Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Dining With Jerks

At least several times each year, I host a scientific visitor who gives a talk or two and who spends time with my research group and others. In some cases, the visitor is someone I know and I therefore have a good idea of how to arrange the logistics of their visit, including social activities (meals).

In some cases, I don’t know the person. This situation occurs when (1) the department as a whole invites a visitor to give a talk and I either volunteer or agree to be the host; or (2) my research group invites a speaker whose work we know but who is not known to me personally. I like meeting new people, especially if they have interesting things to say, and I don’t mind at all being host to someone I don’t know. I have made some great new colleagues this way.

There may, however, be pitfalls to hosting someone you don’t know. When I organize the schedule of someone visiting my research group, I ask my students and others who can go to lunch, who can go to dinner, who can meet in the lab at what time, etc., How it all works out depends on everyone’s schedules. Despite my apparent obsession with gender issues in science, I don’t even think about gender balance when organizing these schedules – my group is diverse, so it's not an issue.

As it turns out, one dinner that I organized for a visitor I had never met before would have involved the visitor’s dining with an all-female group (not including me; I had another commitment that night). I didn’t think anything of the gender ratio of the planned dinner party until someone who knew the visitor from a previous institution told me that she respected his research greatly but that he should not be alone with women in a social setting. She and other women had some bad experiences with him at social events at their previous institution.

What to do? Find a male bodyguard for the women? Try to get so many women to attend the dinner that he wouldn’t dare try anything? Suggest they eat at a steakhouse so they will be well-armed with useful utensils? Make him dine alone? Threaten him politely to avert potential problems?


Schlupp said...

Threaten him politely, I'd say.

David Moles said...

What exactly does "alone with women" mean? Is this the 18th century, where women can't travel without male protection? Or did your interlocutor just mean he needs adult supervision -- a senior researcher of either gender that he'd feel he had to behave himself in front of, e.g., you?

Either way, "alone with women", even as a slip, implies an unfortunate internalization of women's powerlessness. I don't imagine the addition of one young male grad student would help, unless it was an extraordinarily assertive one.

Rachel said...

Steakhouse! Steakhouse!!
But what did you actually do? And what happened?
Great blog by the way :)

Anonymous said...

Just proceed as planned. What's going to happen at dinner?

oreneta said...

I think it's kind of weird that the man has to come with a warning label, but is still entitled to all the usual bells and whistles accorded a visitor?

Don't you?

Anonymous said...

I think they can take him. Especially if you give them a heads up privately that there's been problems reported in the past, not that that means there have to be issues now, they'll feel more prepared and less like they need to overlook certain behaviors and comments should they occur. When confronted with a united attitude, I truly doubt he will continue to carry on as he might have. Such people generally rely on others being unsure or uncomfortable with taking appropriate action, which need not be harsh or heavy-handed.

Mister Troll said...

Icky. I think the best plan of action might require knowing more about what "bad things" are being alluded, too. (I am not asking for that info; I think perhaps there's not much insight someone can give without knowing more.)

"would have been" with an all-women group? So what happened?

Anonymous said...

I can imagine someone who shouldn't be alone with *a* woman in a social setting, but with several? What's the worst he's going to do, make an ass of himself?

Female Science Professor said...

Of course I don't believe he will harm them and of course I know the women can take care of themselves, but does that mean I can (in good conscience) organize such a social event? These are bright, talented, busy women who don't need to spend an evening with someone who doesn't respect them as scientists. Just saying "he's a jerk, deal with it" seemed to me too much like business-as-usual.

Anonymous said...

Bleh, what an infuriating situation in general. It says a lot about a culture that accords loud acclaim for accomplishments and hushed warnings for predation.

I agree with the advice to find out what exactly is meant by "bad experiences" and then repeat those details to the female volunteers. If it's just sexism, then an all-female group will probably be able to defend themselves. If it's sexual harassment, then these women should know to travel in numbers or with escorts. But in either case, you do owe it to the volunteers to prepare them for a potential disaster.

David Moles said...

I do like the "Wait, why are we taking this guy out to dinner?" solution.

butterflywings said...

Steak restaurant!
Just reminded me I went for drinks with some others from my grad school, all female, and a (male) tutor...luckily he is not the type to try anything, and is about 4"11 anyway so even I could have kicked his ass if he did ;-)
Seriously, it is pretty sad that in 2007 this still goes on...I would personally not wish to waste an evening in the company of a guy who does not take women seriously and would probably be perving all evening...grrrrr. Although I agree that we females can take care of ourselves, I think a warning to them would not go amiss. At least they will be prepared. If you can persuade a male student or two to go, or what if some of the women brought a boyfriend, male friend, brother, whoever?

M Ali said...

Perhaps it could be seen as a learning experience in which women can practice dealing with sexism in an environment where they can support each other.

And while it might not be difficult to send a male along as a "chaperone", the sexist visitor might take that as an opportunity to ignore the women and exclusively converse with someone he considers more "worthwhile".

Not to mention that needing to bring a male guardian is just way wrong.

Anonymous said...

It's nice, I suppose, that you were warned about this guy. It would be nicer if his predatory behavior had been brought to light and punished or at least reprimanded, so that it was known publicly, and people could decide beforehand not to invite him to their campuses. Having to "manage" this "problem" is an example of how we get sucked into perpetuating institutionalized sexism. The choices are no real choices: say nothing, which seems untenable; send along a male protector, which reinforces the idea that women can't or shouldn't be "alone" in public and must be protected by some men from other men; warn the women on how to handle the jerk, which transmits the message that jerks like this exist and you will just have to learn how to deal with them since they will continue to be lauded and invited as speakers. There is no good choice in this situation, it seems. Ideally you'd want to just cancel the dinner, maybe even the whole invite; but how can you do that on the basis of rumor? (Though I think lesser sorts of rumors have been used to sabotage women's careers.) Sigh. Stuff like this makes my stomach churn.

Katie said...

I think I'd make the potential problem known to a couple of the women in the group - people you trust to be discreet. I certainly wouldn't sent along a male bodyguard (or chaperone)...

Ms.PhD said...

One thing to consider- avoid the potential presence of alcohol at the dinner.

Most of these guys can behave when sober.

Do warn the women to be careful of what they wear and to steer the conversation if necessary.

And yes, make sure the group is big enough. When in the extreme minority I've found most people alter their behavior.

Or, and perhaps this will be viewed as a comical and/or extreme suggestion, but why not look on this as a potential teaching experience for your female students?

Look at it this way: instead of setting up your women for a potential disaster, SET HIM UP. Have them ambush him with questions about the rumors. Ask him why he has behaved badly in other places. Ask why he doesn't take women seriously. Give him the opportunity to splutter and look like an idiot. And therein lies the lesson: these female students are his future peers.

Like a story I read recently about a misbehaving student, confronting the offender with feedback sometimes reverses the problem.

If they are students, there won't be any negative consequences since no one remembers their names on these kinds of visits anyway.

We women are generous and will not stoop to being defensive.

Instead, we can be proactive: we can always give the gift of learning.

Mark Whybird said...

Oh dear, let me try that URL again in a way that will actually display correctly:

If you thought Physics was misogynistic, try open source software!

millihelen said...

Ms. Phd said
"Do warn the women to be careful of what they wear and to steer the conversation if necessary. "

No offense meant, but what century are we in that women must modify their dress to make sure that jerky men behave? Just tell them that he's a jerk, and if he does anything jerky, tell them to call him on it. They should wear whatever they want.