Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘standing up for yourself’

The Only One: Speaking Up

TrixiefriganzaThere was an interesting NPR story about being the only X in the room, where X can be anything, but is typically some under-represented group.  The story was spurred by an interview Marc Maron (love) did on WTF? with Wyatt Cenac (love). As a WomanOfScience, this has definitely happened to me where I am the only woman in a room. As a friend of many WomenOfColorOfScience, I understand how it is so much worse for scientists of color. I have a suspicion that white men have probably never had this happen to them. Of course, I could be wrong. There could be times (not times in science, of course) when you are the the only white male in a room. I asked HusbandOfScience, and he cannot recall one time when he was the only white man in the room. He says there was a time when he was almost the only white man in the room, but he was never actually the only one.

An interesting part of the original story and the report from NPR was the pull the “only one” feels between fitting in and speaking up when some racist or sexist shit goes down. They rightly point out that your ability and willingness to speak up as the “only one” depends on your personality, your stature within the group, and your level of power. I definitely have done these calculations when deciding if I should speak up about something. Now that I have tenure, I let loose all the time: with ally-colleagues, at faculty meetings, at a grant panel, at a government funding agency workshop, etc… Oh yeah, I speak up, make a joke and point it out. But, before getting tenure, I was very hesitant to speak up if I could not judge the situation, and I would seek guidance and advice from colleagues in the form of “mentoring” to let people know about certain situations.

Now, I will regale you with a tale of a time when I spoke up. I am sorry if this story is embarrassing to my department, college, or university, especially since pretty much everyone and their mom knows who I am (pseudonym WomanOfScience didn’t last as a pseudonym for very long). But, again, this is part of speaking up. We cannot hide our past like Ben Affleck wishing he was not descendant from slave owners. It happened, and I am retelling it to inform and move forward. Here is the story:

In my first year as an assistant professor, I had several run-ins with a particular senior colleague. This person was an EmeritusProfessor (EP). My first encounter was before classes even started when he approached me about another excellent ScientistOfColorColleague of mine. He asked if he thought my excellent colleague’s new paper in some “high-profile-journal-with-a-name-that-is-a-single-word” was total crap like he did. Of course, I said “no,” because I respected my ScientistOfColorColleague’s work very much. Also, this guy, EP, really creeped me out.

While at a conference, the same semester, I was fortunate to be invited to a women-only dinner with some BigFancyWomenOfScience in my field. At some point, they started talking about times they gave seminars at each other’s schools. I was so mortified when one told a story about speaking at my university and having EmeritusProfessor grill her at her seminar about the jargon of the field. Even more creepy than that, he started stalking her long distance. Except, he is old, so he did it the old fashioned way – via snail mail. She was really grossed out by his letters because they were very fawning and discussed her appearance. Again, I was very embarrassed for my department. I asked some people about it at my university, and I realized that was the last time my department was invited to seminars from the other departments. They stopped sending us the emails for fear that EP would show up and embarrass them.

My next run-in with EmeritusProfessor was at lunch with a seminar speaker. He started being very obnoxious to the speaker and me because of our subfield and the funny language it sometimes uses. This is the same jargon he harassed my WomanOfScience colleagues about, above. I told him that it is true that jargon can be annoying, but when in an interdisciplinary sub-field, you must be able to speak both languages and translate between them. He became pretty irate that I did not agree with him.

The third run-in I had with EmeritusProfessor was at a luncheon for a colloquium speaker, who happened to be a young woman. He sat right next to her, kitty-corner from me, and was creepily all over her during lunch. Yuck! At some point, he said something I thought was too far over the line. I called him out on it at the table, in front of some of my senior colleagues. He snapped back at me that I must be part of the PC police force. I made a joke about PC standing for Port Chester (a stupid reference to the movie “PCU” – love you Jeremy Piven!). We let it drop, but there was tension at the table. I approached my senior colleagues later to tell them both about the other run-ins I had with him and the story of my colleague from the conference dinner. He said he now understood my outburst, but felt it was rude at the time. Ugh. I had been worried about that, which was why I went to smooth it over with him. I was right to worry.

After that, I decide to go have a conversation with some senior people and my chair about this. These were all one-on-one conversations where I went for advice and help. Asking for advice plays well with senior white male colleagues who will always see you as a youngen in need of help.  It is not their fault that society grooms them that way. It can be annoying to play this sometimes, when really you just know better and want to suggest to them what to do, but it is the card I play most. Also, I am often seeking their support and help, so it isn’t as difficult to act. In fact, I prefer they see me as young and in need of mentoring, because the alternative is to be their competition and get no support. OK, these are extreme views, but I have heard from many women that once they reach a certain level/age, the help mentoring into resentment and competition. Perhaps another story for another day.

With SeniorColleague, I asked if EmeritusProfessor would have any say over my tenure case? I wanted to double check that he would not be apart of the discussion. In asking, I relayed the stories from above. He was actually friendly with EmeritusProfessor, but said he understood my side. He guaranteed that EP would not have a say in my tenure case, since emeritus status means they are not on the faculty. SC also admitted to me that EP had “woman problems” his whole life. SC didn’t elaborate, but I could imagine, considering how he treated women, that it was probably EP’s fault.

With the DepartmentHead, I actually asked that EP be excluded from seminar speaker invites. I cited the three seminar related issues and the fact that our entire department paid for EP’s actions by not being informed about seminars. Since I was interdisciplinary, this exclusion affected me more than others, and was unfair. Further, his rude behavior at two lunches with seminar/colloquia speakers led me to suggest at he be excluded from those activities. I said that it was embarrassing and was making the entire department look bad. I guess he agreed because EP stopped showing up for several years.

After these conversations, I felt I had a green light to fight against EP when needed. Luckily, I didn’t need to very often, as he was not being invited to seminars anymore. But, this is not where the story ends. For my RoundNumber-ith birthday party, I decided to have some catering done. Someone recommended a person to me who happened to be an alum of my department – a young woman who graduated undergrad from my university with a major in my department. We had much in common coming from the same field of study, and she actually had jobs in the field, but did catering as a sideline. At some point, she asked about EP. I was a bit cautious. Did this student like him? Hate him? I asked her story. She said that he taught her in a lab course and he disgustingly hit on her in class. He asked her to take a romantic boat ride with him. She refused him, but worried that it would adversely affect her grade. This story was outrageous, and yet expected. I mean EP was a real creep. I never asked, but I always wonder if any of his/my colleagues knew how he acted when he was a professor. I mean, they clearly knew he had “woman problems,” but did they realize how far over the line he stepped? Did they turn a blind eye? Did they purposely ignore it? It still bothers me to this day.

So, the day finally came when EP kicked the bucket. OK, that isn’t a nice way to talk about someone dying, but I cannot be nice where EP is concerned. Despite many other emeritus faculty passing on and never doing this, for some reason, some of the senior dudes wanted to take faculty meeting time to talk about EP. Ugh. I boycotted. I could not stand listening to fond memories of someone who sexually harassed his students. I let it be known to several of my colleagues that I was purposely boycotting and why. I asked how long it would take, so I could make sure I could show up afterwards. I texted my colleagues, who didn’t boycott, to figure out when to show up, because of course it took more than the allotted 15 minutes. After that, I came in, and faculty meeting proceeded as usual.

And that was the last time I had to deal with EP-related issues. I always worry I might run into some other woman alum who might have a worse story. I’m not even sure how to report something like that. The student is long-gone. I am sure it is way past the statute of limitations and now the guy is dead. She didn’t exactly disclose it to me in a way that meant she wanted me to do something about the information. She was basically telling me in a conversation of camaraderie – two WomenOfScience regaling each other with war stories from the front line of the ScienceGenderWars. Comparing battle scars. Hers were far worse than mine.

At this point, I want to also address something that was commented on from a previous post because it is related. I had a post about Why I am a Feminist. Among that list where a couple TV shows, including the Cosby Show. Someone posted a comment later if I would change my mind about the Cosby Show now that it is clear that Bill Cosby is a huge creep – most likely way worse than the EmeritusProfessor I describe here. So, I will set my record straight. Bill Cosby is a disgusting pig of a man who raped women. There is no doubt. I wish we lived in a society that valued women enough to make rape a crime without a statute of limitations, so he could be prosecuted and go to jail. The comments I made about the show were about the premise of the show rather than Cosby himself. The premise was that an upper middle class African American family in Brooklyn existed, and the mom was a lawyer, and the dad was a doctor, and they cared for their children. I value that vision, and I despise the man who presented it to me.

So, what do you think? Post or comment here. Push the +Follow button to get an email whenever I post.

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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