Ass umptions in science

August 8, 2013

BikeMonkey Guest-Post
I’m attending a small-ish scientific meeting that includes quite a number of scientists that I do not know very well. So take this with a grain of salt… I would hesitate to blame the person making the screwup for anything beyond that.

As with many meetings this one includes a very overt and obvious attempt to both include a more diverse population that might otherwise be included and to engage the trainees. The former goal is evidenced in part by the specific mention of several travel awards that were designed to diversify the place. The latter goal is evidenced by overt pleas from the organizers for senior faculty to chat up the youngsters and the instructions to the session chairs to prioritize the questions and comments from trainees.

The representation of women in the podium presentations and session chair slots is good, so I’ll assume some behind the scenes concern with such factors.

So far, so good.

Admittedly, the attempt to take questions and comments from trainees first during the discussion period after each and every talk is a bit awkward, to say the least. But it comes from a good place and is addressing a worthy goal.

Then a session chair make a small mistake. He identified someone in the audience as a trainee and handed the mike over for the first questions.

The scientist in question was not a trainee.

Mistakes happen, right?

Except this is the only one I’ve seen happen so far* and there are certainly a number of youthful-ish looking faculty here. Perhaps they are all well known to the session chairs and this particular commenter is not.


It will not surprise you one bit to learn that this person misidentified as a trainee was a woman.

It will not surprise most of you to learn that this person dresses in a rather put-together and more fashionable than average manner.

She also happens to be rather attractive….some might say rather significantly so.

but she’s also not by any stretch of the imagination young. In fact this person is at least a scientific generation above me, although I do not know for sure what her age is. Admittedly, and in the session chair’s defense, this person looks quite a bit younger than she probably is, particularly on quick glance.

But still. It boggles my mind that anyone would immediately think “trainee” rather than “faculty”.

This person is, as it happens, of a very recognizable ethnicity that is underrepresented in science. Of an appearance that might be readily assumed to be the subject of the aforementioned travel awards designed to enhance diversity, not just at this meeting but at numerous others ones.

It’s kind of a thing to see a bunch of underrepresented trainees at scientific meetings.

As I said, I don’t know everyone here well and I do not know the session chair in question at all.

What I do know is that it looks very bad when some old guy assumes that an underrepresented minority and female member of the audience is a trainee when she is very clearly of an age in which the proportion of trainees is low and the proportion of faculty is high.

*this is most of why I haven’t stopped fuming about this.


49 Responses to “Ass umptions in science”

  1. Ola Says:

    So back when I was a new-ish faculty, we had the usual “this is my lab please rotate in it” canine/equine show at the beginning of the fall semester, where all the faculty would wax lyrical about their research for the new crop of students.

    I walked in and sat at the back, waiting for professor Oldfart to finish his blurb before I could hook up my laptop. He had decided one way to pick good students was to see who’d stayed awake and ask them a scienc-y question at the end. He singled me out for a question, at which point I politely told him I was the next speaker and he’d already run over his allotted time. He mumbled something about “young ‘uns getting younger every year”. He died shortly afterward.

    I was also told once by a senior faculty mentor, with an absolutely straight face, that because I didn’t have an gray hair (actually still don’t in my early 40s), I should probably stop wearing t-shirts/jeans/sneakers to work, if I want to be taken seriously by the students I was teaching.


  2. Dude, how else do the brown folk get to meetings if not on diversity trainee initiatives? Are you sure she wasn’t crashing for the food like those people at that White house party?


  3. Sweatpants Prof Says:

    She was only noticed because she wasn’t in crusty sweatpants and velcro sneakers like the other profs. Trainees always over dress for meetings.


  4. kant Says:

    I think that this is an extreme case of visual acuity. It could easily be solved by requiring to wear uniform at these meetings, red for trainees and orange for faculty with green tie or bow for those wishing to wear additional ornament.


  5. Neuropop Says:

    Distressing though it may be, it happens. Back when I was starting as a newbie faculty, I went down for the graduate student recruitment day. More than one STUDENT and prospective student thought that I was an interviewing student.


  6. dr24hours Says:

    In order to be socially appropriate, because I often struggle, I have taken to making the explicit assumption that anyone I meet is at least one grade more important than I am. Since I’m a “young” PI in non-traditional role, I therefore tend to confer “established faculty” status on anyone who isn’t obviously under 25.


  7. bacillus Says:

    Slightly different scenario. I was hosting a collaborator who is 10 years younger than I. It happened to be take your kid to work day. Several colleagues asked if my visitor was my son. That was the day I realized I’d officially joined the old farts club (junior division).


  8. Grumble Says:

    Haha, Ola, he died of mortification.

    My question for BikeMonkey is, why did the Very Diverse and Very Pretty and Very Female, but yet Very Old Farte prof not wait with her question until the trainees were done asking?


  9. dsks Says:

    “My question for BikeMonkey is, why did the Very Diverse and Very Pretty and Very Female, but yet Very Old Farte prof not wait with her question until the trainees were done asking?”

    Yeah, were the audience told that Qs from trainees would be taken first? Because if so, then whoever sticks there hand up has rather identified themselves as a trainee, no?


  10. dsks Says:

    ahem, “their”.

    I didn’t really get the significance of this observation either,
    “She also happens to be rather attractive….some might say rather significantly so.”

    There’s clear under-representation in the upper echelons of Teh Scienze based on ethnicity and gender, but I haven’t heard anyone espousing the belief that only ugly women reach senior academic positions.

    (Well, I guess there was that Italian fella tweeting from the SfN meeting a while back, but I think his charge was leveled at women across the entire career spectrum.)


  11. hahaz Says:

    so an attractive, well-dressed, female professor in her late 30’s (guessing here) got mistaken for being in her 20’s? I’m sorry but I don’t feel bad for her.

    bacillus, on the other hand, has something to feel bad about.


  12. Me Says:


    Would you have been just as indignant if she had been rather significantly unattractive?


  13. Alex Says:

    I’m an associate professor and I’m getting rather tired of being mistaken for a student. I wear jeans but nice shirts. It’s really annoying. I’m like “See these gray hairs on the side? That’s from grading freshman assignments!”

    So I want to be sympathetic. OTOH, if she raised her hand during the “trainees only” part of the Q&A, then bad on her.


  14. BikeMonkey Says:

    The Oldz were not waiting, all hands went up. the session chair was supposed to pick the young ones’ hands first is all.

    late 30s? um, no.

    If you all don’t think that attractiveness reinforces the assumptions of junior-ity in science you need to get out more. or open your eyes.


  15. kant Says:

    “late 30s?, um, no”

    Of course not, she was really in her very early 70s. In somma, a Rachel Welch type with a Beyoncé style!.

    No wonder the session chair selected her question as “the session chair was supposed to pick the young’ ones with GREAT MATURITY first of all”.

    This is why the orange -biohazard- color uniform for faculty would be of great help in addressing recognition appropriateness.


  16. Alex Says:

    The Oldz were not waiting, all hands went up. the session chair was supposed to pick the young ones’ hands first is all.

    This is a poorly-designed format, then. Faculty and other people beyond the trainee stage should be told to hold their questions until the session chair announces that the trainee period is over. Otherwise session chairs have to guess ages, and inevitably there will be some uncomfortable mistakes.

    And on the other side of the coin, what about non-traditional trainees? This past week I was at a meeting with a scientist who spent 20 years in the military before going for a PhD. A couple weeks ago I was in a clinic, being treated by a resident who spent several years in a private general practice before going into a specialty fellowship. In a meeting where session chairs are supposed to guess who the trainees are, both of these people would be at a disadvantage.


  17. BikeMonkey Says:

    And yet there was just the one, Alex….


  18. Alex Says:

    Agreed, there was just the one. And it was sadly predictable from everything we know about how bias works. And that seems like a good reason to structure these sorts of “trainee first” Q&As a bit more consciously, rather than relying on guesswork by people with sadly predictable biases.


  19. cookingwithsolvents Says:

    Never good to assume. Definite party foul, too. I don’t know what the appropriate amount of “outrage” is. FSP covers these kind of “casual assumption” moments really well and I’ve always appreciated the hearing these anecdotes so that my always well-meaning self stays conscious of the way I conduct my life/perspective/etc.

    Two personal anecdotes to add: I’m white and a dude and have had that happen to me at conferences. Even better, I once had a senior colleague confuse me for a high school prospective at an event, so….that was fun. This person was appropriately mortified, handled it with self-deprecating class, and made it a point to learn my name though.

    RE: Alex. I totally agree about non-traditional students.


  20. BikeMonkey Says:

    Alex, putting structures in place to conceal these biases would actually be a step backward. The goal is not to prevent minor embarrassment but rather to oppose an dismantle the biases. Recognition is a decent tool for that.


  21. Alex Says:

    If you have the goal of calling on trainees in a certain portion of the session, but you don’t structure things so that only trainees will have their hands up, then the session chair has to call on people based on some guess at “What does a trainee look like? What does a PI look like?”

    And the truth is that a trainee or early-career person could look like almost anyone, and a PI could look like almost anyone. The message I want people to get is “Anybody in this room could be a PI. You don’t know unless you know the person. Anybody in this room could be a trainee. You don’t know unless you know the person.” A PI could look youthful because they got lucky with the genes and lucky with an early start on their career, or they could have gray hair. A trainee could look old because they got the gene for early balding (like certain branches of my family) or because their life followed an unusual path (like certain people in my department). A trainee can be any color. A PI can be any color. A trainee could be male or female or some non-binary gender identity. A PI could be male or female or some non-binary gender identity.

    So either you tell the session chair to “go with their gut”, which will either result in some really bad calls (embarrassing some people), or some incredibly “safe” calls (excluding some people) or you say “OK, right now only trainees can raise their hands” so that nobody goes with some “gut” notion of “What a trainee looks like.”


  22. Alex Says:

    And, to be clear, I’m not justifying the session chair’s call. It was wrong, and it was rooted in prejudiced assumptions. I’m saying that if a session chair went in without prejudiced assumptions, or at least fewer prejudiced assumptions, then the only proper course of action would be to recognize that you can’t run a session on the basis of “What a trainee looks like.” So you have to rely on trainees to self-identify rather than asking the session chair to identify the trainees from a (hopefully diverse) sea of faces.


  23. Khat Says:

    I’m 99.9% sure that this is the same meeting that I just returned from in Central NH. Assuming I’m correct, I’d like to add a little in terms of background and subsequent events. The first is that while this researcher is well accomplished in the meeting’s topic, she had not previously attended this meeting or the other major international meeting in the field, so was unknown to the moderator, as were probably about a third of the audience. Given this gaffe (that occurred very early in the meeting), I was sensitized to subsequent mistakes. At least twice later in the meeting, a male PI attendee was misidentified as a “trainee”. Having moderated a session at the meeting, I can attest to the difficulty of correctly ID’ing an attendee, who I didn’t know, in a dim room as a trainee or PI. (The researcher is 2 years younger than I, but looks at least ten years younger.) I defaulted to trying to take questions from individuals who had asked few questions.

    As an epilogue, this misidentified PI was elected as one of the two chairs for the 2017 meeting.


  24. BikeMonkey Says:

    Interesting observation about smaller meetings, Khat. That someone could be reasonably well published in a subfield and yet not be known to the (core?) people in that field….. a bit side eye inducing. I expect this is common to many subfields and illustrates the difficulty we have getting good cross-pollination and mixing within a topic of interest.


  25. Grumble Says:

    Well, BM, that’s the point of these sorts of small meetings, right?

    Bottom line is that asking moderators to determine who is junior is just plain stupid. What idiot came up with such a back-asswards idea? Just have the mods divide question time into old fuck time and young fuck time, and have the audience self-identify. What is so goddamn hard about that?


  26. ecologist Says:

    Tempest. Teapot. Guessing academic status from appearance, on the spot, in a lecture room full of people with different dress styles, personal appearances, and whom you don’t know? In the institution[s] in which I work, I would defy anyone to draw lines accurately distinguishing grad students, postdocs, junior faculty, and even mid-level faculty.


  27. qaz Says:

    I never understood this “let the trainees ask questions first” thing in the first place. It diminishes the importance of their questions by pushing them off into a separate (and therefore unequal) Q&A period. It turns the trainee questions into teaching a class rather than participating in a conference. It says to the trainees “you are not as good/smart/real as the professors.” If they are going to be part of the community, they should have questions that are treated as no different from those from any other colleague. During a conference, there is no reason to separate trainees from seasoned PIs. A graduate student writing his or her thesis is supposed to be the world expert in that little piece of the question, which means that he or she is just as likely to have an insightful, important question as the well-seasoned PI, who might well be coming from an external field.

    And I agree with the other commenters here. Asking a moderator to make that kind of a judgement call in the moment is asking for trouble.


  28. (1) The point of this post isn’t whether it’s a good idea or not for moderators to be put in the position of having to conclude based on poor information who is a trainee and who is not (although I agree that it’s a bad idea). Nor is the point of the post to apportion blame for the incorrect conclusion drawn. Rather, the point of this post is to illuminate a particular set of widespread unconscious assumptions that were most likely relied upon by the moderator put in the position of having to draw the conclusion in the absence of definitive information.

    (2) To everyone getting up in arms about how this has nothing to do with racism/sexism and isn’t the “fault” of the moderator and it was so “unfair” to put him in the position of having to decide and oh, it’s “demeaning” to segregate trainee questions: You are engaged in classic derailing behavior. And the reason you feel compelled to derail the discussion is because it is scary to confront the fact that were you in the same situation, you would very likely proceed from the same set of racist/sexist assumptions.

    (3) The broader point of this post is that only by consciously acknowledging and confronting the racist and sexist assumptions we all internalize through participation in our racist and sexist society, can we hope to ameliorate their effects. I promise that the next time any of the people who have read this post are in an analogous situation, there is some increased likelihood that they will reflect on their own assumptions before acting on them, and being people of good will, will refrain.


  29. BikeMonkey Says:

    qaz, The point seems to be encouragement and I would presume this effort was a result of prior experience? Sometimes meeting organizers respond to formal and informal meeting feedback from prior years. Maybe postdocs complained that the same old Big Cheeses were the ones first recognized by each session chair for comment. I could see that being a problem. I’m sure all of us have been to academic meetings where one or two people seem to hog all the Q&A airspace.

    I agree the overt solicitation was awkward, but at least they tried.


  30. kant Says:

    You’re right CPP that this post by Bikemonkey will be very helpful for all of us for “increased likelihood that they will reflect on their own assumptions before acting on them, and being people of good will, will refrain”.

    I however disagree with some of your pronouncements:

    “the point of this post is to illuminate a particular set of widespread unconscious assumptions that were most likely relied upon by the moderator”. I am not convinced that the event, as related by Bikemonkey, and which Bikemonkey himself warned to take it “with a grain of salt”, illuminates any unconscious assumption, (particularly if it is unconscious, how do you know that it even existed?) If this was the major point of your grant, I am pretty sure that your reviewers will tell you that you are pretty much speculating. I find much more convincing the idea that these meetings need to be organized accordingly as to avoid misidentifications or to promote proven wrong assumptions of the present or the past. Just my 2 cents.


  31. Khat Says:

    BikeMonkey, I think the reason this scientist was not too well known to some (many?) others in this field is that she has active programs with the developmental impacts of three different drugs of abuse, and does quite a bit of work with human material. Historically, this field has been populated by behavioral pharmacologists, and more lately with synaptic physiologists. Many of them tend not to pay much attention to the developmental literature. One of the goals of the meeting organizers was to bring together human-oriented and animal model-oriented researchers.

    I agree with the sentiment expressed above that the artificial identification of “trainees” can be both awkward and demeaning. Ideally, the atmosphere of the meeting is such that anyone feels comfortable asking questions, and that the discussions are not dominated by a few investigators.


  32. BikeMonkey Says:

    really kant? Do we need to do this?

    The idea than people express biases of which they are not consciously aware is news to you?

    Google up Implicit Assoiation Test and start reading. We can wait….


  33. BikeMonkey Says:

    Khat, while I can’t confirm or deny your assumptions here, it sounds like a good thing if the meeting you mention is becoming broader.


  34. DJMH Says:

    Not related to this, really, but it is true that at many small meetings and seminars, moderators will preferentially call on more senior people. Though that choice may be justified in some respects, the net result is that more men get to ask questions, because the more senior people are more likely to be men. Combine that with the fact that more men raise their hands in the first place, and I have seen all male questioners in a 50:50 audience (with junior men and women never getting a chance). It has effects.


  35. kant Says:

    Sorry Bikemonkey. I assume that we can disagree and differ in perceptions.

    And the idea of Implicit Association might or might have nothing to do with what happened in that meeting with that specific chair person in terms of racism and/or sexism. I don’t know it. I can’t tell. I would have to ask that chair directly.


  36. Grumble Says:

    “The broader point of this post is that only by consciously acknowledging and confronting the racist and sexist assumptions we all internalize through participation in our racist and sexist society,”

    Really? We all internalize? Speak for yourself, you sanctimonious dumbass.


  37. BikeMonkey Says:

    Implicit Association testing reveals some very subtle biases Grumble. The null hypothesis really has to be that we all internalize certain biases and have no idea whatsoever that we are biased in that way. It isn’t “sanctimonious”, it is science.


  38. dsks Says:

    Grumble said,
    “Really? We all internalize?”

    I think there’s a solid psychological case to be made that the very act of being a human makes this an inevitability, so that generalized charge probably stands. Well, it does for me at least.

    However, CPP said
    “To everyone getting up in arms about how this has nothing to do with racism/sexism…”

    Who’s that? Some folk pointed out that age-related descrimination was likely a factor here, too. Nobody said other prejudices didn’t play a role. As Kant said, “I don’t know it. I can’t tell. I would have to ask that chair directly.”

    Sure, the line between derailing and earnest discussion is notoriously vague, but as frustrating as genuine derailing can be, it’s also a little frustrating to have some santimonious ass-hat puffing up their chest and throwing that charge down the moment there’s so much as an iota of dissent (or in this case, merely a clarifying murmur that age-related prejudice probably plays a part in all this, too).


  39. BikeMonkey Says:

    Do you really think asking the session chair if s/he thought the person was a trainee b/c of sex, perceived age, perceived ethnicity, perceived sartorial style or general attractiveness is going to be illuminating dsks (and Khat)?

    These biases are not going to be readily available to introspection and many people would be motivated to deny it even if they *did* come to some personal enlightenment over the event.

    Do we really need to make it explicit? Exhibition of a covert bias doesn’t make you some horrible -ist. It makes you a normal participant in our society and culture.


  40. Really? We all internalize? Speak for yourself, you sanctimonious dumbass.

    Thanks for proving my point.


  41. DJMH Says:

    Jeez, I’m willing to acknowledge that when someone says, “I went to see my doctor yesterday, and she said that…”, the “she” comes as a tiny surprise to me. And I am a woman scientist who has had many female doctors.

    I might be *chagrined* to recognize these biases in my own outlook, but I just try to stay aware of them so I can minimize their effects as much as possible….I don’t go blaming the messenger.


  42. Alex Says:

    I think that there’s a wide enough variety of evidence to show conclusively that most/all people have some biases, even (especially?) the ones who claim to be very enlightened on matters of race, gender, class, etc. However, the mere act of telling CPP that he’s wrong does not prove that CPP is right. Otherwise CPP would be the most vindicated man on the internet.


  43. BikeMonkey Says:

    Haahahahhaaaa!!11!!! good point, Alex, good point. (He’s right though)


  44. The point is that powerful emotional reaction to the suggestion that we all harbor internalized sexist and racist biases is, itself, a manifestation of the defense mechanisms we all possess to protect ourselves from thinking of ourselves as “racist” and “sexist”, and evidence that the suggestion is correct.


  45. Grumble Says:

    Very cute, CPP. So, because I deny emphatically that I am racist or sexist, you take that as evidence that I’m being defensive, with the implication that I’m therefore racist and sexist? Your logic is straight out of 1984. You’d make an excellent Big Brother.


  46. You are very confused if you think that pointing out that we all harbor racist and sexist biases by virtue of living in a racist and sexist society is the same as calling you “racist” or “sexist”. Have you considered asking yourself why you apparently feel so defensive about this, and why it is so important for you to “deny emphatically that [you are] racist or sexist” in response to very general comments made by a random douche on a random Web site on the Internet?


  47. kant Says:


    I don’t know if “asking the session chair if s/he thought the person was a trainee b/c of sex, perceived age, perceived ethnicity, perceived sartorial style or general attractiveness is going to be illuminating dsks (and Khat)?” but it will provide an opportunity for

    “consciously acknowledging and confronting the racist and sexist assumptions we all internalize through participation “. One way of making progress….

    Going dinner


  48. Alex Says:

    CPP, the best evidence for the proposition that biases are common is that there have been a great many studies showing how people react to other people. The worst evidence is “I told him that he harbors bias and he got annoyed by the suggestion!” Because if that’s your data point, well, I have a perfectly plausible alternative hypothesis.

    You don’t get to say “People disagreed with me, therefore I’m right” and be taken seriously in a scientific setting. Unless your audience if full of people who had this poster in their dorm rooms.


  49. Grumble Says:

    What, my dear CPP, is the difference between pointing out that “we all harber racist and sexist biases” and saying “Grumble, you have racist and sexist biases”? I am, after all, a member of the class “we all.”

    And why do I defend myself against some internet douche? Why the fuck not? Maybe it’s because I’m biased against idiots who spout bullshit about what “we all” do and think as if he were a fucking expert on Grumble and everyone else.

    You aren’t, which is why I am pleased to invite you to fuck yourself.


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