If You Apply Powder the Wrong Way

Marion Erpelding

“If you apply powder the wrong way”, one of the girls said, “it will make you look older”.

Once a month, as female employees of the department of physics, we are invited to have breakfast together, and get to know each other. The department provides food and beverage. We remember to bring our own mugs.

So here we sat, female physicists, at breakfast, talking about make-up. The conversation, actually, was about scientific conferences. What is — someone asked — the best strategy to avoid unsettling questions and acerbic criticism when presenting your research in a lecture hall full of experienced, smart, self-confident colleagues, eighty percent of them also happening to be men?

“Dress nicely”, was the advice I remembered receiving as a graduate student in a science communication course. It was taught by a man. But don't get me wrong: this was meant to apply to both sexes. Yet there was an additional remark, to girls: “girls, remember, if a man starts criticizing your work too severely, he will look bad, not you”. In other words, it is not polite to attack a good looking young woman. Being one gives you an advantage: use it.

And now the girls around the table were talking about looking older on purpose.

As for me, for a while, I did put on long earrings when I had to give a talk. A pathetic reminder to myself, mostly, to keep my head up and look at the audience.

I find myself wondering. Scientific conferences are — so am I naive enough to believe — for discussing the latest research results with the scientific community. Contributing, modestly so, to the progress of science. Unfair criticism, in that respect, is a problem. So is unjustified indulgence. But my point is: is femininity a major issue here? Or was this girl's breakfast thing making us feeling compelled to make it an issue? Or am I, as I write? My memory might be playing tricks on me.

The very first thing you learn when preparing for your first conference is triggering questions where you want them. Then, with experience, you learn that when the line is passed beyond which questions start to become unsettling, you should be prepared to answer, smiling: “This is a good question, thank you. I will be happy to discuss this afterward”.  Yet we want questions. “Did it go all right, did you get questions?” our colleagues will ask when we get back to the lab. But we don't want questions. Or criticism.

The progress of Science? How naive.

Conferences are about ego. Conferences are theater plays. Someone self-important will ask: “how does this relate to what I found?”. And add: “Nobody, and certainly not you, has discovered anything new since my own big breakthrough thirty years ago!”. Someone you have never heard of might claim “you have stolen my idea!”. And ask: “haven't you read the work of Myself et al.? No? Well, you should!”. Someone that has — as you will learn later — some old conflict with your supervisor will probably be spotted somewhere, gesturing. And muttering, slightly too loud,  “this is nonsense!”.

We all perfectly know that this has something of a farce. Those sitting in the audience play the part of those throwing unsettling questions and acerbic criticism, and those one the stage pretend to be polite and self confident. We are here for calling hands off on our research area. Being reassured that others are not as advanced as we are. Advertising our latest publications. We know. But yet, this is academia. We do not have anything to sell. We care about our research. We care about science. More than anything else, we want the admiration of our peers. And because we do, we get butterflies in the stomach.

And I know for sure that stage fright strikes all kinds of physicists. Young, old, male, female, we stand in the lecture halls, tired from a sleepless night, shaky from too much coffee, nervous about laptop-projector compatibility issues, quickly reviewing slides one last time, making some last minute adjustments, with butterflies in the stomach, dreading questions and criticism.

I was the kind of kid who volunteered to give classroom presentations. The phobia of public speaking stroke me as a teenager, and has been with me ever since. I have long tried overcome it once and for all. It never worked. Then I realized: if somebody had to be fooled, it had better be others than myself. I am shy. This is not going to change.

No, definitely, the most important advice I got from this science communication course is not that thing about taking advantage of being a young women. It is about acting. I don't need to be comfortable talking in public. What academic physicist is ? I only need to play the role of someone who is.

Smile. Talk loud. Look at the audience. Make a subtle joke at the right point in the presentation. This is about acting, I repeat to myself. Lower your voice. Breathe once, and say your first sentence. And then let go, improvise. Act. Have fun. And to my own surprise, it works.