Ambivalent Academic put up a terrific post yesterday on witnessing a public character assassination at a recent meeting she attended. The scenario is basically this, after giving a presentation at a meeting a junior female speaker is called a liar in front of her entire field by an established senior man in the field. You can dress it up any way you like it- but that’s the nuts and bolts of what happened. I apologize for the rather extensive quote- but you get the point. Go on over to Ambivalent Academic and read the whole post…
The interaction starts with a reasonable question:
Greybeard: Have you considered that sub-population A of the field you are testing actually arises from a separate source, and that this may affect the implementation of Really Elegant Experiment and thus the effects of sub-population A on the master program of this system?
The speaker attempts a reasonable answer:
Speaker: Thank you for bringing that up! Yes, we have considered the effects of multiple sources…I didn’t have time to get into the data in this talk but we have ruled out that possibility, and I should also remind you that our experimental design included a global manipulation of the system so that it affects all sub-populations at their sources. As such, our conclusions remain that this effect is totally nuanced and novel and cool.
But here’s where things go drastically downhill:
Greybeard: No, I think that you have not considered sub-population A’s source because your results are clearly impossible!
Speaker: [!!!, recovers from shock, proceeds in a calm and collected manner] Well, let me see if I can explain this more clearly…[returns to experimental design slide]. As you can see, with our experimental design, we are implementing a global change in the system which includes all the sub-populations at each of their local sources. (with more extensive explanation that I have omitted for the sake of brevity….)….
Greybeard: No, no, no. Your results are just not possible. We can talk after the session so that I can explain to you why you are wrong.
First let me be clear that I’m perfectly fine with people (regardless of gender) being asked tough questions in front of an audience. This is sometimes uncomfortable…. and that’s just how it is- if you want to be in this business, you better get used to that.
But as for the rest, WTF??? I’ve personally witnessed this little drive-by-shooting-of-credibility specifically of a junior woman at more than one meeting. There are multiple dynamics at play- the whole junior scientist/respected senior scientist dynamic, a male/female dynamic- and then the whole singling someone out for purposeful humiliation in front of a group. It has become so common for me to witness this- that I’ve given up hoping that this kind of thing happening is going to change or stop. At the heart I think these types of attacks are about the senior person making themselves feel important in front of the group.
But here’s the thing for me- I think of myself up there on that stage when I am watching these trainwrecks unfold- and I wonder what would I say, what COULD I say, that would: a. change the course of the interaction, b. stop the questioner dead in his/her tracks, and c. get myself of the stage with my dignity intact.