Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Wrong Kind of Attention

conferenceThe election is bringing out a lot of issues about sexual harassment, assault, and unwanted sexual advances. There has also been a lot of news about sexual harassment in science over the past couple years with the outing of three male scientists who appear to be serial harassers. There have been many, many excellent articles about exactly the kind of harassment women encounter and how is negatively affects the women and makes many women leave science. I am making a little list of some of my favorite and important articles here:

This one written by a cool WomanOfScience blogger, Hope Jahren: “She Wanted to do Her Science…”

This one on TenureSheWrote from a woman who is standing up for the next generation and the follow-up on collaborations with harassers.

A story on NPR: science’s dark secret

And in Nature: astronomy roiled

Last year, one of the big conferences I attend annually,  decided to make a new anti-harassment policy. Because I think this is a very important step in protecting women, I am going to link to the policy at the Biophysical Society. My conference roomie and I were talking about how this is a really good step for the society. Because the society has a lot of young women, it is important to protect them. This policy gives them the ability to stand up for themselves.

At the first session of the first day of the conference, a senior male in my field asked me about the policy. He said that he was worried that men wouldn’t be able to flirt with women anymore without getting in trouble. I joked, but said that I think, if the woman is receptive to the flirting, you are safe. I did say that I, for one, was happy for this change. I briefly relayed a terrible conversation I had the previous year at the meeting where a program officer was very rude and threatening to me at a reception (I haven’t blogged about this, but will if people are interested). It was not explicitly sexual, but it was harassment, and he was using his power over me (as a program officer at a federal agency) to try to intimidate me. I didn’t report it to the society, but I did report it to the funding agency. The guy was actually reprimanded, but not for all that long.

Thinking back on it now, I am troubled by this conversation at the conference with the senior guy. I assume my male colleague was asking about flirting for other men, and not himself, as he is much older and happily married. But, even if he were asking for some other man, what right is there to flirting? Don’t get me wrong, I love flirting. I flirt with men and women in a professional manner asking them about their science and teasing about recent publications and students. But, is there a right to sexual flirting? At a conference? I don’t flirt that way, and I don’t expect to be flirted with that way. I don’t think there is a reasonable right to sexual flirting at a scientific conference.

There is another side effect. When older men flirt with young women, even if it is harmless-seeming, and the woman doesn’t mind, you are putting the woman in an uncomfortable position, nonetheless. Let me explain. When I was in graduate school, one of my peers said that women had it easier in male-dominated fields. I was surprised that he said that, and asked him to explain. He said that when you are a woman, you get all sorts of attention from senior guys. He said he never gets as much attention as cute girls get. So, when a senior guy flirts with a young woman, you are putting her in the position to raise the ire of her male colleagues who grumble that the woman is only getting the attention because she is attractive. This is also detrimental to the woman, who is there to talk about science and isn’t trying to get *that* kind of attention. We want attention for our science – not our looks. Further, for women who don’t want attention for their looks, it can drive them to dress more man-ish – perhaps in a way they don’t want to. So, now the woman has to look like a man in order to stave off unwanted attention, and that isn’t fair either.

What do you think? Do you think conferences should have sexual harassment policies? Do you think they help or hurt? Comment or send me a post. To get an email each time I post, push the +Follow button.

Comments on: "Wrong Kind of Attention" (5)

  1. I hate the people who say that women gets special treatment. I don’t even know if they believe it themselves.

  2. I am an old white guy and I think it best for everyone to keep work, science, business at work and keep flirting, social life, after hours. This simple practice can prevent lots of problems.

  3. I’ve been glad conferences are starting to have anti-harassment policies. I will be curious if soon we have some good anecdotes about these policies being enforced. Although I’d be also happy to hear that the policies aren’t being violated.

  4. I think I’m simply too ridiculous to know if I’m (a) flirting with anyone, (b) making people (women) feel uncomfortable with my shenanigans.

  5. I think it’s great that more conferences are making and publicizing these policies; it sends a signal that this behavior will not be tolerated. And there should definitely be a clear reporting mechanism if someone does cross the line. However, I don’t think simply flirting crosses the line; you would have to say something pretty explicit and/or threatening to get in trouble, so your older male friend’s fears are probably unfounded.

    I personally don’t have a problem with flirting at conferences, unless it is coming from someone significantly more senior than me. Then it can be awkward and problematic to get out of the situation.

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