Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Girls' Corner

Once upon a time, I was visiting another university and was given a temporary place to sit with my laptop and get a bit of work done. It was not a real office, just one of several desks in a little cluster in a corridor near an administrative office. It was a rather busy corridor, so it was not the greatest place to work, but it was good enough.

When you visit another institution, you never know what, if anything, you're going to get in terms of temporary workspace -- it might be an empty seminar room or classroom, a corner of your faculty host's office, some chairs at the end of a hallway, a cubicle in the library or in a student office, or nothing (in which case I go to the nearest cafe, and am quite happy with that). For longer visits, you are likely to get a real work space, but for a short visit, you take what you can get.

But to return to this particular work space.. It was set up for anyone who needed a temporary space: visitors, students who just needed a work space for a few minutes or an afternoon, adjuncts between classes, faculty whose offices were in other buildings but who needed to be in that building for a brief time, and so on. Sometimes when I was using a desk there, the other desks were empty. Sometimes there were other people temporarily using these desks. It changed constantly.

It did not take long to notice that there was a certain situation in which passersby felt the urge to comment about those of us sitting in that workspace. I am sure some of you can guess what that situation was. Hint: Do you have your gender lenses on?

If there were 2 females sitting there: no comments, even if we were the only ones working there. If there were at least 3 females and 0-1 males, some men walking by made comments: "What's going on here? A girl scout meeting?", "Can anyone join this club or do you have to talk like this (said in a high pitched voice)?", "Is this the girls' corner?", "Is this the departmental sewing circle?", and so on. If there was a lone male with us women, he got teased about his "harem" etc.

ha ha ha

Actually, I didn't think it was funny*. It was tiresome being interrupted with these inane "humorous" explanations for what a small group of women could possibly be doing in a Science Building

It's (another) little thing, but wouldn't it be nice if it were unremarkable for 3 (or more) female scientists to sit working near each other in a Science Building?


* I am a feminist and have no sense of humor.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

You really do seem to run into an incredible amount of incredibly unprofessional behavior. I am routinely disappointed by my colleagues, but hardly ever to this extent. My condolences.

Angela said...

It would be absolutely lovely for many women to sit working in a science or math building and it to be viewed as the norm.

Whoosh said...

*sigh* - annoying - situations like that make my humor crawl under the chair and cry.

Anonymous said...

A while back, 3 women faculty in my department were talking at the edge of an otherwise normal department event, because we (for non-gender-related-reasons) needed to figure out the logistics of some departmental thingamajig that didn't need to be overheard by students. We returned to fold, and a male colleague pulled me aside to ask "is somebody pregnant?" As in, what *other* reason could there be for 3 whispering women? In this case, I think that the fellow in question was jealous, felt gender-excluded from joining the group, and wanted to be included in whatever gossip we had. So, I managed to have a good laugh with him.

studyzone said...

It is no secret that at an increasing number of campuses, women far outnumber men (the school I will be teaching at has a 70:30 female:male ratio, and the school I'm postdocing at now has a nearly 60:40 female:male ratio). I think females (mostly grad students and postdocs) outnumber males in my particular science building. Thankfully, I've never personally experienced the type of comments you've received, but I have certainly heard about it from others. The guys are just going to have to get used to seeing "girls", especially in STEM fields.

Stephanie said...

This reminds me of something that happened in my hubby's physics dept. They share a building with engineering and there was a society of women engineers meeting in one of the big lecture halls. One of the WASPy men asked if there was a baby shower!?! Seriously!?! However, I do find physicist baby showers at work to be so funny because then men have to come or there wouldn't be anyone there, but they are so awkward.

Anonymous said...

It's things like this which cause my mind to boggle when anyone offers up any explanation other than avoiding annoyance/harrassment about why women choose employment that is not male-dominated.

Biological sciences (except for SHOCK the male-dominated corners such as bioinformatics and biomedical engineering) don't have to deal with this. It simply is unremarkable when 4,5, even 10 women gather in one place.

outoftune said...

This is annoying; I heard similar comments at my previous institution (during my masters). It mostly happened in the engineering buildings, when hanging out with others who were also the Only Female in their respective groups.

I don't hear it much at my current (PhD) institution because I don't work/interact with enough women to ever find myself in such a comment-worthy situation.

DrDoyenne said...

Your description reminds me of something I sometimes encounter in my workplace.

I collaborate with another female PI in my workplace, and we sometimes meet in our respective offices to discuss a joint project or to work on a manuscript.

Occasionally, our supervisor (male) will stick his head in the door, wanting to speak with one of us. He almost always says something along the lines of, "Oh, I didn't mean to interrupt your 'visit'." or, after stating his business, "I'll let you two get back to your 'visit'.", wink, wink.

It is clear that he thinks we are chatting or gossiping, not working. I'm fairly certain that should he encounter two male PIs talking in their offices, he would not make the same assumption or comment about what they are doing.

Such behavior is difficult to deal with because the perpetrator can easily claim to "just be kidding" or "didn't mean anything by it".

Anonymous said...

As a male I can't say I would know if this kind of thing were common, as I wouldn't be the recipient of it. But as of the last few years in my primary academic unit it is no longer really possible because we have many women now! (And, I'm in neither any form of bio nor social science.) Things are changing for sure - though we're a bit ahead of other places, in my field.

Anonymous said...

I'm in a biological science and would say I still wouldn't be surprised by this but then I'm in a deeply dysfunctional dept. The other thing I've seen is the pretend "oh it's a gathering of women should I be scared?" Well yes - what we talk about is how to emasculate you - not science, not teaching, not dept functions or politics - really it's all we can do to not think about you constantly and when women are together it's best to assume that we are a coven. Sad - this is definitely not true everywhere but it's still true where I am.

Anonymous said...

It is really common. Even when the context screams SCIENCE and SCIENTISTS, the default assumption is that a group of women are gossiping or talking about family or recipes or where they got their nails done. A similar group of men might be talking about sports, but its more common to assume first that they are having a serious conversation.

Anonymous said...

We have a boy's club in my lab. Where all the males get together in the hallways and have chats/meetings that go on for hours. The girls are unceremoniously excluded. But sometimes, our work was assigned to us using the outcome of a hallway chat. I stopped working with the leader of the male mafia. So now they just gossip about me in the hallway. I have a solid proof for all those who think "gossip" is a female trait. In our lab, males gossip, exclude others from projects based on friendships and generally sulk over trivial issues. They also seem to be in a desperate need to assign an "enemy" to themselves. I am the most recent reason for their impending doom. It feels good to get so much importance. :D

Anonymous said...

I've noticed this outside science departments as well. Sometimes men get nervous when they see multiple females clustered together. Maybe they think we're plotting nefarious things. Maybe they should wonder why they imagine we have nefarious things to plot. >:)

Larry Noos said...

Its starts at a youn age too-

Science not ‘glamorous’ and ‘not for me’ - http://www.labnews.co.uk/news/science-%E2%80%98glamorous%E2%80%99-%E2%80%98not-me%E2%80%99/

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I hate this. The anonymous comment that said, "the default assumption is that a group of women are gossiping or talking about family or recipes or where they got their nails done. A similar group of men might be talking about sports, but its more common to assume first that they are having a serious conversation." rings true for me.

The worst part is that then, you're afraid to have any conversation with women that isn't about work, because some guy might overhear it and use it to shore up that assumption. Meanwhile, men are free to have all the non-work-related conversations they want without fear of anyone assuming that.

Anonymous said...

The 60ish professor for whom I did my postdoc had a mostly female lab of grad students and postdocs. There were *endless* comments from people in and out of the department about his "harem" and his tendency to hire attractive young women. Not even slightly amusing, and then three of us got pregnant within a few months of each other, and he was heard to say "This is what happens when you hire too many women". So glad I didn't go back after my baby arrived.
~SCB

Anonymous said...

Not sure about other universities but my undergraduate bioscience course and ones associated with it actually have a sizeable female majority (and this is in a very male-dominated London university), so hopefully the tide will turn in future.

Sorry to hear about your and the other commenters' experiences. As a male I am ashamed to be gender-associated with such socially inept idiots as have been described.

Anonymous said...

I have to say I'm somewhat amazed at the level of outrage these remarks seem to have generated. It is so completely not a big deal in my book.

And yes, I think the same should apply in the reverse situation. If 3 male nurses are in the break room chatting and a female nurse walks in and says something like "So this is where the boys are hiding!" with a smile, I don't see why the men should feel they've been wronged. And if they were sufficiently peeved they decided to blog about it, they'd be inclined to get a big "So what?" from me.