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.
10 months ago