. Unfortunately, many of the people who really needed to be there are the people whose demographic was sorely under-represented in the audience of that seminar: older white males. If you know of an older white male colleague of yours who chose not to attend that seminar when they had the option, please do forward this to them.

Note: for the rest of this blog post, I am going to limit my discourse to the subtle (and not so subtle) sexual harassment I noticed at AAS227. I’ll leave my discussion of the other forms of discrimination I noticed to another day.

Here’s why I say that the demographic of older, white males in the physical sciences most need to hear this message. They grew up and were educated in a time where women were treated differently by society. That was the age where women were mostly secretaries to high-powered male bosses, coffee fetchers, “doll” and “sugar”. This is not an exaggeration. Female engineers, scientists, and bosses were a rarity. I give major props to all of the more senior female professionals in my field for finding their way through that type of blatantly hostile work environment and coming out the other side of it into a (seemingly) more tolerant world.

I also specify white males because that demographic has held a position of power and privilege in this country literally since its inception. As a group, they don’t have the experience of being discriminated against because of their personal identity (with the obvious exceptions of non-cis-gendered, non-heteronormative, non-Christian, non-able bodied, and non-neurotypical individuals, amongst others). However, because of long-standing societal discrimination against those demographics, their numbers are also very small in the physical sciences. As the most populous demographic in the physical sciences, older white males are the ones that need to adopt the changed attitude towards females and under-represented minorities (URMs), yet are the ones most resistant to change. They are the most hard-put to see the subtle discrimination against these groups, let alone to understand how it feels. This is why I am writing to them.

I hope it is blatantly obvious to everyone that if the only reason you are attending a talk (or stopping by a poster *hint hint*) is because you are physically attracted to the presenter, don’t. Just don’t. I guarantee it won’t end well for you. Go to a talk or stop at a poster because the work is interesting or thought-provoking. If it’s not, just don’t go. It’s that simple.

All right, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here is one example of subtle sexism that I noticed, and experienced, at this year’s AAS227 meeting. Oi vey, as a fair warning, once you see this one in action you can’t un-see it.

The infamous and dreaded questions portion after a talk. I am specifically referring to the propensity for males to take up the question time of talks by female speakers with “I have more of a comment than a question” or “I have a comment and a question.” This sort of happenstance usually takes the form of:

  1. “I want to make sure you understand that fundamental thing about your research topic or analysis method. Are you sure about that? Really sure? How about now?”
  2. “Have you considered this very tangential approach to your research that I, of course, am an expert in? No? Well let me explain to you in front of everyone why it is superior to your work.”
  3. “Do you honestly expect us to believe you when you tell us this unexpected result? My vast experience suggests otherwise.”

This happened to me for both “questions” in my research talk. I saw it happen to the other women in my talk session and others. Heck, it happened to a plenary speaker on Friday.

Sometimes comments in place of questions can be helpful to spark discussion in the room, if it’s done respectfully and equally to all types of speakers. But lest you think that this happens to all speakers in equal amounts, it doesn’t. Really, it doesn’t. Next time you’re at a AAS meeting, or at the next few departmental talks at your institution, take a census. Sure, there are always those individuals who ask these sorts of “questions” to all speakers. Those “questions” are still rude and don’t belong in the Q&A part of a talk (more on that later). But in the sessions I attended at AAS, these “questions” were only asked towards female (and POC) speakers, and only asked by males.

“Questions” 1-3 above are meant to assert authority over, establish dominance of, and diminish the accomplishments of the speaker in favor of the questioner. They say, in the subtle language of intellectuals, “I am better than you and here’s why.” Asking those “questions” in a public forum in front of the rest of the audience is attempting to humiliate/humble the speaker and elevate the questioner above her. How terrible.

If the horribleness of this were obvious to the perpetrators, they likely wouldn’t do it (I’m casting no personal aspersions here). So let me break down to you why that’s a bad thing, for everyone.

  1. Public humiliation of a professional colleague? Really? That just looks bad and damages your reputation. “But that’s not my intent!” you say. “It doesn’t matter!” I say. That is still the end effect of the interaction you have with that person. If you step on my toes but didn’t mean to do it, you still hurt my foot. The polite thing to do after that is to apologize. The smart thing to do after that is to watch your step more carefully.
  2. You may think that what you’re really doing is making sure the speaker understands the fundamentals or subtleties of her work. OK, sure, that’s all well and good. Did you ever think that it’s not your place to do so? In all likelihood, you aren’t her boss, her academic or research advisor, her project manager, or someone with any responsibility at all over her education. The Q&A portion of a talk is not a quals exam. It’s not an interrogation. If you do have concerns about her education, the proper place to address that is in private, to her face, in a one-on-one setting. To do so in public is to insult her own intelligence and that of her supervisor and institution. And really, public insults? See Point 1 above.
  3. You are taking learning opportunities away from other colleagues and the rest of the audience. There are likely people in the audience who have legitimate comprehension questions about the talk, and you are impeding their opportunity to understand. Did you know that female audience members are more likely to ask questions of female speakers? No really, it’s true (25% female question-askers for female speakers, vs. 22% female question-askers for male speakers). So, not only are you questioning the intelligence of the speaker, you are taking opportunities away and discouraging other females from asking questions at talks. Save your “questions” until after, where they’re slightly less inappropriate.
  4. You discourage future female scientists from speaking at conferences, and from asking questions. You (or your institution) claim they want to increase gender parity in the sciences and encourage diversity. By asking “questions” like these you are actively working against those same goals. If I’m a female audience member who sees a female speaker being treated that way (and having everyone else accept it as par for the course) why would I want to put myself through the same situation? I would be more reluctant to participate in scientific discourse knowing the terrible times ahead (hint: there’s a reason that this past AAS was my first conference talk, but not my first conference presentation). If I have no choice but to give a talk (say, if I want to get a job after my dissertation) I will certainly be less confident in my work and more hesitant in asserting my authority. Is that what you want from the future generation of scientists?

If you have an honest concern about the integrity or quality of the work being presented, that is your prerogative. The appropriate place to bring that concern to the speaker’s attention is in a one-on-one discussion with the speaker after the session has ended. Here’s how you do that: *raise your hand during Q&A* “Thank you for your thought-provoking presentation. I have some ideas that I would really like to discuss with you after the session if you have time. I will stick around after. Thank you.” This acknowledges the work that the speaker has done and respectfully asks for an intellectual discussion, and then gets out of the way for other potential question-askers.

Keep in mind though, when you follow up on that request it should be a discussion, not a lecture or an interrogation. This still isn’t a quals exam. Understand that you may disagree on the best course of action on a project, and that the speaker (by virtue of it being her work with which she is intimately familiar) has an equally valid opinion. If you find that you can’t come to an agreement, THAT’S OK. As a professional person, the researcher will listen to your opinion and take it into consideration as she goes forward. That’s what the scientific process is about. If you feel so passionately about the research, do it your own way yourself and have professional disagreements about it in journals like you would with anyone else.

That’s about it for this. I’m sure that there are better ways to inform conference participants and session chairs than a blog post that (hopefully) a small fraction of the AAS membership will read. A reminder email before a meeting about how to be respectful during a Q&A? A mention during the session chair breakfast? Something. Until then, if you do notice one of your colleagues behaving this way towards a female speaker, SPEAK UP ABOUT IT! Approach that “questioner” (in private, remember?) and say that that sort of treatment of a speaker is not appropriate for a professional setting, and that next time they should bring that sort of comment to the speaker in private, not in front of their peers. Be an advocate and an ally for female speakers, and don’t let this continue to be the norm of how we treat our female scientists.

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