Weird biases in academia

I had a really strange interaction in the glasshouses yesterday. To understand, you have to know a little bit about these glasshouses. First, they are ancient, broken down things hidden in an old alley between buildings. Last year, when I first found them, they were full of rubbish. With the help of the botany technical officer and a technician, we cleaned them out and I filled them with plants, but they have several issues.

1) The glass is broken in many places so they leak and are permeable to weather
2) The only lights are too low and have an extremely localised influence (they intensely light a very small area of bench space)
3) The benches do not drain
4) The roof is very short so several of my plants hit the ceiling and smoosh
5) There is very little space inside the glasshouses, so it’s very uncomfortable for more than one person to work in them at any one time

After the glasshouses had been cleared out, they started getting more attention, so now there are six different people sharing these tiny spaces and too many plants competing for too little space (admittedly I am the biggest source of this problem). This is all to say the space is probably inadequate for the research demands placed on it.

Anyway, yesterday I was applying treatments to my experimental plants in the glasshouses and another person came in to work on his experiment: a senior professor in the department. “Excuse me,” I said, “I’m just going to squeeze past you to fill up this watering can.”

“Oh yes, we can’t be large to do science,” he said, rather mysteriously in my opinion.

“What?” I asked, confused.

“We have to be fit, like all good scientists are!” he said.

At this point, all I could muster was a prolonged, “Uhhhhh…” I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic, telling me to lose weight, or including me in what I consider to be a somewhat abhorrent world view — that good scientists must be thin.

“Good scientists are so busy doing science, it keeps us thin,” he explained.

“Uhhhhh…” I continued (elegantly). I didn’t know whether I should challenge him on this. If he was joking, I was supposed to be in on the joke (which I wouldn’t find very funny in any case). If he was not joking, I felt like I should say you don’t need to be thin to be a good scientist. If he was criticizing my weight, I wanted to be ANYWHERE else.

It reminded me of this sad article I read a few years ago: https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2014/06/17/too-fat-to-be-a-scientist/

This is a really weird bias to me. Why would my weight have anything to do with my science?

Anyway, after I provided my eloquent response (uuuuuuuuuuuuuhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh), I finished filling the watering can and fled the glasshouse.

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8 thoughts on “Weird biases in academia

  1. That’s terrible. It’s really concerning that a senior professor would say something like that. It makes me wonder how his bias manifests itself in other ways (does he give slightly lower grades to people who don’t fit his stereotype of a “good scientist”? Bad recommendations? Etc…).

    • I don’t know…I feel like he was trying to make a joke to diffuse the awkwardness, it just ended up making everything so much more awkward? I’ve asked a bit of advice on it and everyone said oh he was just making a dumb joke. So there’s that…

  2. People come in all shapes and sizes, that why we are each unique. It should make no difference to what you do, once we do it well to our own ability and satisfaction.

  3. In some cases, “uhhhh…” might have been the best response. Because the awkwardness or not-so-great “joke”is awkward enough in the first place, and it’s really on him to accept the awkwardness. Which he may or may not have noticed was responsible for. (Those scientists! They’re, like, so socially clueless!) [joking]

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