On praise for a postdoc: This is how it can go

I was at a formal award dinner being put on by a heavily endowed foundation.  Not my usual venue, let me stress.  Scientists had flown in from around the country to honor the medal recipient.  The honoree, in his mid-seventies, is highly distinguished; someone who is a serious contender for a Nobel Prize.  He is clearly well-beloved.  His unusual acceptance speech was all about others. 

He is a professor at one of America’s very best universities, but one with a dearth of female faculty, which is why he’s still saying in public what no doubt is largely said just in private today – or so I imagine.

So with perhaps 200 or 300 people there, he introduces some of the people who have accompanied him.  His wife and family, colleagues from his famous institution, and finally the one postdoc who had also come.  There had been a video of him with his students in his labs.  She, the postdoc, was, he said, the good-looking one in the video.

Just to state the obvious:  Given she is a postdoc in a famous lab at one of the very top places, then she must also be extremely intelligent/brilliant, hard-working and dedicated.  All such qualities he had attributed to other  people.

And then, just to cap it all off, I had to explain to jj-partner just what a shame it was that this young woman was so introduced to a room containing many of the stars in her profession.  On reflection, I may have the only one who noticed, other than the young woman.

3 thoughts on “On praise for a postdoc: This is how it can go

  1. Ah, yes–the highest complement a man can pay a woman….

    I bet that lots of people noticed, actually, and that they felt embarrassed for him and sympathetic toward her. Even the most clueless male faculty under the age of 55 do seem to understand that this sort of thing isn’t said aloud to a room of one’s peers.

    (Although…I’m reminded that my 50-something former advisor cracked a sex joke at his own wife’s expense during a department colloquium [as in, she doesn’t put out enough], so maybe I’m being too optimistic.)

  2. Hi Heather, I’d hope so, but one of the speakers introducing him told one of those mildly sexist jokes that didn’t seem to embarrass anyone.

  3. There’s an old confusion here between two varieties of social power, I think. Canonical good looks give some women–and men–an advantage in other people’s reactions to them. Politician John Wilkes, whose face did not please others, said that it took him 45 minutes of charm to catch up with the first impression made by handsome men. For women this was long among their stronger–or only–sources of admiration, and so unenlightened men feel that they are still recognizing a valid personal advantage in a woman in commenting thus. Among men, other sources of power are more highly valued, and so it is not regarded as complimentary to praise a man’s looks; it remains, however, difficult for a man not conventionally handsome to find work on television, in movies, or in politics. In effect, society often admits about women what it feels about men too, but judges inappropriate for the valid human being.

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