Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘public speaking’

Guest Post: Raise Your Voices

GuestPostThis post comes from an awesome WomanOfScience friend of mine. I hope you enjoy!

This post is about one of my first real experiences with gender bias, as a new PI in {life} science.

During my first year of being a new PI, I was invited to participate in a small workshop in my field.  There were only about 80 of us, with most of us being PIs.  It was an intense 4 day meeting alternating between talks and long, open-ended discussions about important issues in our research area.  In many ways, it was fantastic.

However, I quickly noticed something that I found to be a bit concerning.  While the organizers commended themselves for ensuring that almost half of the participants were women, I noticed that women almost never spoke during the extensive questions-and-answers sessions after each talk, nor did they ever participate in the lengthy “open” discussion periods.  As a new PI in my field, still trying to get the lay of the land, I was hyper-aware of what my female role models were doing.  And I was a bit dismayed that even the full professors who were women were not speaking up.

At first, I wondered, “Am I right about this?  Am I just not noticing when women speak?  Is my own unconscious bias coming through by dismissing their contributions?  Or, are women really not speaking?”  So, during the second day, I began to keep count.  I made a tally every time someone spoke up, whether it was a male or female.

By the end of that second day, it was clear.  Less than 10% of the questions or comments were from women, despite the fact that over 40% of the attendees were women.  And several of the few questions from women were from me, the most junior female PI in the room.  (I have always been pushed to ask questions of speakers, by my graduate and post-doctoral mentors, so I try to speak up as much as possible.)

But I was disturbed that women were not being equally represented in the discussions.  One thing that I noticed was that, oftentimes, the men in the room seemed completely unfazed to spout some random off-the-wall idea that potentially made no sense at all, just to get conversation started.  They weren’t concerned that their idea might sound idiotic.  They weren’t concerned that their words might mean that they were incompetent.

In my (limited) experience, WOMEN DO NOT DO THIS.  Women are careful to only state ideas that they perceive to be “important”.  And since women appear to be uncertain whether their ideas actually are important, they rarely speak up at all.  Why is this?

One answer comes from a really interesting article that I read just before I went to this conference.It discussed how transgendered people who have transitioned can provide interesting insights into how men and women are perceived differently.  My favorite quote in the article comes from Joan Roughgarden, a biologist at Stanford who used to be male until late in her career.  She says “men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise.”

Unfortunately, I have found this to be the case.  I will admit, I was not nearly as aware of this bias when I was a graduate student at a top tier research university.  In my class of around 30 students, 75% of us were women.  I was not even aware of gender bias when I was a postdoc.  Of course, I had heard of and read about unconscious bias.  But I had not seemed to experience it myself or noticed any impact on my own career.  It was only once I became a PI that I began to notice gender bias in my workplace in any real way.

I have long heard that one way to combat gender bias is to make sure that more people are aware of it, when it occurs, so we can at least pay attention to our unconscious bias and figure out ways to deal with it.  Thus, at the bar at the conference that second evening, after I had discovered that only 10% of the questions were from women, I decided to bring it up among a small circle of friendly colleagues.  It seemed natural to do so.  It was a group of just a few of us, people in my sub-field who have known each other for years, a mix of 1 man and 3 women.  Someone else had brought up the fact that women and men were almost equally represented at the meeting, and “Wasn’t that so great?”  So I then replied, “Yeah, it’s great that the organizers did such a wonderful job.  But you know what’s a little funny?  Women are only asking about 10% of the questions, and they aren’t participating at all in the open discussions.”  The women in my group made no reply.  But the man said, “Are you sure?  That can’t be right.”  And I answered, “No, I am right.  I actually counted today.”  The guy was silent for a moment, looked at me right in the eyes, and said, “Well, then I think that you should spend more time thinking about science and less time counting how many questions are being asked by women.”

I was dumbstruck.  I had asked more questions in that group than any other woman in the room, and his response is that I should be asking even more?  And that it wasn’t possible for me to think about science and tally male/female counts at the same time?  And that he didn’t see that it was an issue that women weren’t speaking up?  And that he didn’t respect the fact that I might see it as an issue, as a new woman to the field?  Two years later, this guy is still a close friend and colleague, a true supporter of me and my career.  But he appears to be clearly unaware of gender bias in the scientific world, and how its insidious nature can undermine the confidence of women scientists.

My own response to my observation has been to continue to do what I can – to speak up when I can – to try to be a role model for other, younger women scientists to speak up and not be afraid.  My students are REQUIRED to ask questions at seminars and meetings.  And I teach them to not be concerned about sounding stupid.  That I prefer them to be perceived as engaged and perhaps naive, rather than silent.  Because if you are silent, you aren’t bringing anything at all to the table.

So, my call to other women scientists is to speak up.  Speak your mind.  Even when you are unsure of your ideas.  Share your questions with others.  Isn’t that what science is about?  Asking questions that we don’t know the answers to?

More recently, now that I’ve been a PI for longer, I’ve become even more comfortable asking questions and speaking up.  At the last meeting that I went to (about 300 attendees), I was again the most visible woman.  I probably asked 2-3 questions each day of the 3 day meeting.  I thought that most of my questions were pretty stupid.  But I asked them anyway, especially when no one else seemed to be interested in doing so.  At the end of the meeting, a huge leader in my field came up to me and told me that he had to meet me and share with me that he was so impressed with my “wonderful questions” and that I had been “more impressive than any junior female PI he has ever seen at a conference before in his 30+ years” of being a PI.

While I was glad that he noticed me and complimented my participation, and I am hopeful that my visibility might be a good model for the many, many young women in the audience that asked no questions at all, I do still find it a rather sad state of affairs that this guy had never seen a junior woman ask multiple questions at conferences before (or, at least, not recall seeing it).  I will note that he (and everyone else that I spoke with) was also incredibly impressed by my grad student who accompanied me, as she asked several questions, as well.  She was the only female graduate student to ask any questions during this meeting.

And while I’m hopeful that other women saw our examples, I also am concerned that most women are still too insecure and uncertain to ask questions themselves.  Or, they simply do not realize just how valuable it can be to be visible.  But one thing I’ve learned is that succeeding in academia (and life, really) requires me to confront my fears head on – to run into them.  I used to be terrified – terrified – of public speaking.  My fight or flight response was on full blast when I asked questions, when I spoke in front of people.  But I forced myself to do it anyway.  When I commended my student after she asked questions by telling her how brave she was, she replied that she was not brave, that rather, she “was terrified.”  I explained that being brave does not mean that you are not afraid.  Being brave means you do something EVEN THOUGH you are afraid.

So, I now make it one of my main goals to talk about my own insecurities, my own fears, and the importance of speaking up and being visible, whenever I have the opportunity to speak with students and postdocs. I am hopeful that the more times women hear it, the more likely there will be change.  And that someday, when I go to a meeting, there will be just as many women asking questions as men.

Thanks so much for this awesome post! What do you think? Comment or write your own post! To get an email each time I post, push the +Follow button.

Giving GOOD Talks

Ferris_Bueller's_Day_OffI was recently at a Gordon Research Conference (GRC) for a field I am tangential to and want to learn more about. If you are in science, and don’t know what GRCs are, you should. They are small conferences on more focused topics. The one I was at can only have less than 200 participants. That means you can talk to many people deeply about science. Further, the GRCs are structured such that the afternoons have free time for you to socialize with the participants. I think that socializing in this way is essential for networking and forming stronger bonds, perhaps even friendships, with people in your field. At the GRC, there is only one session at a time (no concurrent sessions) and long discussions afterward. The GRC is good for learning science without getting overwhelmed or worried about not going to the right session. So, if you are a student or postdoc, especially, you should ask to go to a GRC. I think they are especially good for your career.

But, this is not the point of this post. The point of this post is to talk about talks. I think a lot about how best to present my work to people. Even if my work/publications are boring, my talks never are. They get people excited. I guess I feel more comfortable pushing the envelope in person than in writing. This is probably why I don’t get published in HighImpact-OneWordTitle-Journals. At this conference, as in all, there are many different speaking techniques. All the talks are by professors who are doing excellent and interesting work, but they don’t always speak in the best manner. It got me to thinking about some advice for giving good talks. This is not the first time I have given advice on this topic. General information can be found here.  In this post, I am talking about other aspects that I didn’t touch on previously.

***Disclaimer: The advice given here is not meant to shame any particular person. I am not talking about you. This post is only meant to give advice to help people interested at self-improvement.

Up Talk, Vocal Fry, Voice Tone, Using the Pointer, Body Language:  This was all discussed in detail in previous post. Here is an over view. Don’t sound like you are asking questions (no up talking). Make declarative statements. Use a lower voice, if possible. Two hands on the pointer if your hands shake. Don’t fidget – gesture.

Don’t Yell Your Talk: I have noticed a number of people, mostly women, basically yelling their talk at the audience. It is like a string of words without pauses at a very loud tone. I personally, find this hard to take and a bit off-putting. I am not sure when this style got developed or taught, but I have noticed it more and more. It feels like I am being blasted by the person’s talk instead of engaging with the information.

My advice: insert pauses. If you have a hard time remembering this, put things into your talk that will make you pause. A white rabbit. A small smiley face. Use these cues to remind you to pause. You need to let the audience take in the scientific information you have delivered. When you present the method or experimental system, put in a pause and ask the audience if they have questions. When you present an important result, pause and let it sink in, then state that this is remarkable or significant and why.

As for the yelling tone, I think the only thing that will cure that is thought and practice. I think the yelling is caused by nervousness mostly. This is why I am surprised to see it in experienced scientists with tenure who have been doing this for a long time. You might need to practice using inflection. Inflection is not necessarily up talking. Maybe the yelling monotone comes from a fear of up talking? There are other ways of speaking with inflection that does not sound like asking a question. Instead of thinking of a talk like a public presentation, think of it as a conversation with someone who doesn’t know what you do where you have all the information with you and arranged on slides that you just happen to have up on the screen. If you design the talk this way and maybe pick someone in the audience to talk to, you might be able to blot out the fear of “public speaking” that I think could be driving the yelling. Of course, I grant that I could be exactly wrong. If you have insight as to the yelling your face off style of giving talks, please post or comment.

Engage the Audience: I said this before, but here I am being more general than just using demonstrations. Also, audience engagement goes along with the issue above of having a conversation with your audience. In theater, there is a concept called “breaking the 4th wall,” where the character on the screen talks to the audience. Remember in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, when he looks at the camera and talks to you. Ferris is breaking the 4th wall. It is the invisible wall between the action going on on the screen or on stage and the audience.  When you give a talk “at” an audience, you have the 4th wall up. I recommend that you try to break the 4th wall in your talk. You can walk into the audience, although that is not always sensical if you are tethered to a laptop at the front. You can also ask your audience questions. Give them a quiz. You’re probably a teacher of some sort if you are a faculty. Or maybe you aspire to be. Putting a question on a slide by itself and asking the audience to vote on the answer is a good way to engage the audience and to wake them up.

Use Humor and Analogy: Some people are naturally funny. Some are not. If you are funny, try adding some humor to your talk. If you are not, I don’t advocate trying to include it. On the other hand, non-funny people can include analogies to well-known, modern, or macroscopic systems and objects to help improve understanding during your talk.  A few well-placed analogies with images in your talk can go a long way to taking your talk from boring or opaque to exciting and clear.

I said the same thing at the end of the last post that I am saying here, which is: I am sure there are even more helpful hints for how to give a good talk, but these are the ones that came to me just now. I realize the last post was about a year a a half ago, but maybe going to conferences makes me thoughtful about giving talks.

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