What would you do if you were the Young Female PI who was being personally and publicly flogged by a well-respected imbecile?
I responded with the script that I have been coached to give in such a situation [tone of voice is difficult to deduce in written media -- this should be read with a tone that is dripping in snark]:
–I’m sorry, I misheard you. Could you repeat your QUESTION?
If he persisted with the “impossible results”:
–Perhaps I am misunderstanding your QUESTION. Are you saying that you believe that these RESULTS are impossible? Because I can assure you that they were produced exactly as I have presented. If you’d like to continue to discuss my INTERPRETATION of the results I would be happy to meet with you during the break so that we can sort out this misunderstanding.
Given that I have been advised to "tone it down" when responding to this kind of stupid criticism on the podium, I was feeling pretty good about this response...I felt like it did a nice job of toe-ing that very fine line between standing up for your data and coming across as "an obstinate little bitch".
Comrade PhysioProf disagrees and offers an alternative response:
I disagree with this approach, because it starts off way too defensive: “I’m sorry”; “perhaps I am misunderstanding”; “I can assure you”. *Never* say, “I’m sorry” when giving a presentation. And why pretend that *you* are misunderstanding, when you are not? By saying, “I can assure you…”, you are validating the premise of the attack by attempting to defend against it on the merits.
Rather, when it becomes clear that a questioner is being an asshole, go on the *offensive*: “Clearly, you are misunderstanding the point. Feel free to approach me after the talk and we can try to figure out where you are going wrong.” ZING!*
Clearly a WAY better response for all the reasons he brought up...still, I would feel just a little uncomfortable actually saying this (so I will be practicing it in front of a mirror before I give my next talk, in case there is cause to use it...otherwise I will probably fumble).
Why would I feel uncomfortable saying this? Well, for the reason I told CPP that I had been coached to mind my manners a bit more:
Taking the offensive without distracting people from your data is a VERY difficult balance to strike for young women - I know that you know this. I have noticed that when young females use this approach, other people’s reaction is generally, “wow, what an obstinate little bitch!” rather than “good for her for telling that geezer where to shove it”.
CPP offered a great response to such a stupid and personal attack and I think that most people who got what was going on with Dr. Grand Poobah's little nasty-fest would be highly amused and also pretty impressed to hear the speaker come back with this...that is, assumming that the speaker was a man. Not all, but certainly some people would be less than amused if the speaker was a woman - it's a shit double-standard, but it's there. In fact, the men who have coached me on how to moderate my response to these kinds of attacks openly acknowledge that this double standard exists and that it's crap, but still they advise me to "play a little nicer" in order to prevent me from shooting myself in the foot.
Bora brings up an excellent point:
“Tone it down” and “Why are you so angry?” are typical sleazy tactics used by a person in power over a person not in power. It was used against people of other races, against women, against gays, against atheists - this is the way to make their greivances silent and perpetuate the status quo, the power structure in which they are on the top of the pecking order. The entire formal, convoluted, Victorian-proper discourse one is supposed to use in science is geared towards protecting the current power structure and the system that perpetuates it. Keeping the dissenters down and out. Bur sometimes, anger, or snark, or direct insult, are the jolt that the system needs and it will have to come from the people outside the power structure, and it would have to occur often and intensely until they start paying attention.
All true, so why don't we fight it a little harder? Why do we as women listen when people tell us to tone it down for our own good? DrdrA says it best:
Then there’s that shooting yourself in the foot business- its the ‘do you want to get what you want, or do you want to make a point’… cause you are only making it harder for yourself if you are trying to make a point while trying to move forward. I feel like many times I’m stuck between pushing myself forward in my career as quickly as possible without changing a thing as I move along- or with advancing more slowly (or dealing with the fear that I might not advance at all) because I tried to make a difference and nudge the status quo.
Which brings us to this awful dilemma:
Which is more important to me? That I promote my science? Or that I let people lose sight of the science in order to start chipping away at this double standard?
If I go for putting the old geezer in his place, then I risk losing people on my science (which is really the point) because they are distracted by the little spat between Dr. Grand Poobah, and *gasp* Little Old Me. I also could be risking some scientific credibility and possibly a chance at promotion - you don't want to be better known for being an Obstinate Little Bitch than for a Kick-Ass Scientist as tenure review rolls around (not that I'm there yet but reputations, particularly nasty ones, are tough to shake). If I go for just sticking to the science, maybe I lose some recognition and opportunity (people tend to forget shrinking violets), and I've let down other women in science by reinforcing the idea that women and their research can be doormats for the Dr. Grand Poobahs of the world to wipe their boots on. So what to do?
The truth is, as much as we would like that double standard to go away (and with some effort it might), the fact remains that right now it's still there. No way around that. So when we run into it how do we deal with it?
And with that, I will leave you with this little gem, because it is hysterically funny (hysterical - get it?) and because I am very tired. Discuss at your leisure.
Supplemental Video 1: Required cultural sensitivity course for entering female graduate students.
*Bold is my emphasis.