Saturday, June 16, 2007

IWHA 2007- Women in Science!

It’s been amazing here! The sun shines almost twenty hours per day now. It has shined throughout our intensive water sampling period, the complementary midnight lab analyses, a visit from my father, and the annual IWHA conference, which all happened almost simultaneously. There’s been lots of work and lots of fun… and not much sleeping.

The IWHA conference was titled The History and Futures of Water. I gave a presentation on the history and future of chlorine disinfection. I talked about some broader issues pertaining to the study of household drinking water treatment. I feel that our scientific results are quite a bit different than what actually happens in the real world, making some of the literature perhaps misleading. So I gave my talk, and answered a few questions. The chair person, who introduced each of the five presenters, pointed out that pH has a substantial effect on the efficacy of chlorine, and I didn’t mention that in my presentation.

I agree that pH is a very important chemical property of water. I measured pH when I was doing my field work in Ecuador. I also measured free and total chlorine concentration, turbidity, and took field surveys, among other things. However, my presentation at the IWHA conference was not about pH, so of course I didn’t mention it. I only had 15 minutes. It was not really about chlorine efficacy either, though I did mention that. It was about the use of chlorine in rural households. I made an argument in my presentation that most current chlorine studies are quite different that actual, real-world (visit-a-village-and-see-how-it’s-used) chlorine use. For example, most chlorine studies educate their participants (and subjects) in some way before or during their sampling period. In the real world, however, education is not necessarily part of household chlorine use. Maybe this is important. That’s why I gave my presentation.

I do appreciate comments. But it was hard not to notice that I was at least 20 years younger than the other four presenters and I was the only woman presenting in this session. AND everyone else got a complement from the chairperson about how good their presentations were, regardless of how good their presentations were. At the time, I thought “whoops, I really need to work on a better way to communicate this idea. It’s very difficult to understand. I think chairperson missed the main idea of my presentation.” It was not good news, but it was my fault. You can’t win ‘um all.

Later on, I was helping out with the equipment in another session where my session’s chairperson was giving his presentation. He had some technical problems with his presentation. When we opened up his PowerPoint file, some of his photos were missing. Yikes! Murphy’s Law was giving him a run for his money.

“Well, we’ve got ten minutes,” I said. “Do you want to download your pictures again and put them back in presentation?” One of his colleagues/another presenter came over to see what the commotion was.

The colleague/other presenter gave me a series of unnecessary commands (the kind that you get from elderly men who don’t know that they aren’t the only smart ones around), not realizing that he was almost entirely redundant. “Click on pictures. Type this keyword. Click that picture. Copy. Paste.” Etc. etc. etc. We replaced one of chairperson’s pictures. Actually, I replaced one of chairperson’s pictures, and I thought of solving the problem in the first place.

Chairperson was so impressed. So what did he say, you ask? He said “Wow colleague/other presenter, you’re a real technical whiz! I can’t believe you fixed my problem so quickly!”

OK gentlemen, I do things that are much more amazing than downloading pictures... every day. But I would like to point out that this is an example of men undeservingly getting most of the credit in a scientific environment. It starts in the educational process, in our scientific discussions, and in our presentations. Women have to work much harder and have their sources in order to get people to listen (and believe) what they have to say.

I challenge you all, men and women alike. If you’re about to discount a smart woman, think about why you don’t believe what she has to say. Do you have a real reason, or is it cultural? Do you understand what she’s talking about? Then ask her, instead of assuming she made a mistake (and forgot to mention pH, for example). Maybe she can teach you something that will benefit the scientific community. Did she give you an idea? Give her credit for it. Let her know. If she has something to contribute, include her in your papers, in your lab, and in your research.


Audrey said...

Sing it, sister. We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go to get parity in pay, recognition, and respect.

Tarik Saleh said...

Yeah, rage against the old dude machine! The old dudes are somewhat condescending to young male scientists as well, but no where near as bad as for women...

Sahal said...

Stupid old scientists !

laurita said...

I have to admit, both scientists in this story gave fascinating presentations that I both enjoyed and learned from. But that's not the only role that I want to play at conferences. After all, I can go to an undergraduate lecture or read an article if I just want to learn. I want to learn, teach, and network with other scientists. These two scientists' behavior interferes with the latter two!

Anonymous said...

And not just in the scientific world...