Monday, February 12, 2007

Personal Growth Experience for Sexist Jerks?

What do you do if someone you know to be a long-time sexist jerk is selected for a position of responsibility in a professional organization that directly impacts the lives of women academics, their funding, and therefore their chances of career advancement? Some advice I got recently was to give the jerk the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he will experience 'personal growth' and develop a new-found maturity in his new position, which requires such behavior. It is true that it would be difficult for someone to be too flaming with their sexism in this particular position, given the degree of oversight of the position, but even so.. I don't like it, to put it mildly. However, writing a letter saying "Hey, this guy has had numerous unprofessional and disturbing interactions with women colleagues and students over the years" would make me look insane and vindictive for unknown reasons. I have encountered this situation several times in the past, and it has just come up yet again. A few times in the past, the Powers That Be have called me about an individual with whom I've worked and asked "Do you think so-and-so would be good for such-and-such important position?" and I have been very blunt, but I didn't have to be proactive in those cases. It's too bad there are so many of these guys, so this situation occurs again and again. I suppose if they were excluded from positions of responsibility, there would be labor shortages in academic administration, journal editorial offices, professional organizations, and funding agencies.


TW Andrews said...

I think you just need to watch, and encourage others to watch, for specific examples of his sexism, and when they occur, *document them.*

When it gets to be too much, or there is a particularly egregious example, take it to someone who would be afraid to be sued (most likely in the administration rather than your department), show them the documentation and ask them what they think the best approach to dealing with a "hostile working environment" might be.

Some old sexist guys really need to be drummed out of a couple of universities and at the very least everyone else will hide their overt sexism.

Female Science Professor said...

Good advice. I wish this guy were at my university, but alas, he's at a more important place where he can affect many more people. How did he get so far despite such a well-known history of dysfunctional behavior?

Anonymous said...

Hm, I suppose your question 'How did he get so far...' was a rhetorical one and you know the answer. But still: He got so far, because being a sexist jerk is not something that has any negative impact on poeple's careers. After all, it doesn't affect the powerfull people.

Mr. B. said...

You have to choose your battles.

University type organizations are particularly egregious in violating things like due process, courtesy, and common sense. In a recent example known to Mr. Bonzo, a major violator of due process at his uni was selected to "write the rules" so that due process would be protected!

As suggested, you have to keep an eye on these folks and call them on any funny behavior. All is not lost. Drip, drip, drip. Who
is the president of Harvard, after all ?

Mr. B. -

Anonymous said...

great post...and particularly interesting as i was just blogging about being young and female in an academic environment. what i didn't include, but may at a later point, is how being young and female also makes you a prime target for sexism...supremely frustrating.

i received what i'd consider a series of pretty sexist emails sent by a fellow (male) grad student, not a senior scientist or someone in admin. i promptly and sternly asked him to stop after receiving the first one. he's sent a series of similar ones since, which i have ignored. as they were mostly requests for dates, hugs, etc (unbelievable, but yes, hugs at our age and professional level), he wouldn't have sent them if i wasn't 1. female, and 2. younger than him (by just a few years, I'll add). how incredibly frustrating, and offensive. it would certainly be out of line if i was male, or even female but his same age. i worry very much for the day when he runs his own lab and has females working with him or under his management.

so i disagree w/ mr.b - i don't think you have to "choose your battles". sexism is inappropriate anywhere, but particularly disruptive in the sciences, where women still have to struggle very much to even maintain even ground.

thanks for the great post...i'll check back again :)

anon said...

Well, Kate, you bring up an interesting point. Of course, the guy should stop sending you inappropriate emails after you asked him to stop the first time (and judging from the content, they are creepy...), but if two people are on the same level (i.e. two grad students, two assistant professors), then how do you go about asking somebody out?

I assume you get them to go out to a bar first in a large group, and then ask them out in the bar. What is an appropriate way to ask somebody out in your department without coming across as a sexist jerk? There aren't that many actually. And you are a sexist jerk who only sees the other person as dating material if the woman says no. Thankfully, my current girlfriend from the same department said yes, so I'm not a sexist jerk. But you have to take the plunge into potentially being a sexist jerk if you do want to go out with someone from your department. I'd say it's worth it as long as you don't act like a real jerk and keep pressing the issue if they say no. It's probably not fine to do this in the department while at work, but if you ask someone to go out to the bar or for a coffee, that sort of gives the game away if it's not a work-related java break.

This is kind of important actually. And you can't really say that it's inappropriate to ask out people with whom you work since a lot of professors are married to others from the same department.

toughchick said...

I've encountered the consequences of just what you describe...

A few other female postdocs and I were asked to present at a large grant renewal meeting with an external body. To start off with, we were not too comfortable at our obvious inclusion to show off some sort of superficial 'affirmative action' policy in a field with more than 90% white males. Be that as it may - it was utterly shocking when one of the male members of the review committee to evaluate the grant proposal made inappropriate advances to my colleague! This is what those sexist jerks you describe turn into.

Such an abuse of power shocked even me, and I've encountered unwanted advances from senior scientists before. Funny thing - on hearing what had happened, the male members from our institution chuckled heartily, and commented - 'you should have been flattered!' See what I mean about pseudo-affirmative action?

In an ironic twist, it turns out a key paper I'm now referring to for my research is authored by Mr. Jerk himself... But given what I've seen of him - there is no way I would contact him for additional interpretation or clarification of any kind.

Is it tough being a woman in science? You bet.

Anonymous said...

anon, i take your point. and i'm glad she said yes :)

but you seem to have an inherent and appropriate understanding of what can and should be said in that context, that won't be personally or professionally disruptive. unfortunately, this guy's emails were definitely creepy, unsolicited, and continued to come despite resistance/arguement on my part. he launched himself into super-creepy category when my labmate and i chatted and i found out he'd done this to muliple other girls in our program over the years, too.

so hey, go for it if you're on the same level, you have a head on your shoulders, and you're receiving some interest and/or reciprocation back. sounds like you did, which is great.

for those of you that doesn't apply to, stop undermining your female peer's legitimacy in the field/program/wherever and making her uncomfortable - it sucks.