Friday, July 5, 2013

Saying No to Invited Talks

Athene Donald recently had a post about the dearth of women invited speakers at meetings. An issue that was raised is that women, when invited, seem to decline more often than men, and the question is why. I can't speak for all women, but this got me thinking about why I decline these invitations.

When I was a junior faculty member and all such talks counted for a lot on my CV, I would pretty much accept nearly all invitations. Invited talks are like getting credit: when you are young and you need it, no one will give it to you; when you are old, established, with a paid-off house and ample savings and no need for credit, everyone bends over backwards to give it to you. Same thing with invited talks: nobody gives them to the young'uns, who'd jump at the chance and whose CVs the talks would positively enhance.

My travel for this year thus far includes:
1 NSF panel
2 program review meetings for another federal agency
4 invited lectures
4 invited talks at conferences
8 declined invited talks at conferences

So why do I accept some talks and decline others? I suppose it is easiest to start with why I do accept an invited talk these days, where "these days" means I have tenure and my career is doing fine. I generally go to a conference if (1) it is one of the 2-3 conferences that are very specifically in my field (even so, I prefer one of these over the others, and usually go to that one but send students to others), (2) it is a closely related field where I usually have something new to learn that benefits my research directly, or (3) I go because I owe it to the organizers (e.g. I declined a talk a couple years ago on account of pregnancy, and the organizer is a respected colleague, so this year I will do it even though it's an international trip and it's a pain and they are not paying). Also, I will do invited talks at one of the big meetings such as the APS March Meeting.

As for lectures, I generally give them at the places where I know someone, or where I want to meet someone. Giving a lecture is usually accompanied by a day or two of non-stop meetings and talking with many faculty and students, and can be quite exhausting. Early on in my career, it was easier to get invited lectures than conference invited talks, so I used to jump on every opportunity to give one. Now I do them sparingly and, whenever possible, I try to give multiple talks back-to-back or to host someone at my university instead.

So why do I decline invited talks, or avoid going to conferences in general? Why exactly people avoid travel differs for different people, but I can say what my reasons are: some are professional, some personal.

Professional: There are a couple of communities where I am well known and I would dare say well respected, and those conferences are generally enjoyable, even if I know the community a little too well and, from the standpoint of learning new things, there may not be much, since I pretty much know exactly what everyone else is doing. But then there are the conferences where I am either unknown or semi-known, but where I could in principle learn new things. That's where glorious sexism rears its ugly head and it has become really tiresome to battle.

Perhaps this situation is a little similar to how gay people have to constantly come out to everyone new they meet, over and over again, because everyone's default expectation is that they are straight. (I am in no way trying to downplay how hard this must be, I can only imagine.) My experience at new meetings is that the default expectation, perhaps because I am still a youngish woman, is that I don't have much interesting or important to say. Presumed incompetent until proven otherwise. In some communities people are more hostile than in others. While I was more junior, I needed the travel, the exposure, and I dutifully endured, convincing random unpleasant male scientists over and over that I in fact knew what I was doing. Sometimes even random junior schmucks also think themselves superior just because; perhaps that extra head they have contains some additional brain matter? Whatever. These days I can afford not to do that any more; if I go to a conference once and don't like the vibe, I won't go again. Also, I don't play all that nice any more with Douchey McDouchersons; that may or may not make me popular in certain communities. Bottom line, these days  I avoid this type of irritation if I can help it. Life is too short to constantly fight for approval of random new people. It boils down to: should I pay money to again endure the drivel of some self-important colleagues or should I spend that time cuddling with my kids? Gee, I wonder which one I should choose...

And last but not least, many invited talks these days come with very few or no expenses paid. Therefore, unless it's a conference I would attend anyway, or it somehow directly relates to what I work on or would like to, I don't go. Of the 8 declination this year, most featured some combination of general irrelevance to my work and being too expensive/organizers not paying enough.

Personal/family: My DH and I have three kids, ages 2-13. They have different activities and schedules that  require two parents to juggle. Now, one can say that when I am out of town there can be a part-time nanny to help, and that's perfectly valid. But, at this point in my career I can afford to say that I don't care about travel enough to go through the trouble of finding part-time care for these situations. The few families I know who do have part-time drop-off/pick-up care mostly complain that the schedules don't work out and that the care providers whom they really like cannot make the hours needed. Anyway, I am am able and even happy to scale back my travel, but I don't think this is the right approach for people who are still junior and who really should travel. All I can say is that where I am now in my career, I am comfortable blowing off some travel for increased sanity of myself, my kids, and my husband. When I am gone, they are stressed as things are disrupted, but I am not gone too often so the disruption is still just a disruption, not the norm.

All my kids have been in daycare centers since an early age and I have great respect for childcare professionals. When people talk about reliable or trustworthy childcare, for most people that means "someone I have known a long time" or "someone recommended by the people I know and trust." When I was a junior faculty member, I was on my own with just my eldest for the first two years on the tenure track. During those years, traveling was really hard, and my husband would fly in to take care of the kid while I traveled. In principle, I could have hired an overnight nanny, but as someone who was new in town, not knowing many people in general, and not knowing a single person among my colleagues, male or female, who had ever done the overnight nanny thing, that never really seemed like a feasible idea.

Nowadays, I know a number of families who swear by their full-time or live-in nannies. We have always gone with daycare centers for two main reasons: one is that centers take care of backup when the teacher is sick or has time off; the other reason is that I don't trust myself to choose a good person on my own, and daycare centers do a thorough check of all their staff. I personally am not a particularly good judge of character, and it takes me a while to form an accurate opinion; my initial impressions are often off and I have been known to get swayed by expertly delivered bullshit, but I know that about myself and I compensate for it. However, you don't generally have weeks or months to get to know a nanny before hiring her. Secondly, people underestimate how strongly interactions are influenced by social norms in a particular region. For instance, the culture in the country where I grew up is much more in-your-face, outwardly expressive than the culture in the part of the US where I live now. I don't miss the rudeness, I will tell you that, even though I appreciated the transparency in interpersonal interactions in my home country. In contrast, where I live now, everyone is so goddamn nice and polite and sweet, for all I know they could be plotting my demise this instant and I would not have a clue. It is extremely hard for me to read people in this particular part of the US; I have worked closely with some colleagues, who are native to this region, for 9 years and only now do I have some idea of what is really going on in their heads, behind that non-confrontational-at-all-cost facade. Bottom line is I don't trust myself to judge people around here (I have heard similar sentiments from several immigrant families) and I am really happy that I can send kids to a daycare center, where established employment criteria are employed. Now that we have been with this center for a while, we have a wonderful woman who is a teacher there babysitting our kids on occasion, and she did an overnight, but precisely because she is so awesome do we not want to bother her too much and we try to only use her sparingly, perhaps once a month. If I were on the tenure track now, having to travel quite heavily, I would have no problem leaving my kids with this woman. But hindsight is 20/20. Regardless, I definitely understand that people may not be comfortable leaving their kids for several days with someone they don't know well. It simply takes a while to get comfortable around someone, and some people take longer than others to get there.

One important question is whether, by not giving invited talks, I am somehow hurting the young women who come after me. I don't know, perhaps. All I know is that I cannot, just because I am a woman, be expected to be responsible for all the young women scientists in my field. If I have to go give invited talks at the expense of my work-life balance so I would be a good role mother for aspiring female scientists, then all stay-at-home-moms have to go back into the workforce so they would be good role models for their daughters who might want to work? Yeah, right.

An academic career is long. The tenure-track sprint comes with many sacrifices, which is fine, but many are such that they cannot be sustained over the marathon that is the entire career. Some  people travel a lot and seem to enjoy it. More power to them, and to whoever holds the fort at home -- spouses, childcare professionals -- in their absence. To me, frequent travel is a nuisance, something I try to minimize for my family's well-being , the health and productivity of my group (they actually prefer me around so they can talk to me), and my own sanity. I am plenty busy just staying put.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your personal view on this important issue. I agree it is not up to you to give up your work-life balance to be a good role model. What you could do (and I would do would I be in a later stage of my career in which I actually receive invited talks that I could decline) if you decline propose another great female scientist that they can invite!

Alyssa said...

You definitely echo and expand on a lot of thoughts that were hit on in the comments section of the original post. I agree that more senior faculty members shouldn't be responsible for being role models ALL THE TIME. This is especially true for women, where they tend to get more invites because there are fewer of them. How can someone even afford to go to 10+ conferences a year - time-wise or money-wise?

One thing I found upsetting in the comments were the stories about what women dealt with at the conferences they were invited to (as you mention in your post too). That certainly doesn't help the situation.

There are so many factors to this issue, and there isn't a simple solution. Many people mentioned having on-site child care at conferences, but that comes with a host of other issues (who wants to pay for plane tickets for their whole family for every conference?) and certainly doesn't address all the issues mentioned in the other post and here.

Grad Student said...

Can you send your grad students instead? If a grad student gives a talk that her prof was invited to do, can the student list that on her CV as an invited talk -- probably not, huh? :-) Well, but certainly as a presentation, no? Does that count for much? I used to give a lot of talks at my job before going back to grad school, so I'm pretty good at this. Unfortunately, my advisor is not tenured, so she has to accept all of these invitations herself. :-(

Also, I agree with the first comment: suggest one of the young-uns (several, in fact!) in your field who could really use the invite.

Alex said...

Sending the grad student is a good idea, if it is feasible (organizers accept, travel funds available, etc.). Besides being good for the student, it at least brings visibility to the female faculty member's group, even if the student happens to be male.

GMP said...

Oh, yes, absolutely: sending a postdoc or senior student whenever possible to give an invited talk instead of me is a great opportunity for them and I do it very often. This year is a little unusual for my group as my awesome postdoc, who I think gave a majority of my invited talks in the past 3 years (probably 100% of them when I was pregnant), was busy interviewing this spring and will be starting as a prof in the fall (I'm very proud!), so I think he's pretty fed up with all the travel and I don't want to impose on him any more. But all the exposure definitely helped with the job search. On the other hand, the senior students have been getting a lot of exposure with their own contributed talks this year. Otherwise, as Alex says, if the conference is a good use of time and money and the organizers agree, then I really try to send one of my folks.

One issue with international conferences is that some international students cannot easily travel abroad because they cannot get an entry visa back into the US -- most have to go back to home country to get a visa, and for some there's no consulate in home country at all and/or the visa process is quite uncertain. So we have these complicated around-the-globe trips to give a talk and then fly halfway across the world to get a visa, and occasionally a student ends up stranded, sometimes not even in the home country, for weeks or months before making it back. It's rarely worth it and the students who face these travel obstacles generally prefer to stay put or we simply focus their travels to within the US.

Isabel said...

"that I cannot, just because I am a woman, be expected to be responsible for all the young women scientists in my field."

I don't think anyone asked this of you. In the aggregate though, it does affect younger women scientists if older and mid-career women are not accepting the invitations. The tokenism and bad treatment sound like perfectly good reasons to decline. My objection on the other thread was seeing difficulty finding trustworthy childcare in the number one spot time and again (and not just from you).

I would mention that childcare agencies absolutely check references and backgrounds and provide backups if someone has to cancel. And I would also remind people of their university's early childhood programs, for recent graduates as well as current students, and that day care staff not only moonlight (as you have discovered) but are drawn from the same pool of workers as nannies and babysitters and they can often recommend good people.

Alex said...

In the aggregate though, it does affect younger women scientists if older and mid-career women are not accepting the invitations.

If that's your concern then the best remedy is not necessarily for senior women to stretch themselves accepting more invites. The best solution is to either say "My female student/postdoc could give this talk" or "Neither I nor my students/postdocs can make it, but here's the name of a junior [female] colleague who could give a great talk in the same subfield."

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

I was a junior faculty member[.]


Comradde PhysioProffe said...

I was a junior faculty[.]


High Arka said...

Are they truly "my" children if all I'm really doing is paying for their childhood, while market labor does the actual raising? It's terribly sad to become the chief executive officer of your children: occasionally making a speech or giving some hugs on camera, while the day-to-day work is all performed by your underlings.

The academic lifestyle is still designed for wealthy, forty-five-year-old men, who have wives and nannies running house while they're off at the university smoking pipes and chatting about Descartes.

The "academic conference" is styled after corporate board meetings, which is why it's so unfriendly to families in terms of travel requirements, expense, and scheduling. The corporatization of K-12 and university education was greatly fostered by these inanities. No surprise, then, that faux "diversity" requirements are being used to create the image that the Board isn't hostile to people with families.

Isabel said...

Alex, that's a good suggestion, but the age/power imbalance will be even greater if there is an increase in the relative representation of younger women. Maybe there will always be a 'bro' atmosphere at those conferences until the representation of women in male-dominated science fields improves?

GMP, it sounds like you travel a lot already if those are all separate trips (10+ trips per year?)! Would you say mid career men in your field are traveling even more?

GMP said...

Would you say mid career men in your field are traveling even more?
Isabel, there is definitely a range, and it probably varies with discipline. I would say my travel schedule is on the average-to-light end for my field and career stage. I know people who are on the road non-stop, 2+ trips per month, schmoozing with program managers, traveling in relation to their start-up companies, giving talks; they are generally prodigious fundraisers who buy out of teaching extensively. But there are also successful men who try to limit their travel: I know one pretty big name who restricted travel because he wanted to spend time with his ailing father; another really really big shot (as in, his name is pretty much synonymous with a a very hot topic of research) decided a couple of years ago to reduce travel to no more than 2-3 times per year because all the traveling was getting in the way of him doing real work.

Alex said...

another really really big shot (as in, his name is pretty much synonymous with a a very hot topic of research) decided a couple of years ago to reduce travel to no more than 2-3 times per year because all the traveling was getting in the way of him doing real work.

This is an important point. Bloggers talk a lot about the tradeoff between work and life outside of work, but what about the tradeoff between work and work? How does one effectively mentor students or stay engaged in the intellectual work of the project, or (gasp!) teach effectively (we are, after all, professors) if you're always on the road? I know it works for some people, but I just don't get how.

Or, to really walk on the wild side, how does one effectively serve their institution if you're always on the road? I mean, nobody wants to be the bore who gossips about the minutiae of the Academic Senate, but I'm proud that I spent a year working on a change to a policy that was getting in the way of opportunities for students. Service, if done right and in moderation, can be rewarding.

Author said...

Thank you so much for this great discussion. As an author of the paper that sparked this, and a scientist mother whose career has been helped along by blogs of this community, I am amazed of this impact.
However, the way you write about conferences where you are not well known and are experiencing sexist behavior, - does this imply that this is not the case for men? And may it also imply that men receive more invitations in early career stages than women? It has been shown that women must achieve more to be seen as successful as men, if that is also true for invited talks, it could explain why women decline so often: because fewer women, likely always the same women, receive all invitations while the variance is larger for men?

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

You said "And last but not least, many invited talks these days come with very few or no expenses paid."

If they're not paying, it isn't an invite talk—it's just a bad ad for a conference that makes you think you are special. No wonder you are getting so many invitations these days—most of them aren't really invitations.

I routinely turn down all "invitations" to conferences in China, because they are almost all scams of this sort. (The real invitations tell you up front that they are paying expenses.)

Note: there can be genuine invitations from colleagues with no funding for speakers to give lectures "if you happen to be in the area". That is a different phenomenon than conferences trying to increase their attendance by "inviting" speakers to become paid attendees.

GMP said...

gasstationwithoutpumsp, I didn't expect this type of comment from you -- are you seriously going to tell me that I don't know what a real invited talk is? Sure, there these silly "invitations" from no-name Chinese conferences, but I don't even consider those.

I don't know what your field is, but in mine it's a rule rather than an exception that there is not a large pot of money for invited speakers, but that doesn't make the conference bogus. For instance, I gave invited talks at the IEEE NANO a few years back, also at the APS March Meeting, they are big meetings with excellent traditions, and I don't remember what they covered, but it was either nothing or just registration. Also there are a number of small conferences, 150-200 attendees, that are annual meetings of specific communities, and that have essentially no budget except registration fees. Often they will pay the speaker's registration (yes, they tell you that up front) and that's it. I organized a conference like this one last year and we were able to offer registration and hotel to invited speakers, as anything I didn't cover in registration and the $15K from the NSF I would have to eat from my own funds. Fortunately, we were in the black, but I was really pissed at the few speakers who threw a fit about covering their airfare, even though I said not to count on it.

In my experience, European conferences seem to able to cover most or all of the expenses (good support from their NSF equivalents), but the US ones generally cover just speaker registration and very rarely hotel or travel. The Asian conferences where I gave talks were smallish ones and covered registration and partial travel.

I think I had a post previously where there was a poll about what expenses conference organizers cover. I will try to dig it up.

Alex said...

I once got invited to speak at a Nigerian conference. They needed detailed bank account info to process the travel reimbursement.

AnnaW said...

In my field it is *extremely* rare for there to be money for invited speakers. So you can only accept the invitation if you can fund it yourself. This is another factor in the vicious circle of panels using invitations to gauge scientific quality when judging grant applications - you need to have sufficient funding already in the bag to accept the invitation in order to be able to get more funding. As I said on Athene's blog, it wouldn't be so bad if you could list declined invitations on your CV, but I've been told that some panels members actively loathe this and will count it against applicants.

CyndiF said...

If they're not paying, it isn't an invite talk—it's just a bad ad for a conference that makes you think you are special. No wonder you are getting so many invitations these days—most of them aren't really invitations.

This must be dependent on one's field. I'm in astrophysics and it is the exception rather than the rule for invited talks to come with expenses paid.