Friday, April 3, 2009

The Effect of Demographics in Talk Dynamics

I recently attended a talk on a subject within my area of expertise by someone who is not an expert in this field.  He argued that the physics he was solving should still apply to the problem, but it quickly became abundantly clear that his understanding of the basic issues was insufficient.  In any case, he became quite defensive, alternating between dismissing criticism by saying he wasn't an expert in the field and challenging the audience to produce better explanations.  I began to feel like he was asking for advice but then refusing to take any of it.  

It was only afterwards that it dawned on me that his three main critics were young (under 40) women (yes, one of them was me), while he was an older (50s? 60s?) man.  It made me wonder if he responded to us that way because of our youth and gender.  Unfortunately, I don't have a good baseline for judging whether there was gender bias or not, because we women pretty much dominated the discussion.

Then again, young women dominated the discussion!  It seems to be a peculiarity of my subfield of astronomy that lots of young women are in it, especially in my research group.  It's nice, but it makes me wonder if I'm shielded from a lot of gender bias because of it.

1 comment:

Mrs. CH said...

Yay for young women running the discussion! That rarely happens in our department, so that's great!

As for his reaction - I find most researchers, especially those that are older, tend to be defensive. No matter who is arguing with them. I find younger scientists can take criticism a bit better - perhaps because you realize you don't know everything (and sometimes older people think no one can know as much as them). But, that's what my experience is in general, and it could definitely be due to many different things.

Interesting observation for sure!