Tuesday, December 08, 2009

He Must Be Joking

Whenever I describe an anecdote -- whether from direct experience or not -- involving a possibly sexist remark by a man, the inevitable comment is made by someone that "He was joking". I have no trouble believing that in some cases "he" (perhaps even JFK!) was joking and I missed the humor, but I do not believe that men in general consistently make non-serious, *apparently* sexist remarks in jest and are, sadly, consistently misunderstood by women (or, at least, by me).

There have surely been times when I failed to find humor in remarks or situations that were intended as jokes, but in this post I will pluck an old war story from my archive and describe one of my experiences that helps explain my skepticism of the "He was joking" hypothesis. I think I have told various parts of the story of my postdoctoral adventures before; my apologies to long-time readers for any repetition.

Years ago, when I arrived at my postdoctoral institution, my supervisor told me to (a) go talk to Joe, a technician, about using certain equipment, and (b) go talk to Bob, another technician, about using certain other equipment. In both cases I had years of experience using equipment similar or identical to these.

Joe's office was filled with large posters of bikini-clad women draping themselves over red sporty cars. Joe expressed concern that I might break the equipment and said that I could only use the equipment if directly monitored by him. When my supervisor asked me if I'd worked things out with Joe, I explained about my apparent need for monitoring. My supervisor said "That's strange, all of the other postdocs use the equipment by themselves. Joe must have been joking." He told me to get a key to the room anyway.

So I went to the administrator-of-the-keys, who snarled "I don't work for you" when I asked to check out a key. I explained that my supervisor told me to get a key. No luck. So I told my supervisor that I couldn't get a key until he asked the key-person to give me a key. He sighed, saying that I must have misunderstood. None of the other postdocs had problems like this; they asked for keys and got keys.

Did I mention that I was the only female postdoc?

I also talked to Bob about using the equipment he oversaw, and he said that I could use some of it, but not all of what I needed to use. I knew that the other postdocs (and some grad students) used all of this equipment, so I explained my background and expertise and the fact that I needed complete access for my research.

Bob said that I could use Equipment A, but not Equipment B, although A was a much more complex piece of equipment than B. However, use of B was required before use of Equipment A, so being prohibited from B shut me out of using A.

But: Bob said he would run Equipment B for me. But: There was a catch. He said he would run B "If you beg me to do it." I said, "No, seriously, I need this by next week, so either I should use B, which I know well how to use, or you need to do this for me soon." He said "Only if you beg me." After failing to get a straight answer from Bob, I left, saying I'd be back to check on things in a day or two. I hoped that he was just joking or being weird.

When I went back to talk to him again, Bob said "I've changed my mind. You don't have to beg me to do this for you. You have to get down on your knees and beg me to do this for you." I explained that I needed to make progress with this aspect of my research and I either needed to do it myself or get his help. He just laughed, pointed to the floor, and said "On your knees."

My supervisor kept asking me when I was going to have some results and I said that I was having trouble getting Bob to let me use the equipment. My supervisor said yet again "None of the other postdocs have this trouble." I explained about the begging thing and my supervisor said "Bob is just joking around. Of course he doesn't mean it. Go talk to him again."

So I did, but nothing changed. Bob just grinned and pointed to the floor whenever he saw me. My supervisor asked Bob why I wasn't getting the work done and Bob said he didn't know why.

So I went to another university to use the equipment there.

Bob never let me use B, but, based on my trips to another university, I could use A. I tried to schedule time when Bob was not around because he liked to sneak up on me and scare me. And a favorite activity of his was pouring liquid nitrogen on my head. Ha ha! Such fun we had joking around in an environment of anxiety and pain.

My supervisor found my aversion to Bob irrational. Whenever he said "Why don't you go ask Bob this" or "Maybe Bob will help you with that", I found excuses not to go see Bob. My supervisor kept telling me that I was not appreciating Bob's sense of humor. He repeatedly said "None of the others have a problem with Bob."

Throughout all of that (and more), the unwavering opinion of my supervisor was that Bob and the others, including a senior professor with wandering hands and a grad student who liked to talk about punching his girlfriend, were always just joking around and I was not appreciating their humor. That may well be, but their so-called humor was in some cases too subtle for me and in others it was an obstacle to my research.

I got along fine with quite a few people in the department, but not with these joking guys.

My supervisor, who had never worked with a female postdoc before, was himself a very nice and decent person, but he could not believe that the problem was with these men; he had worked with them for years and knew them to be good guys. It made more sense to him that these guys were joking than that they were being (at best) patronizing obstacles or (at worst) insidious sexists who liked to humiliate women. Therefore, I must be the problem.

This postdoctoral episode could have had a major negative effect on my career but I circumvented the problem by publishing more than any of the other postdocs, something that was only made possible by my visits to another university. My supervisor may have found me difficult and humorless, but I got results and published them, and he appreciated that.

Back then, in that place and time, there was no one who could help me with this problem. I could have been more vocal about how I was (mis)treated, but there was no university office overseeing the working environments of departments or research groups, there were no other women to consult, and my supervisor was the department chair.

So is there any point in bringing up this ancient history? Other than explaining my skepticism about the "he was joking" hypothesis for certain behavior or remarks, does it prove only that I have lost all objectivity in the matter or is it a compelling example of how even well-meaning people can fail to see sexism that is happening in their midst?

Telling these old war stories makes me weary, but it also makes me aware that there has been a lot of progress in the working environment for women in science in the past 10-15 years. It is important to acknowledge that, while still continuing to work for even more improvement.

86 comments:

Ms.PhD said...

Not to make you more weary, but it is still the same now as it was for you. I have experienced many Bobs as a postdoc. My advisor is not sympathetic. In fact, he is worse because he would not let me publish even though I had many fold times more data than the other postdocs (all male). So in the end I will not fare as well as you did.

Still, a great post. I just wish I had known about it sooner, because I am still very resentful of having to find other people who would work with me outside my lab.

Anonymous said...

This is deja vu!! When I was a technician about 6 years ago (I am now only a couple of months away from getting my PhD), I had this habit (weird in some people's eyes) of arranging sequentially numbered eppendorf tubes in a rack in a zig-zag manner, i.e. bottom left to right = tubes 1-16, second-to-last row, right to left = tubes 17-32, third to last row left to right again = tubes 33-48, etc. There was a method to my madness - we used to genotype about 50 to 60 samples per day, all acquired from our transgenic mouse colony. This was tedious and we couldn't afford contaminations and false positives / false negatives. So my zig-zag method kept my eyes from straying and getting lost. One male instructor in the lab asked me if my "zig-zag" habit had anything to do with the fact that I was "screwing a Muslim guy, after all don't they write backwards?" (my boyfriend who is now my husband is Muslim). I was humiliated but I lacked the courage to protest. Several months later I narrated this incident to some of my male lab-mates who I had a decent relationship with and they replied, "Hahahaha!!! I know it sounds mean, but really that's just A being funny, don't be offended". Would you consider it a joke that A threw a little rubber duckie at me from across the lab (and missed thankfully) only because I watched the Lord of the Rings movie before him?
Needless to say, if I ever meet A again, he is dead meat (figuratively speaking ofcourse). But it did teach me to stand up for myself. I refuse to stand for this and similar nonsense anymore.

William said...

I'm ashamed to say that I fell into the "he must be joking" camp when I started reading your blog about a year ago. I hope you don't get tired of relating anecdotes. They are very eye-opening. As are the apologetic stock replies, such as "he was probably joking", that always follow your anecdote posts.

femme de science(s) said...

Wow, this is so bad. How did you not loose your temper and stick Bob's head in equipment A (or B, whichever is the most harmful)?

I was a (very young and even younger looking) project manager in a quite large company. We had monthly reviews with my supervisor and the Big Boss. Big Boss was always "joking". Saying, after I finished my speech about the progress and future work, that I shouldn't be trusted, because I just got blond streaks and "blonde female can't be trusted." In front of my (2 people only, but still) team. Or after explaining the setup I had in mind, remarking that this was resembling of "one of those ladies iron." I really wasn't looking forward to my monthly "joke."

I should have guessed when, after he hired me, he said "well, we now how things go, we hire a female engineer, and after 3 or 4 years, they all leave us to have kids."

Hope said...

Telling these old war stories makes me weary, but it also makes me aware that there has been a lot of progress in the working environment for women in science in the past 10-15 years. It is important to acknowledge that, while still continuing to work for even more improvement.

You said it, FSP! Thank you for sharing your story – that you persevered and succeeded under those circumstances says a lot about you. The past 10-15 years for me includes my schooling (university) and first forays into the working world. I had one unfortunate experience with a senior prof during undergrad, but the resources were already in place to help me resolve the situation.

I agree that it’s important to acknowledge the progress, as we continue to try to make things better for all women. It’s easier to focus on the negative, especially when one is frustrated and wants to vent. But that obscures the fact that in many places today, what happened to you back then would be unheard of. This is definitely the case where I work, and it’s also true for many of my female scientist friends. It’s important to give young women today an accurate picture—not overly rosy but not unrealistically depressing, either—of what they can expect as researchers in academia or industry.

Anonymous said...

What if there was a Moslem trainee and the other postdocs ordered a pizza with pork in it? Would you sit at your desk wondering if the pizza was deliberately ordered to make the Moslem feel left out?

There is a subtlety here you fail to appreciate. There is a difference between specific people being sexist and institutionalized sexism. You had some problems with Bob, a specific coworker at the workplace. How many of us can relate to that?

Maybe Bob was sexist, maybe he wasn't. Maybe his behaviour came from sexism. So what? Individual people are going to have their little biases. You can't have homogeneity. Are you telling me you don't have your own biases?

We cannot bulldoze human nature. You cannot check each person for sexism, racism, nativism, homophobia, etc etc. What you can do, is get rid of institutionalized racism, sexism etc.

Rob1606 said...

OK, now I'm angry. Perhaps I am thinking too much in terms of book or movie plots, but was there no way to set up Bob? Have your supervisor wait right outside, or perhaps a hidden tape recorder?
Also - did that supervisor have any other female postdocs later?

Yuriy said...

I think that I've said "he must have been joking" to mean "it is beyond my comprehension that he was serious." It's likely that at least some fraction of men saying this are trying to express their support for the offendee and disbelief in the offender, though I don't have a good grasp of how large a fraction.

I am curious whether you have encountered women making such comments as well, and whether you notice them and they affect you as much. Also, how about "she must have been joking" comments made by women with regard to women "joking" about other underrepresented groups.

Non-US FSP said...

But you pervailed and I am so happy you stayed to tell these stories.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

Well, previous experiences denotes how you respond to similar situations, though not always in the right way.

I have mentioned before of my previous sexist experiences so I won't mention it again. However, those experiences made me exceptionally sensitive to male interest whether it's good or bad at my current lab. One good way to solve negative attitudes is with a sharp tongue as I've noticed or flirt a little with puppy eyes, depending on who you are dealing with. It might seem shallow of me to do this but if guys try to dissuade me from doing something even after the 'persuasions' whether intentionally or unintentionally I retaliate with 'subtle' insults. Once they know that you won't back down and that you WILL and CAN get through without them, then they will back down and let you do whatever you need to.

Consequence of sharp-mindedness...am still single with no hope of having children. Unlike most of your readers I actually do want children and a career but unless I can get on with my work without the need to assert/intimidate my co-workers just to get things through that attitude will stay on into my personal life and it scares the hell out of any guys that I might meet. Self-defence mechanisms takes a hell of a long time to develop and de-develop. So, in the mean time it's ramen by myself in the tiny world that's mine.

Space Prof said...

Wow. Holy crap. What a story. Surely, you must be joking.

Seriously, though, I apologize for men who never grew up and think junior high pranks, insults, and mentalities are acceptable in the real world.

When I was a postdoc, I shared an office with a grad student who had been an undergrad at the University of Iowa when a student there went berserk and shot several physics professors. He would joke, "Don't piss me off. We have ways of dealing with things at Iowa. You might want to check under your chair before you sit down tomorrow." He would then smile and the conversation was over. Of course, he would defend himself by saying, "He was only joking." Unfortunately, he's still in my field and I see him at meetings occasionally. Did I mention that his third marriage recently failed?

This does not explain or make up for your treatment, but it is another story of men behaving badly, thinking they are funny. This time towards another man.

amy said...

Holy crap. I hadn't heard these stories before. It's so awesome that you dealt with the situation by finding other ways to get your work done and by publishing a lot. I would not have dealt with it so well. This kind of thing tends to make me really angry, and when I get angry I get paralyzed. At one of my summer jobs in college, my supervisor used to shove me into walls and tables whenever he walked by, and I couldn't get anyone to believe me. So I ended up just quitting.

The other day there was that nasty anonymous poster attacking MsPhD on your blog, and one of the respondents speculated that it might not even be a man writing the nasty posts -- that the posts seemed over the top. Someone else said they doubted MsPhD's strip club story. It's really important for people to take this stuff seriously. These things *do* happen. That doesn't mean every single event someone recounts is true and was given the proper interpretation, but some events such as the ones you tell here don't leave much leeway for different interpretations, and surely nobody questions your honesty. People who attack every single story women tell about how they have been treated clearly have some axe to grind -- they just don't want to believe sexism exists.

phelippe said...

Nice working place this one! Good ole boys only club.

Makse me wonder, what if the genders were reversed? What if the scumbag technician was a woman, and the postdoc a dude?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

It is interesting that you accept the characterization of "joking" as being necessarily distinct from "attempting to humiliate/dominate". Jokes are frequently used as mechanisms for humiliation and domination. This doesn't make them any less jokes, not does it make it any less of an unacceptable thing to do.

These assholes you were dealing with truly were "joking", and they were using their "jokes" as a means to humiliate and dominate you and make it clear to you that you were an interloper in a setting that you didn't belong in. This is one of the roles of humor in society: to put other people in their perceived place and establish a dominance hierarchy.

Look at the Youtube of George Bush during Steven Colbert's bit at the correspondents' dinner, and you'll see this principle in action.

Alyssa said...

This post made my stomach turn. I'm sorry you had to deal with such horrifying experiences! You are truly an incredible FSP for putting up with that crap, and being able to be as successful in your post-doc as you were. If I were in your position I would have probably just left.

As for the "he must be joking" - that kind of thing really pisses me off, with both men and women alike. As long as they say this before or after a hurtful/sexist/obnoxious comment, it basically gives anyone the excuse to act like and ass.

Candid Engineer said...

Good for you, FSP, for persevering and succeeding in such a toxic environment.

lost academic said...

You know, I have a terrible temper, which I keep tightly under control at all times because it's really an ugly thing. Most people don't even know how angry I can get. I don't think I'd have bothered with this fellow, Bob. I'd have simply had him up against the wall by his throat before half of this shit happened. And done everything I could possibly think of to make sure he left and didn't work again around here. In fact, if anything happens to me right now that's similar, that's probably exactly what will happen.

Anonymous said...

1) At my institution (so the story goes), a very beloved now-emeritus, a real Old Boys' Club guy, had the vile habit of not showing up to female students' defenses unless they bribed him with a candy bar taped to his office door. It's the little things that count.

2) Q: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? A: THAT'S NOT FUNNY.

Hope said...

@Yuriy: I think that I've said "he must have been joking" to mean "it is beyond my comprehension that he was serious."

Yeah, I’ve used the phrase in that way, too. But I think it’s pretty easy to distinguish this usage from one where the person means: “You’re overreacting – this fellow is a good guy, so I know he couldn’t have been serious.” The latter was clearly the case in FSP’s story.

Anne said...

@Anonymous up there, talking (randomly) about pizza:

What you are suggesting IS institutionalized sexism. Sexism is institutionalized when excuses are made for the behavior of individuals, thus allowing it to continue. The sexist behavior of 10, 20, 300, 4000 men all being excused by people like you as "little biases" is what accumulates into a culture where it is ACCEPTED to tell a woman to get on her knees. It is not an excusable "bias" to act as though all women are nothing but an object to be exploited for male pleasure. It is not a cute little quirk. It is flat out wrong. There is a difference.

No, we cannot ask for "homogeneity" in society. What we can ask for is for respect from everyone and the right to exist as women without being kneecapped at every turn by sexist antagonism. We can ask for common human decency. It may be overly idealistic to ask that we receive respect from all people, but that doesn't mean that we can't fight for it, because every improvement that we make is one small step towards a better world.

You are an apologist for misogyny. I hope you look at the rest of the comments here and see that yes, in fact, a lot of women can relate to this story. That's what makes it relevant and important.

@FSP: Thank you for sharing your story with us. Like many here, it turns my stomach to think what you had to endure in near silence, or at least shouting in a room full of deaf ears. Good for you for making your own way anyway - I doubt I would have had that courage or self-confidence.

I am happy to report that as a young female scientist, I have not experienced any treatment of this sort and it would be unimaginable in my work environment. I work in a decent-sized, highly respected lab at a high profile state university under a male PI. My lab does work in pathology, chemical biology, organic chem, biology, biochemistry, etc etc. My lab is roughly half female, and I would argue that the women in my lab are far and away the most productive and creative hard-hitters in our research. We have only two postdocs and they are both women. One of them just had a baby this year, and she often needs to leave early to pick her up from daycare, or stay home when her daughter is sick, and my PI has no problem with that. My PI fosters an amazing environment of collaboration and mutual support, and I have never felt happier or more at home in a research environment.

I would guess that this is still something of a romantic anomaly in this day and age, but I have many female friends in PhD programs with me and none of them have complained of mistreatment. I appreciate the efforts of you and your fellow pioneers that allowed me to reach this point so, so much. Thank you.

Bijan Parsia said...

Thanks for posting this. It will be useful in discussions I have with people about negative treatment of women scientists.

I'm really sorry you went through that. It is horrible.

It's sad that your supervisor didn't take what you said as evidence and actually investigate. Heck, even if it was that they were "just kidding", when is the case that one has to endure someone else's humor to function. If humor is disruptive, it's disruptive. If it's not meant to be disruptive, then, when it's pointed out that it is so, the perpetrator will stop. If they can't stop, then their humor is a problem. If they don't stop, then they are a problem.

(I say this as someone with a brash and extreme sense of humor which often manifests itself when I'm anxious. This is my problem, not anyone-who-has-difficulty-with-me's problem.)

Anonymous said...

There has been concern about women leaving the pipeline early. The generic Bob may be one of the reasons. Sounds like he did his best to torpedo your career.

BB said...

{sigh} Back when I was a grad student, the only one and one of the few females in my testosterone-poisoned lab, I had to punch 2 guys in the kidneys. But some battles were never won. Either the MCP post-docs left, or I finished and moved on.
What I would have said to Bob: "Repeat that in front of the department chair and your boss."

Anonymous said...

There are two sides to every story. Is it possible the FSP was rude to the lab technicians? It is possible for someone to be rude to someone and not know they are being rude (in this case offending the lab tech), just as it is possible for someone to be sexist and not realize they are being sexist.

chall said...

It's funny since ithe joking is not intended to be funny. I agree with CPP that the "jokes" are intended to intimidate and make you unsecure. The main problem though, is that this might happen more often when a male insecure tech/person meets smart female post doc.

And I've had some awkward moments in regards to sexual preference discusssions as well as strip club suggestions for lunch/evening beeer and "if you could _service_ me, we can talk about it after wards". Mind you, all these jokes/comments would be ok/not bother me with some of my friends etc but in a work environment? when the person saying them are "in charge or semi-supervisor or technician in the lab"? Not. Nope. Never.

And my personal opinoin about these people dishing out all these jokes? They are insecure and then they don't care about other people and want to be on top. The sad thing are the "spervisors" who don't put a lid to it and tell them, "it doesn't matter what you think is ok, it's not appropriate for work collegues. do it on your own time outside of work".

And FSP, Happy you rose above it and made showed them with publications and such. I am a bit curious if you know if there were any more successful females from that lab? And if Bob is still there?

Anonymous said...

I never experienced anything as bad as that when I was a PhD student, although my male boss would excuse the men in the lab from doing the weekly cleanup if they were "too busy", because "women were better at cleaning".
Grrrrr.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this story. It makes me angry to read of the the bad things that were done to you, but at the same time it gives me courage. Sort of "someone else has been there, I'm not just imagining things." (Even though my own experiences have not been as sickenening.)


Those kind of bullies usually work in pairs. There's the active bully guy (or gal), and there's the enabler. The enabler is the one who just cries "It must be a joke!" even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.

Like those child abuse cases, where the mother is blithely ignorant of the fact that the father has abused the child for years. "Why, I had no idea!"

Yeah, right.

muddled grad student said...

This and Ms Phd comment that it still the same bothers me. I am at an Asian university and surprisingly (given that our cultures are more male dominated) I haven't faced any sexism during my PhD program. During my under-grad yes, from some imbecile co-students but I think it was a way for them to try an up themselves against me but this never bothered me. True that my field has a very small percentage of women in it - but this might be a reflection of the societies but there isn't any of this once inside the university. My opinions or comments haven't been sidelined either overtly or subtly but even more senior researchers.
I would have expected sexism to be even less in the US which is why posts like this surprise me.

another young FSP said...

You are an amazing person for persisting through those situations. Nothing I have had to deal with has ever directly gotten in the way of my research or of doing my job. Or had potential physical harm - the Bob story turned my stomach. There are so many ways that could go very, very, very badly.

This may be because I very carefully steered clear of any labs (and schools!) with external signs of massive sexism at work - because they are there! Or it may be that times have changed in some fundamental ways - these days 90% of the advisors are aware of harassment as being a bad thing to have in the lab. And there is open discussion of gender issues in science.

I still have to deal with "men who explain", or who speak with my male colleagues instead of me, or (as a grad student and postdoc) with kindergarten senses of humor that extend to dangerous tricks in the lab - blowing up at these got me the reputation of having absolutely no sense of humor. But when younger, these things did not appear to be directly aimed at me, and my advisors always gave me all the support I needed to shut them down. And I will always be grateful for that.

And the colleagues who currently talk around instead of to me? Will retire before I will. I believe that they would be horrified to learn what their behavior actually says about them if I confronted them with it. And in their own ways, they are very supportive of my work and my career. And they are counterbalanced by the colleagues who grew up much closer to my era.

Alyssa said...

Anne - well said!

Anon @ 9:50am - there is a huge difference between being rude and telling someone over and over again to get down on their knees. I don't care what FSP may or may not have done/said to the technician (as you imply), that behavior is appalling.

I'll admit, a few years ago I would have been in the "he must be joking" camp. I just hadn't experienced anything bad like this...actually, I did, I just didn't think it was bad at the time (I thought it was all in good fun).

Looking back, I can see many situations in where I was treated horribly. From my boss at a night club saying he'd drive me home, but took me back to his place instead and told me there was only one "thing" I'd have to do in order to get home (thankfully I was smart enough to get a cab), to a co-worker telling me that I'm wasting my time getting a PhD if I'm "just going to have babies".

The more things happen, the more I remember these types of situations in the past. Yes, things have changed, but surely not as much as we had hoped.

Anonymous said...

Like those child abuse cases, where the mother is blithely ignorant of the fact that the father has abused the child for years. "Why, I had no idea!"

Um, really, not a valid comparison. I'm a sexual abuse survivor, and believe me, perpetrators are very good at hiding it. My mother was in no way complicit when it happened.

The topic here is bullying that would only take place in a context of sexism. Before science I worked in male-dominated areas, like software engineering. I have scores of similar anecdotes, and some of them ended with people enabling the behavior, and some of them ended with supervisors calling the behavior for what it was. The former was more likely than the latter, and for the most part, I just dealt with it without pointing it out to anyone. It is, as FSP said, wearying to recall and demoralizing to live through.

Let's all remind ourselves of the old saw: Ginger did everything Fred did, in high heels and backwards. Still our life.

Anonymous said...

crazy! I am so impressed that you stuck it out. I am a female postdoc and have never, thankfully, experienced any kind of overt sexist or humiliating treatment by superiors or mentors. I think Bob should have gotten a knife in his b****.

I too have noticed that the excuse "they must be joking" is used to allow people to make inappropriate, mean degrading comments. I also think that most people only joke about things that they at least somewhat believe are true.

GO FSP!!

Anonymous said...

Not enough progress has been made because your story mirrors my experiences and that was only a few years ago. And the resources on some campuses are terrible for these types of situations and often make them worse because people are poorly trained.

John V said...

A telling set of incidents.

While the technician behaved the worst, pragmatically, the supervisor's behavior was the most inexcusable. He should have investigated why the experiments were not being done with the right equipment, and chewed out the technician. The fellow postdocs should have both told the technician to shape up and told the supervisor to make sure the message was clear, although the supervisor was the key to enabling the problem.

FSP's statement that the advisor believed Bill and others were "(at worst) insidious sexists who liked to humiliate women. Therefore, I must be the problem." makes no sense to me, reinforcing my sense that the advisor is the intractable problem here.

Re the mention in a comment that "one of the respondents speculated [a previous day] that it might not even be a man writing the nasty posts -- that the posts seemed over the top." That was me, and, as I recall, subsequent posts did reveal the subject was a calcified miscreant, not a troll. I think it is important to remember, however, that occasional posters are just trying to arouse other posters - the rarity of that behavior here is testimony to FSP's good atmosphere for discussion.

DRo said...

FSP, your Bob story made me want to vomit.

I think it is extremely important to share these anecdotes, especially for the younger women scientists (students) who have not yet encountered any subtle sexism. Statistics say alot, but personal stories make the situation more real and eye-opening to these young women.

Anonymous said...

I am not an apologist for misogyny. I am just worried that a horrible crisis is upon us and the feminist grip is preventing us from seeing it.

Cutting through the heart of academia, all arts fields: history, english, etc. etc. have been surrendered to the feminist juggernaut. It is not gender equality but female domination in such spheres that is celebrated and men exist in order to apologize for their existence.

Science, with its standards of peer review and evidence has withstood this onslaught so far. A lot is made of the female minority in science. How much do we talk about the yawning gender gaps in medical school, where women prevail? Why don't we talk about the huge gaps at the undergraduate level? Why don't we talk about why boys fall woefully short in high school?

It is well known that women were historically oppressed and disadvantaged. But people like FSP haven't realized the obvious: what happened was just a sort of throw of evolutionary dice, NOT a conscious conspiracy. Human beings evolved from lower animals and hence to rail at the "patriarchy" of yore is like railing about the rights of the male of the black widow spider, which is devoured soon after mating.

In fact, with development of society, of consciousness, people recognized inherent injustices and proceeded to correct them. Darwin himself lamented at the cruelty of nature but took solace in the fact that the human mind (capable of justice and fairness) had evolved out of it. Men were as much part of this development of thought as women were and in fact the male share in the development of the liberal modern world is far greater.

Feminists do not realize that they have pushed for a just cause beyond the limits of reason and now their worldview is just as repulsive as those they opposed. Who could argue against the rights of the starving peasants of Russia to overthrow their Tsar who lived in obscene luxury? Then came Stalin. Who could argue that the impoverished people of Cambodia were wrong in wanting an end to their corrupt rulers? Then came the Khmer Rouge. Those who undertook the Long March to fight the Kuomintang wanted justice as well. But they were led by Mao Tse Tung.

Moral: Do not push a just cause beyond the limits of reason. It always ends in horrific injustices. The feminists who callously ignore the exodus of boys from education are guilty.

Tony Arkles said...

I really hope that things like this aren't happening in my department. Your story really drove home how shitty people can be and how important it is to address these kinds of issues.

Thanks for sharing this.

Cloud said...

What horrifying stories.

John V is right that the supervisor's behavior is in some ways the worst. In a company in this day and age, the technician's behavior on its own would be wrong and grounds for firing the technician. The supervisor's behavior would be wrong and grounds for suing the company for creating a hostile work place. As soon as a supervisor (ANY supervisor) is informed of potential harassment, he or she HAS to investigate or the company can be deemed complicit in the bad behavior.

Theresa said...

Thank you so much for this story!

I spent the majority of my undergraduate experience as the butt of "you only got in because you're a girl" jokes at a tough technical school, which wore on me! I began to believe them despite my higher GPA and SAT score. Now I'm considering graduate school and am wary of applying to challenging programs because of concern for my shakily-rebuilt self-esteem. I am truly inspired to see someone like you make it out to the other side without completely despising the scientific community or humanity in general. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Although this post is a digression from the topic being discussed, I nonetheless feel compelled to vent out (I woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning).
I have a few stories of senior female scientists exploiting junior female scientists, some of which are my own, and others of my friends. But the one that stands out is the one from several years ago. The post doc I used work for (as a technician)told me, "I don't think you must apply to graduate school. You won't survive the stress and the competition. You don't have a brain for science. And you don't have a good hand for performing techniques. You will make a good secretary or a department administrator". It occured to me, that she was for some odd reason, jealous that I was able to unchain myself from a project that was doomed to begin with and that I had a future to look forward to.
None of what she said was true because I have the data to prove it,but it would be a long and boring post.
My point is...thank you FSP for bringing to light some key issues, just so some of us junior female scientists, who are still working towards (or dreaming of) making it big know that we are not alone.

Catharine said...

FSP: Your posts are always thought provoking. Maybe guys all over the planet, in every profession and at home are "just joking," but I, for one, don't get it. It seems to me to be only a way of "explaining" unacceptable behavior so that the perpetrator remains unaccountable for his behavior. There should be ways to hold people accountable for their behavior in the workplace. But we (women) have the unpleasant task of blowing the whistle.

A couple of years ago, a male respiratory therapist was harassing some of the female nurses in my unit. He would pick his victims carefully -- usually a little older, not exactly beautiful, and not very self-assured women. He chose me. I talked to other women who were having similar experiences. I told my boss (male nurse) about the guy and guess what? The respiratory therapist simply disappeared. No questions asked. He got fired. Nobody was asked to "prove" anything or even come forward. The fact that I came forward was enough. That's the way it should work, every time.

yolio said...

@Yuriy and Hope
I think that I've said "he must have been joking" to mean "it is beyond my comprehension that he was serious."

I think that for many men this is exactly the thing: they can't comprehend that these things are actually happening. The thing that we NEED you to get your head around is that "not comprehending" is a fucking privilege. You get to avoid wrapping your head around these realities. But women, we don't get to avoid it. We either find a way to deal with it, or we drop out. For the most part, we do not have the luxury of blithely continuing with our careers, oblivious to the ugly.

Allison said...

Thanks for sharing. I did not experience this egregious sexism while doing graduate or post-doc work in the US, but there were plenty of more subtle incidents... the "women are better at cleaning up" comment above is more like the type of sexism I experienced, and thankfully it did not come from my male PI's.

Arvind said...

Frankly, it is posts like these that make me wonder if the entire institution of academia needs to be razed to the ground. No other non-exploitative workplace would enable the kind of discrimination enabled and fostered in academia thanks to extreme specialization, unreasonable expectations on productivity, and the need for recommendations from a small group to merely be able to continue in your chosen career path.

Sometimes I wonder why women even bother to stay on. Why do we have all these talks about the leaky pipeline when the pipeline is actually a sewer line? People should openly advocate for removal of the concept of tenure and removal of publication record or advisor/PI recommendations as pre-requisites for the next academic job. It is these horrific standards of productivity in academia that allow such channels of oppression to fester while they are largely eradicated in most other workplaces.

I rarely find people protesting against the disgusting, inhuman way academia is setup as a career path. Even people who protest against discrimination rarely question the root of the rot.

Anonymous said...

In my life, I also had several situations when I suffered similar type of behavior, to the extent that I too had to use equipment at another university, 60 miles away. I also have a good number of stories, from my grad student/postdoc and even recent junior faculty times when I was treated bad bc. of sexism. On top of that, I'm a foreigner. I never spoke up before a little while ago, when I reported the harassing behavior of someone working with me. I got the "he must be joking" remark, but I didn't swallow it. The dept. chair did not directly tell that person about the incident, but talked about treatment of junior faculty in a subsequent meeting he organized, so he was subtle. What I found it helps, you need to be a b.., they'll live you alone.

Pagan Topologist said...

It does seem as though the only recourse for people treated like this (since torturing the offenders to death is illegal) is to carry a voice recorder most all of the time and publicize the behaviour. It is completely outrageous, and needs to be stopped. But knowing some of the males I know and their attitudes towards women, I am not surprised.

FrauTech said...

Wow that's insane.

The problem with looking at these situations with older, more experienced and more confident eyes, is that these fellows know exactly upon who to prey. I suspect a younger, more inexperienced FSP thought throughout this whole thing, "maybe I *am* the problem, maybe *I* did something" and so Bob never got the retribution he deserved. B/c that's a common thread of all these "in my early years..." experiences. There's just enough self doubt that you think some of the insults are your fault, or that maybe it's because you are young and inexperienced, it's hard to accept it might be b/c you are a woman. Only in hindsight are those connections obvious. But I agree with others who have said the advisor is the most at fault here.

Anonymous said...

It is possible for someone to be rude to someone and not know they are being rude (in this case offending the lab tech)

Of course, because what is considered normal from a man, is very often considered rude from a woman. Just another aspect of sexism.
Rudeness of not aside: To sabotage somebody's research like that, and humiliate a person in this way, has to be explained by way more than just an ego bruised by rudeness. As far as I remember, social graces are not quite as common in Physics as they are in other fields anyway, because of the accumulation of idiot savants among physicists.

Anonymous said...

I started an underground support group for fellow female graduate students at the university I was at to deal with people like this and other issues of sexism. We found that as a group we could conquer many of these situations.

Sometimes we would have some of the women who were more shy and quiet role play sexist encounters that had happened earlier so that they could practice talking back in a situation like that.

Amazingly if we did this enough and actually had them memorize zinger one liner comebacks, they would eventually get the bullies to back off using the same kind of biting "jokes".

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous at 12:18:

Are you seriously suggesting that FSP's frustration with being told that in order to further her research she needed to suck some stranger's dick is 'beyond the limits of reason'??? Sorry to be crude, but I think you have let your fancy words and historical references get in the way of REAL things that are happening NOW.

Kirstin said...

I hope that, these days, women who are having liquid nitrogen poured on their heads are immediately calling the police and having their attackers charged with assault.

Dr Spouse said...

I had a female boss as a postgrad who was notorious for treating women badly (I have heard this described as "queen bee" but I don't really think it's unique to female bosses - it is just the attitude that women are there to do the dirty work).

Women were expected to do all the "lab" work (in our field, hands-on testing of kids, booking families to come in, constructing equipment, entering data) and were micromanaged; men (of whom she employed very few) did the high level work - design, analysis - and were left to slob around and come in when they wanted.

Because so few men work in our field, it was really difficult to prove she behaved like this.

Hope said...

@yolio: Did you see my response to Yuriy up thread? Because I think that it *is* possible to hear something outrageous and reply, “You must be joking!” But as I said to Yuriy, it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between this usage—which doesn’t mean that you *actually* believe that the person was joking—and the one where the intent is to excuse the behavior. The former is harmless; the latter is a problem.

I’m a woman who’s had to deal with sexual harassment in the past, so I do hope you’re not accusing me of male privilege.

Anonymous said...

As a grad student I am currently experiencing a similar situation. My adviser is a male and everyone in the group both past and present has always been male until I joined.

Some of the other students go out of their way to be helpful because I am a girl. For example, when changing argon or nitrogen tanks they help me because the tanks are physically larger than me. I appreciate this and do my best never to take advantage of their helpfulness.

One of the senior students has a beef with sharing equipment even the most basic equipment such as glassware. He goes on verbal tirades against anyone who uses "his" glassware, but he is especially brutal with me.

I suspect my gender has something to do with it, but it also has to do with the fact that (like him) I am not an international student like the others (who are very reserved and willing to let his insults go). Against my better judgment I have dished his attitude right back. Sometimes this helps, but after a few days he starts up again and continues to bully me (verbally), making for a very hostile work environment.

Going to the administration is easier said than done. I imagine he would receive a "warning" of some sort, but I highly doubt "snitching" would improve the working relationship.

Anonymous said...

In reference to what anonymous above said...and I quote, "I suspect my gender has something to do with it, but it also has to do with the fact that (like him) I am not an international student like the others (who are very reserved and willing to let his insults go)".

Right you are about this. I am an international student. And it is the international student syndrome that gets the better of me. Several of my fellow international friends and I let way too many insults slide under the table. It is the (perhaps false) sense of insecurity that we live with.

Anonymous said...

The insecurity is not false. You need the letters and all to even be able to stay in this country. You don't want to be seen as a troublemaker. The problem is that often the victim is seen as a troublemaker, people don't care if you are right or not. Like someone said above, the whole system sucks and predisposes to discrimination and abuse, gender-based or otherwise motivated.

Anonymous said...

The situation is still bad now. A year ago, I was told by my postdoc adviser that I had to spend my time applying for national fellowships that I could bring here, even though he had promised me funding for the next two years and had the money in hand. I also wasn't allowed to choose a different university to take the fellowship to, should I be awarded one. Upon asking whether I could apply for an institution-specific fellowship at another university at the same time, he replied: "No, I'm not finished with you yet. If they want you, they'll just have to wait." I was awarded Fancy Fellowship, and now I'm stuck here.

I finally stood up for myself a few months ago (upon the start of Fancy Fellowship) in an attempt to delineate some boundaries for the future, and the above situation and several others were written off as "I was just joking!" Having stood up for myself, I've now labeled as an "unhealthy, difficult-to-work-with bitch." This coming from a guy who brags about the Shit List he keeps in electronic form so that he'll never forget an insult. Imagine how excited I am knowing that I'll be looking for faculty jobs soon and this jackass is going to have to write reference letters for me. Because, we all know that if you don't have letters from your supervisors, there must be something wrong with you, not the supervisor. I've been considering leaving the field because of this one person (you never really get away from people in my small field), but I don't want to give up and I certainly don't want to let him win.

female Science Professor said...

(unsolicited advice) Don't give up! Maybe everyone else knows he is a jerk and will take that into account if he writes a less-than-positive letter. Chances are he won't write a negative letter. You got a fellowship and it's in his interest that you succeed. Try to enjoy your work and move on to better things. (/end unsolicited advice)

Anonymous said...

This is more of an anecdote than anything. I have recently moved from a male dominated lab to a female one. I honestly don't know how different the two labs as I didn't really take much notice but having spent two years defining my worth at a male dominated field (Chemistry) I have pretty much gotten used to the competitive nature of a lab...it just naturally happened after I've asserted my place with all the guys. So, it was definitely a shock when my competitiveness is starting to cause resentment amongst the girls in the more female-dominated field (Tissue engineering) that I'm now in. It used to be so much fun when I was bouncing ideas with the lads. It is still rather baffling to me.

Isabel said...

The line that resonated with me even more than the joking excuse was "but so-and-so never had a problem with him."

Brought back some painful memories. As did the strip club stories. At one place, they even named the servers that I had to write files to and hear repeatedly mentioned in technical meetings after their favorite strippers.

Or playing the Howard Stern radio show (loudly) when you stop by to discuss some business (that was in the entertainment field).

I'm at a very PC university now where crap like that rarely happens and I love it.

The Lorax said...

WTF is this douchebag's problem (the lab head not the psychopath). Does he want the fucking data or not, it seems like not. I sure as hell would be talking to Bob about why my people weren't getting the fucking experiments done, regardless of the excuse my person was giving me.

One of the jobs of the PI is to look out for their trainees (even if he thought you didn't get the joke, he knew you werent getting the data, so he should have stepped the fuck in). Douche

Anonymous said...

wow. that's f-ed up. I can honestly say that I've NEVER observed such behavior so hopefully we are getting somewhere as a society.

Anonymous said...

This story is outside the academic context but it reminds me that even very well meaning men may not always get what women deal with on a regular basis. I was visiting my brother and there was some construction going on down the street from him in the direction I had to walk to head onto campus. Every time I walked by the construction guys would make comments about my anatomy or walk. It more or less rolled off me because really it's pretty common and it wasn't especially aggressive. I mentioned it in passing to my brother who was floored. Genuine shock and horror "but they're not supposed to do that" - ah yeah but that's what happens. He couldn't believe this was normal so he asked some of the women he knew who all confirmed that yes women passing construction sites will often get comments on their posteriors. It was kind of sweet how innocent he was to this - having been raised never to do such a thing and of course they don't do it when he's there - he couldn't believe these men felt they could do such a thing to a woman just walking down the street. Telling these stories and having good men hear them is SO critical, otherwise it goes underground and nothing changes. Thanks for telling this story!

Anonymous said...

PI's who do not care whether their lab personnel are content and/or get along, are failures as mentors and eventually failures as scientists, because a divided lab and an unhappy lab is not a productive lab. Such has been my experience for as long as I have been involved with research.

Cloud said...

Anonymous @ 9:43- ah yes, the infamous "but they don't do that when I'm there!" problem. The construction workers are prime examples of what I call Schroedinger's sexists: the presence of a man changes the behavior, making it impossible for a man to witness the behavior and thereby hard for some men to believe that such behavior occurs.

Anonymous said...

Dear FSP, Please keep blogging your war stories old and new even though weary of fighting. It will be the only way we know victories are won. Bob and the other jokers were clearly creeps and have their own problems. I think you are overgenerous to your supervisor who could have trusted and supported you much more overtly, he was not good manager if you had to go elsewhere to do your experiments. When I was a technician in my first lab, I had a daily interrogation as to who I had 'hybridised' with the night before - molecular biologists are so witty. I turned it back on them with equally poor analogies. At one PhD interview, the prospective supervisor, after commenting on the jacket I was wearing, asked me whether I would be one of those students who gets a PhD and then goes off and has babies. What should I have said? Another asked if I had any 'ties' to another place that might distract me from the work in hand. Another swore at me after I refused to falsify an address which would make him eligible to get a certain kind of funding. Needless to say all three are now regarded as successful scientists. The only woman who interviewed me told me how she had had a nervous breakdown! When I actually did my PhD I had to avoid working out of hours to escape security guards with their 'jokes' about sex, rape and racism. With all the discussion of women in science there is way too much focus on women's lack of confidence and difficult career structure, when so many confident, enthusiastic, dedicated women start off in science. You were were right and were very resourceful but it shouldn't be that way.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this, FSP. I'm sorry you had to go through that. As someone who started grad school in the year 2000, I can tell you that (a) things have improved! and (b) Bob's still exist. There was a Bob at my PhD school...::shudders:: Luckily in my time, there were enough females around that more than one of us had experienced his awful attempts at humiliation, so whenever we needed to go to his office we went in pairs and this seemed to keep his antics to a minimum. Eventually someone yelled at him and he had to take down the pictures of the mostly-naked girls draped over the sports cars...a start, I guess.

Anonymous said...

This story gave me a sick feeling, because it reminded me of shit that I had to put up with myself. Insults and harrassment, physical intimidation, being denied access to needed things, a pervasive environment of hostility and petty cruelty, and the whole thing being dismissed as "just joking" by people in power. It destroyed my self-confidence and nearly made me suicidal.

Of course, that was junior high school for me. As a white male scientist, it's been 20 years since I've had to deal with that sort of abuse. It was, apparently, naive of me to think that kids like the little barbarians who tormented me grew up to be decent people; I just don't register as a target any more.

EliRabett said...

Eli is with Lorax. This is clearly your advisor's fault. That he was Chair, and directly in charge of Bob makes it clear whose side he was on.

Catharine said...

Well, while your PI could/should have done something, it still seems to me that there should be institutional regulations that make this sort of behavior impossible. Bob would never expect to be able to fire up a crack pipe and get away with it. Sexual harassment IS criminal and should be treated as such. You shouldn't need your PI (who in this case happens to be another MAN)to rescue you. Bob's behavior should UNIVERSALLY be considered extremely risky for his employment. If he knew that his "joke" could mean his job, I bet he wouldn't see it as quite so funny.

You know what is funny? That almost everyone is responding anonymously. I wonder what that means.

Anonymous said...

To Anon @7:15

If any international student does in fact suffer from insecurity, I have to say it must be a false sense of insecurity. And I say this as someone who first entered the US as a PhD student 8 years ago from India.

There is nothing in the immigration laws that is inherently exploitative. In fact, much of the formalities in the work visa process for foreigners keep foreign workers from being exploited. I have had the student visa as a grad student and work visas for postdoc and asst prof level and each time my visa was granted by a smiling visa officer at the US Consulate within 2 minutes of the beginning of the visa interview.

An international student can feel insecure and intimidated only if he/she chooses to do so. The sense of insecurity might come, as you say, from the fear of being sent back. This fear is unjust at its source, since all the visas international students/postdocs/profs arrive with are classified as "Nonimmigrant visas". This means that the applicant MUST prove to the visa officer that he/she has no intention to stay permanently in the US. If a foreigner gets a "nonimmigrant visa" and then hopes to stay permanently, he/she deserves to feel "insecure" at the very least.

As for me, I take the "nonimmigrant" provision seriously. I like to travel a lot and I rarely spend more than 5-6 months in the US at a time. In abt 5 years, I plan to pack my bags and go home to my country.

Never have I even considered the possibility of staying permanently in the US. As such, I have hardly suffered from insecurity. Everyone who comes here on a "nonimmigrant visa" should respect the spirit of the law and do the same.

Anonymous said...

I think one thing that was perhaps different for me was that, in analogous situations, my male group members would help me - either by going with me to help get "us" set up for experiments or simply to sign up for time for me or to let me use their keys. In these cases my colleagues treated this "escort service" as they would a situation where, perhaps leaving a bar late at night that exits to a dark alley, they may have walked me to my car as a courtesy, knowing that appearances are what matter. This may not be the best (underhanded) solution for dealing with situations that are patently unfair. But, these scenarios were almost painfully obvious to coworkers as well when things of this nature occurred, and group members were very supportive of helping me get science done when there were unnecessary barriers such as these.

In one case, our department actually investigated a situation where a (male) technician required women to spend time with him "off hours" in order for them to get access to instruments as one example of his sexism - there were just too many obvious and inappropriate hoops women had to jump through to get instrument access, if at all. (Really...10pm on Saturday night is the only time we can train...and it's going to take how many extra hours? And why do we need one-on-one sessions when men do not?)

I also wanted to comment on the concept of "joking" about potentially sensitive issues (especially in a professional environment). I am originally from somewhere in "the North" and have, on one particularly memorable occasion, visited a university somewhere in "the South" for a formal event. I attended this particular event with a good friend and colleague who is African American (also from "the north"). We lunched with students (male and female), who I was shocked to find made many jokes where the punch line had very unambiguously racist themes, and I did not find them at all funny. One other colleague that we were with (male, originally from "the south") found these comments extremely funny and enjoyable, while myself and the African American (female) colleague were appalled. While I don't know how true this is, I feel that sometimes you can't appreciate the humor when a fundamental part of you and your immediate culture don't believe in or relate to the biases that such joking assumes. I was particularly shocked at how intently these comments were made in the presence of my colleague - especially given how respected this colleague is in the field these students were hoping to have future careers in. It is my guess that the students were trying to be entertaining hosts, and did not intend for these comments to be offensive, nor did our male colleague have intentions of making my female colleague uncomfortable. That was the result, however, at least partially due to the cultural norms of the environments where we grew up - what is comfortable and funny for some is shocking, hurtful, and offensive to others. So I guess this was a lesson for me to try to be sensitive to the unintentional biases I may have.

I also have to agree with FSP about practical jokes in the laboratory - not a good idea with chemicals! I also experienced physical, almost recess-like behavior in lab on occasion. Sometimes it was literally harmless, but I was not a fan of having chemicals thrown at, dumped, or squirted on my person, even if they were only mildly irritating and the intent was humor. I have to say that this occurred with three colleagues throughout my career, all of whom I'd consider friends and who were younger, male, and have almost a model of "younger brother/older sister" type of interaction with on a daily basis. In each case, a mention of how this actually bothered me stopped the behavior immediately, but it is a strange thing that sometimes comes from a demonstration of affection, and other times from hostility (which I thankfully never experienced professionally).

hkukbilingualidiot said...

Catherine, in response to your comment, it's not as easy as you say regarding the (il)legality of sexual harrassments. I have been sexually harassed and without the support of your superiors or without the readiness to leave the site it is really difficult to file this type of complain. Additionally, once it had been on record of a filed case of sexual harassment it do make you slightly less employable because people will fear you taking on a similar complaint and work relationships with male colleagues can sometimes be very tense.

My entire department knew of my experiences. If the male lecturers didn't, the admin office surely did, and it really changed the atmosphere surrounding your presence. So, unless it is really bad, most could only keep a blind eye on things.

Anonymous said...

I experienced some "jokes" when I was a student, even a rat in my equipment. I preferred to work rather than complaining.

By the way, I am a MSP.

Catharine said...

hkukbilingualidiot: I do understand that taking any kind of legal/official action is VERY difficult and potentially ruinous for the individual woman. Really, I get it. And I also understand that changing the rules will not make sexism *disappear.* However, in much the same way of Rosa Parks and Woolworth's lunch counters, I think we HAVE to stick out our necks and make it institutionally UNACCEPTABLE. If your "jokes" are putting your very livelihood at stake, you are FAR more likely to change your behavior than if you get a slap on the wrist (along with an elbow to the gut and a wink) from somebody with whom you are somewhat friendly and is unlikely to take serious action against (Bob's) "antics." Almost all of the women responding here have the guts and the brains to achieve success in academe. You have more power than you realize and you have legal rights. Would Bob ever use these tactics with a man? (No.) The very least one should do in such cases is write an incident report (for Bob's file). I know the whole thing is unpleasant and takes valuable time away from the real work of a scientist, but until women start saying NO in no uncertain terms, using every bit of legal and institutional power that exists (for this very purpose), the behavior will continue. What's worse, women have become accomplices in our own oppression. One woman taking a stand is not enough. Every woman must take a stand every time until the risks of sexist behavior in the workplace outweigh the benefits.

Kea said...

Things are even worse now, because publishing is no longer a free-for-all, at least in my field of Theoretical Physics. I only had one 7 month postdoc, and despite having submitted a paper after only one month of not starving (which was later published in a far superior journal to that of my supervisors' papers) I was not even permitted to apply for an early career grant from that department, despite all the best encouragement from research officers, friends, university women's groups etc. It seems that the problem was that I wasn't writing the RIGHT papers ... that is, the ass kissing ones.

Now I am back to being homeless, penniless, jobless, almost friendless, old, and without hope. I am wondering which is the easier choice: swimming out to the middle of a glacial lake so that the hypothermia would prevent me returning to shore, or sitting in the bottom of a deep, wet crevasse ... hah, hah! only joking. Yeah ... my sense of humour differs greatly from the armies of Bobs that I have known.

Anonymous said...

After reading these comments, I am not sure I should be telling my daughters that they can be anything they want, scientists, engineers, professors, ...why would they want to be in this field and why would I want them to strive and suffer and succeed simply to be brushed aside and harassed by the old boys?

Catharine said...

That's why my daughter trains in Tae Kwon Do. I absolutely want her to be ready and able to kick some ass if she needs to.

Theresa said...

Catharine - My mom made me do the same thing. I was in Karate/Jujitsu/Ketsuka classes from 8 years old until I left for undergrad. I don't believe any of that prepared me for male adversity the way she would have wanted. I think the most valuable defense a woman has is confidence in herself and her abilities in addition to a strong sense of self. If she knows that she's worth more than the doormat others may attempt to treat her as she'll be much better off than simply knowing how to throw a few kicks. That isn't to say it isn't a valuable ability, but it's worthless if she's too timid to use it.

Catharine said...

Theresa, I wasn't being quite so serious. I'm happy that she's getting regular exercise and picking up a little technique, but it's really about gaining confidence in and respect for her body.

Gingerale said...

Thank you, FSP, for thriving and for being a light to others coming after you. You inspire me.

Dennis said...

I recently ran across an ad for a ballpoint pen which contains a digital video recorder. I would have not imagined a (legitimate) use for this, until I read your story. Though I have never worked in the rarefied atmosphere of higher ed research, I cannot imagine this behavior being tolerated in my (IT professional) work environment, at any place I've ever worked.

ScienceGirl said...

Your war stories are much, much scarier than mine. Thank you for thriving regardless of them, and making things easier for those of us that follow!

Oak said...

This is not joking, it is disgraceful behaviour, irrespective of the gender of the person at the receiving end of this sort of abuse. The least that could have been done to "Bob" would be to shove equipment A and then B sideways into a very dark place of his personal anatomy. I would do that personally. I am quite surprised your supervisor at the time would be that clueless. It actually seems to say a lot more about the supervisor and/or the prevailing blindeness to gender inequality than about Bob (not that Bob warrants extra brain cells to figure out). Great post - a grim reminder of what is still out there.

chipuni said...

That kind of behavior is utterly unacceptable. Bob should have been fired.

But why didn't you get a tape recorder after the first conversation?

DrNat said...

I work in a biochemical/ microbiological field, which I imagine is MUCH less sexist than in Physics, probably due to the high percentage of women at graduate and post-doc level (a lot lower number of female PIs tho!).
Most of the sexism I have faced is actually from women! They seem to fall into 2 categories; supportive and encouraging of younger females working their way up through the ranks and those with the attitude ‘I had to fight my way up here and so should you’. This latter group is often to be found surrounded by men and can be extremely vindictive and belittling to those women ‘beneath’ them!
On a positive note though, this latter group is getting rarer and the former more common. In fact nowadays there is frequently a third group – which can comprise women or men - who are gender-neutral and just interested in getting a good worker who fits in with the group. Hooray!