A colleague at another institution has a postdoc with whom I have interacted from time to time. My colleague's research interests are very broad, and this particular postdoc's research field is quite different from mine. Nevertheless, when I work with this colleague or when we attend the same conference, I also interact with the postdoc. As part of a research group of 4-6 people, we talk about Science, have dinner in conference cities etc.
I have always found this young man to be extremely nice, friendly, respectful, funny, and interesting. He works hard, cares a lot about his research, and is curious about research topics beyond his own specific field. In short, I like him personally and have been very impressed with his work.
Recently, however, I found out that this young man systematically offends, alienates, and/or harasses the female postdocs in his research group and in associated research groups. One by one, these women have complained to my colleague as each one has encountered the postdoc. This was not some organized effort to complain; in fact, some of these women are at different institutions, working on different projects, and have never met each other. This postdoc seems to have a perfect record of offensive behavior towards his peers who are female.
This shocked me. My assumption, which was clearly flawed, was that I would be able to detect such traits in a person, even if they were respectful to me because I am older and a professor. I assumed that anyone who was so dysfunctional in their professional relationships with women would not distinguish based on age and position but would have a more systematic problem with women.
It's possible that I could be oblivious to some clues, but I have thought a lot about this, and have spent some time with this young man after learning about his disturbing behavior. I see absolutely no sign that he is being insincere in his respect for me. All my other colleagues involved in the research project that tangentially relates to this postdoc's research are male, and I see no difference in how he interacts with them vs. me. When it comes to interacting with his peers, however, he clearly has a major problem, although I have never seen him in action, perhaps owing to the all-male (but me) nature of the research group subset in which I interact with him (and because, according to my colleague, he reserves his most offensive behavior for times when senior professors are not around).
His supervisor has thus far dealt with the problem by keeping this postdoc away from projects involving other women scientists. Fortunately and unfortunately, this has not been difficult to arrange.
I told my colleague, however, that I hoped that this is only a short-term solution. His postdoc has to learn how to behave in a professional way towards women of all ages and academic job classifications. My colleague agrees, but is not sure how to accomplish this. My colleague also thinks the problem will be somewhat resolved by the fact that the postdoc's girlfriend, who was living in another country, is now living with him. I personally find it disturbing if this is viewed as a solution to the problem.
A complicating factor is that the half dozen people thus far most involved in this situation and in these discussions come from almost as many different countries, and although we all work together well (with the glaring exception of the problem described here), most of us have limited understanding of how to deal with such problems in the context of each other's different institutions and cultures.
For example, at my institution, I could send this postdoc to a sort of 'sensitivity training' workshop, and my department chair could make the continuation of his position contingent on his not harassing women. This young man has a major problem that he is clearly not solving on his own, so he needs his supervisor (mentor) or institution to step in if at all possible. If there is no structure to do that, however, (as seems to be the case here) then the adviser has to figure something out, although most of us are not well equipped to deal with this type of situation.
Another colleague who is also part of this extended research group thinks that the postdoc's selective sexism makes the situation more insidious than if he were pan-sexist. There is an insidious aspect to it because the selective nature of the postdoc's problem made it difficult to detect, and might lead some people to underestimate or dismiss the problem.
Nevertheless, I remain optimistic that the problem can be solved if it is dealt with aggressively but constructively. I do not believe that this young man is a hard-core sexist who will never change, but his supervisor and all of us who care about the situation have to make it clear that to the postdoc his future career as an academic depends on his changing his behavior towards women.
Question: Can peer sexists be reformed? That is, without knowing more details of the people or the situation, do you share my optimism or do you think that sexists, even of the selective sort, have a deep problem that probably can't be fixed?
6 months ago