Sunday, January 28, 2007

To Confront or Not to Confront?

Friday's post -- and similar ones by me and others who write about encounters with people for whom women scientists/professors are invisible -- raises the question: What do you do when you have one of these encounters? Should you confront the situation directly then and there (and if so, how?) or not? I've touched on this before, but it seems to be a rather eternal issue. [executive summary: Distinguished Visitor encountered a male colleague and me in the hallway and ignored me completely, even my attempt at a handshake and an attempt to start a conversation]

Last week when I had this latest brush with invisibility, there was a group of students and postdocs (all male) witnessing the event, in addition to my colleague. I'm glad there were others around to see it, but because the situation was a bit humiliating for me, it was important to me that the focus stay on the visitor's appalling behavior and not on pathetic attempts by me to get his attention. So I walked away.

Even though this has happened to me many times before, it always takes me by surprise. It is never my expectation that I will be ignored. In this particular case, I thought I'd be meeting with the visitor the next day for a one-on-one conversation about scientific topics, and figured that would be the best way to demonstrate that I have interesting things to say (or not). The few times when I have dealt directly with one of these situations (typically with a sarcastic comment rather than a more aggressive approach), such as at a conference, I have felt it was a one-shot chance to make the point. I can't say I've changed anyone's attitude, but my hope is that maybe some of them will at least be more aware.

I talked to my colleague about it more after the encounter last week, and he said that he was (1) stunned, although he knows this happens all the time, and (2) disgusted, and wanted to get away from the conversation as quickly as possible. One of our junior colleagues invited this visitor, and was really proud that this Distinguished person was here in our department. This junior colleague came to my office after the visitor left, and he was so happy, saying things like "Isn't he great? Wasn't his talk interesting? He is such an amazing person, I'm so glad he came." I definitely did not have the heart to tell him that no, I did not feel the same way either about the visitor as a person or a scientist (I thought the visitor's talk was a classic example of someone who gets so famous that they think they can talk about anything, no matter how shallow, and everyone will be impressed).

So it goes. I will likely continue to deal with each such experience in its context and decide on the spot whether to confront it or let it slide.

12 comments:

working said...

If you don't say something though, then how will things change?

Propter Doc said...

I'm inclined to say that your colleague could have taken some initiative in introducing you, thereby forcing the issue. That is not to say I want someone to 'bail you out' or come to your rescue, but in the circumstances you describe a "allow me to introduce Prof X. You will be meeting her tomorrow" introduction may have been acceptable.
In general, I have no good comebacks for this kind of situation because these types of people never respond well to being called on bad manners. If people in general are told how to deal with these situations then it becomes a less acceptable way to treat a distinguished scientist - you.

Terminaldegree said...

This is very frustrating. I go through the same thing when meeting some high school band directors, who tend to be overwhelmingly male. And I don't feel that I can say what I'd like to (along the lines of "Hi, does the reason you're completely ignoring me have something to do with your discomfort with or disdain for my gender?") because I need to recruit their students for my program. So I grit my teeth and try to ignore their rudeness.

Luckily my male colleagues are very good at introducing me in these situations. But dang, I hate being rendered invisible until a male "rescues" me. And there is a bit of the "rescue" about it, which is slightly humiliating.

I think the only solution in my case is to encourage the next generation to do things differently. That's yet one more reason to cheer on my own female students to go after these traditionally male-dominated teaching positions.

Aaron said...

Sadly, I'm cynical enough to suspect that Distinguished males who commit these acts of gender discrimination are lost causes...

But, I think if we really want to change the behavior of the men in academia - if we want to reduce the frequency of this kind of behavior in the future - then not only is it right and necessary to particularly encourage women toward becoming Distinguished, but it's also important to cultivate among male students a sensitivity toward, and awareness of, gender issues like these.

IrieLovie said...

I don't think I would've said a thing. I experienced blatant sexism at work last week and realized that if I chose to respond I would be wasting my breath.

MissPrism said...

A colleague and I were addressed as "Hey! Girls!" by an undergraduate at a practical last week.
I don't think on my feet fast enough to do witty come-backs, but if it happens again, my planned answer is "Where?"

m said...

Such behavior just makes me mad and I'm most likely to respond by getting in the rude person's face (even waving, if it's still possible to ignore me) and saying "HELLO?" loudly. Not the most ladylike behavior, I guess, but then again, he didn't seem like a gentleman either.

Anonymous said...

I agree that this was a "missed moment" for your colleague. This type of ignoring also happens to me (femaleAssistantProfessor). I also have missed many moments, but sometimes I don't miss them. "Hi I'm (femaleAssistantProfessor), I am a professor in (xxxrockology) here at (bigU)" and I stick my hand way out. And then out further. And then move into the person's field of view. I have been known to jump.

I am rarely sarcastic myself. (Unless jumping counts as sarcastic. But I don't mean it that way). I tend to hear an edge of hostility in others' sarcasm.

I think the way to make real change is to (continue to) become DistinguishedFemaleProfessor and talk, talk talk about these things.

FSP--I love your blog. Thank you so much for mirroring my life, but with a few years extra experience.

anon said...

I do think this was a perfect opportunity for your colleague to create a 2/3 majority where you weren't ignored. His was the swing vote.

It's up to all of us - male and female alike - to change the status quo. Any male who just shrugs his shoulders and walks away, is passively letting sexism perpetuate itself, just as much as a woman. If we as women want to eradicate sexism, we need to recruit all members of society to help us.

I suppose you could see any action on your behalf as him rescuing you, but I think he could have said something like "Sir, I wouldn't want you to miss out on meeting FSP, she's a valuable colleague here" and then walked away. That would have been a much more powerful message to the Sir.

Kristin said...

I agree with the previous comment. You did everything right by continuing to introduce yourself anyway. But your colleague needs to be told that he's got to step up and be part of the solution too in terms of demonstrating that behaving like a jackass won't be tolerated.

It's not a question of being rescued by a man, it's a question of upholding a social norm that's respectful of all its members. And you can't do that all on your own.

Reviewer A said...

There is so little you can do in that situation while maintaining your dignity. The only thing I can think of is humor at the toad's expense, but one can never think of the right thing to say at the moment...

Anonymous said...

It's a social dynamic of the modern world. Men are actually afraid of you. No they are not intimidated, but too many times any association at all can lead to disagreement. Too many times it can lead to escalation, lawsuits, and even loss of a career.

Though encountering a female person who happens to be psychotic is rare, the slim chance exists and the only way to avoid drowning in such treacherous waters is to completely circumnavigate them. In short, many men will simply ignore you. It is a reality of the world we live in.

You may view it as gender discrimination when it's simply many men's way of covering their assets. They cannot be accused of discrimination, sexism, and other non-PC slips if they simply avoid any and all contact. Let's face it, a man can lose everything if something he says to a woman is taken as a slant whether it was intended or not. Personally I'm not willing to blow my career out the window for some imagined wrong and I too tend to avoid women in the workplace or even my female peers in a social environment whenever possible.

Again, though that's very unlikely, the possibility of a real problem still exists.