Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Bravery is…

Being a WomanOfScience often involves being brave. Last week, we had a seminar from a big fancy, OWM, Nobel Laureate. The OMayerWM-NL was to be giving an inspirational talk about basic science and all the wonderful things that can come from the basic science. During the talk, his slides looked like a cut and pasted wikipedia page of other Nobel winners. Oddly, he didn’t mention a single woman. Not even Marie Curie. He was obsessed with only his subfield. The OWM from this field were geniuses. He barely talked about other fields of science, and when he did, other fields were all about luck – not genius.

He did actually mention (briefly in passing) two women. One was the girlfriend of another NL who he hooked up with at a conference while the other NL was organizing the conference. The other was a joke about serendipity, “sometimes when you are looking for a needle in a haystack, you find the farmer’s wife.” So, basically, the only two women mentioned in the entire talk were sluts.

Many of the women of the department walked out the talk. It was in an auditorium that sat 350, so we felt pretty self-conscience about telling him off at the talk. Walking out was a silent protest. After the talk and the next day, the women discussed and decided to feel out the department. Did the men sense the same thing we women felt? HusbandOfScience did. He was texting me during the talk about all the BS that was streaming at us. Did others?

At lunch with our normal crew the next day, the dudes were totally backing up old OWM-NL. They pulled out the old chestnut, “It’s just a joke,” and “You are being too sensitive.” That was annoying, but the decision to take action was made by my colleague when her grad students and undergrads said that they felt the sexist comments and jokes were very hurtful. One of the undergrads was actually asked by the OWM-NL to pour him coffee. (No, sir, it is not 1950.)

For me, I talked to some senior WomenOfScience, and they all said it was par for the course – they barely noticed because it was tame by the standards of their generation. Not-uh. Not on my watch.

We decided to write a letter to the chair and send it to the faculty. This takes bravery. We had no idea what the aggregate reaction of our colleagues would be. Would they call us crazy? Would they all say they were “just jokes”?

I paste the letter in here (redacted/edited), to serve as an example for you to use:

Dear DepartmentChair,

After the lecture on Day, and conversations with students and colleagues, we (names), consider it is a responsibility to communicate to you and the whole faculty that we were very disturbed by OWM-NL’s lecture.
We will not dwell on the content or quality of the talk, but there are two aspects that we must comment on:

1. The sexist jokes were beyond inappropriate.

We counted at least three, and those were three too many, especially since the jokes were the only references to women in a lecture entitled “Basic Science is Awesome” (not real title). Women were only referred to as literal sexual objects throughout the talk – prizes of fights or findings – while seemingly actively written out of the history of the sciences (see point 2).

We were appalled to learn the speaker asked a female undergraduate to pour coffee for him.
The next day one of us witnessed male undergraduates repeating one of the jokes; clearly, it made an impression.
What example is this setting for our students?

When we mentioned this to some of our colleagues, we had responses along the lines of “those were just jokes”. If you wonder what poisons the climate for women in STEM, this is an answer. It is important you are all aware the female constituency of the department, faculty and students, did not find those to be “just jokes”. None of us was amused, and the chuckling by the audience was not comforting.

2. This was an egregious example of old-boy-network talk, potentially damaging to the retention of underrepresented groups in our department.

One of our graduate students defined it “oppressively exclusive: he went out of his way to avoid mentioning any woman and we got the message that science is done only by privileged white men who went to the same high school”.
No Marie Curie, no Maria Goeppert Mayer, no Rosalind Franklin.
We agree with the student. OWM-NL mentioned the most impactful discoveries were made by white European men; he also said that now people of all ethnicity and genders can do science too, “well, sort of”.
We found this parenthetic remark dismissive and offensive.

We are worried that this lecture has sent a bad message to our graduate students, our undergraduate students, and our colleagues in other departments.

While we recognize it is hard to predict these aspects about a speaker in advance, we should all make an effort to be aware of such pitfalls.

We are grateful to KnownDonors for endowing this lecture series, it is an important medium to increase the visibility of TheDepartment and Science on our campus and in our town, and acknowledge the significant effort that went in organizing this event.
But we also do hope and expect the Department will make all efforts to identify an outstanding woman and minority to invite for future lectures in this series. We will be happy to assist with suggestions.

Best wishes,
WomenOfScience, HusbandOfScience

What was the outcome? The outcome of this was actually really good. The chair who said he had no idea and was truly just in awe of OWM-NL, said that he believed that the lecturer was offensive after reading our letter. We asked him to offer a statement to the entire physics community, and he did this week. Other male colleagues who were not there said that they would have also walked out, but better yet they claimed that they would have spoken out at the lecture. This was a happy surprise.

I think the problem with these situations is that they can catch you off guard and you may not even realize what is happening or how bad it is at the time.  One of the problems with not addressing it, as outlined in our letter, is that the students will either (1) be angry and feel like the department doesn’t support them, especially if they felt the talk was sexist, (2) feel uncomfortable about the talk, but not really know why it bothered them, (3) think that type of talk and behavior are OK. The last one is the worst outcome because it propagates to the next generation the idea that only white, European-decent males can do science, and that women and minorities are outcasts. We didn’t mention that he also said a few racist things in the talk, but our colleague, who is a person of color, noticed. At a time when women are getting a backlash of negative sentiment after many years of progress: Yes, this still happens. Yes, we need to point it out. And yes, the fight is still going strong.

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Comments on: "Bravery is…" (4)

  1. Thank you so much for writing this. A few years ago when I was pre-tenure, we had a lecture in my department by a male professor from another university. His talk was openly sexist and extremely offensive. I had to meet with him later that afternoon. I spent that day and days afterwards trying to decide how to confront him. I finally decided that I could not confronted or contact him without it potentially jeopardizing my career, so I said nothing. I am now thinking that I will contact him. Thank you for the inspiration.

  2. i agree. i don’t know if i have the guts to directly ask him in the talk and hold him responsible, but i am pretty sure that i won’t regret walking out.

    on giving women scientists credit:
    http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2014/10/06/345799830/the-forgotten-female-programmers-who-created-modern-tech?ft=3&f=1001

  3. I heard a little about this unfortunate lecture through the grapevine. I think your post and your letter to the department chair are excellent, and I’m very pleased to hear that your department response to the letter has been good.

    Your last paragraph is especially important for clarifying why this doesn’t hit everyone the same way and yet is incredibly important in impacting both the current and future climate.

    Thanks for speaking out in this productive way.

  4. Well done. I am so happy to hear the department chair was responsive. Thank you for posting your letter.

    I think you are right, it is hard to know what to do in the midst of a situation — whether it’s a talk or the full-day visit Jeanne described in her comment.

    What a frustrating situation overall.

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