Monday, October 11, 2010

Peer Sexism

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?


Anonymous said...

FSP... Why do you hate men?
This is a clear cut case of a person who is rude. Before writing this hateful post (which you are very good at), did you also try to find more about his behavior towards other male members in the research group?
Please get a life of your own, and stop spewing so much venom against the male members of the research community.

Hypothetical Engineer said...

I suppose it depends on why he is exhibiting that behavior. If he has some type of deep contempt for women, or women that are succeeding in his field, then he is probably a lost cause. If he just has the wrong opinion of women (either think they are less smart than he is, less hard working, whatever), then perhaps just the process of seeing that you are successful, hard working, smart etc as a sort of new mental prototype could have a strong beneficial effect on him.
It would be interesting to see if he could be stuck as a subordinate to a female peer of his in some way(working on a project witha female lead that is at the same level as him) and whether he is able to hold his behavior in check or not.
Also to play devil's advocate, is there any possibility he is just as abrasive to males on projects with him but they choose not to complain? He may just be an all around jerk.

Tara said...

I am a woman in a Computer Science industry position. I (surprisingly) have encountered minimal sexism that I have detected at this point in my career, but from what I have encountered I think that it is difficult to change the people. Usually sexism comes from their upbringing or the environment in which they were raised, just like racism does. And yes, it is possible with time to lessen the issue, but it does take time.

lauren said...


I would guess this young man is at least 25. Even if he had the misfortune to be raised in a deeply misogynist home, he can't have gone through university without at least once hearing something about the phenomenon of sexual harassment.

Particularly if this guy knows enough to put on a credible "respectful young man" act in front of you and other people whom he sees as important to his career advancement, it's clear he knows what he's doing.

He just thinks it's okay blow off steam by messing around with female peers. And why wouldn't he think that? Has it damaged his career at all, despite numerous complaints (and therefore far more numerous incidents)? Not in the slightest.

kamikaze said...

Wouldn't you worry that the guy, rather than improve his opinions of women scientists, would improve his ability to harass them without being detected by anyone of importance? After all, a class on how to behave towards women could also be seen as a class where you learn how to avoid being caught because you are taught which things will get you in trouble.

I have no idea what these classes typically entail; I hope that they have considered that aspect as well. But being a woman post doc, I egoistically think "get him out, get him out..."

Anonymous said...

I vote 'maybe'.

The selectivity in this postdocs targets certainly indicates someone who knows how to play the game. But the fact that he clearly is capable of reigning it in means (to me) if someone brings the hammer down hard enough, he's capable of recognizing that it's no acceptable in his professional life. (or personal life, but his boss can't force him to change that).

What worries me more is that this behavior has been going on for some time with apparently no consequences. Habits are hard to break. If his boss isn't consistently bringing the postdoc up short about his behavior, there won't be much incentive for him to change.

Female Science Professor said...

This postdoc gets along very well with men in his research group. He is friendly and helpful and is a good member of the research team; this has also been my impression of him.

This postdoc also did well working with a female MS student. His supervisor essentially made him the adviser of this student, not knowing at the time about the postdoc's behavior towards female postdocs.

As far as anyone can tell, his problems are with women who are his peers. He is extremely competitive with these women. If no such competition exists (e.g., with female professors and students), there doesn't seem to be a problem.

I don't mean to minimize the problem; being competitive in some ways is fine, but his supervisor and others definitely need to be very clear about what is unacceptable and what the consequences are for harassment. If this is done, I think there is good reason to believe that this man can and will change his behavior.

RSB said...

I have been in a similar situation -- a peer was hostile and weird toward me (and other women in the lab) but perfectly respectful to a female prof we worked with in collaboration with main PI. This particular person, IMO, had heaps of personal problems and issues, was in therapy, and needed a whole bunch more. I do think that a group intervention would have worked with this person. Everyone is different though.

lauren said...

"...but his supervisor and others definitely need to be very clear about what is unacceptable."

Oh, he's been getting a clear message about what's acceptable. Years of harassment and complaints, and his supervisors just make excuses for him? That's a pretty unmistakable message.

I feel a little iffy about the "how can we *help* him" approach. It feels a bit too much like the "boys-will-be-boys" coddling that a lot of men take advantage of. He's not a kid. He's had his chance, and he's blown it. What about his past and future peers, who haven't done anything wrong?

zed said...

I think there might be hope for this guy.

He needs to be told the behavior is not acceptable. Deal with him like he's a 3 year old: "it's OK to feel XYZ about women who are your peers, it's not OK to do ABC. If you do A or B or C again, these are the consequences". The consequences can be both 'natural' (no one will want to collaborate with you, you'll get a bad reputation) or 'imposed' (I'm firing you).

Anonymous said...

yeah i dunno about all this helping-him-out stuff. If what he was doing was legitimate harassment, then your colleague should fire him.

If it was below the firing line then he should be on probation and if I were you I wouldn't do anything to help him until his behavior changes.

The best way to resocialize him is to ostracize him until his behavior becomes acceptable (actually I just made that up, but maybe its true?).

Anonymous said...

I would like to know more about how he harasses females. Harasses is such a broad word. Can you give specific examples. These would be useful to male and female readers to know what could be regarded as harassment (arguments aside). Presumably the male reader doesn't want to do something that some women find offensive and a female reader (like myself) is alway looking for examples so I can compare my experience with it and make a determination on how much to react.

Anonymous said...

Having dealt with this issue myself, I think that there may be hope, at least in terms of behavior (if not attitude). In the situations I was involved in (in graduate school), there was a subset of men who were respectful towards women who were superior to them (I suspect because those women had some leverage or power over their careers) but seemed to view us women who were their peers as "fair game". Most of the harassment was sexual (inappropriate comments, etc.), but also involved more general disrespect. There was a pattern of this behavior toward multiple women- and it was definitely viewed as a :boys will be boys" thing, even though I can tell you that it made many of us seriously uncomfortable and unhappy. Essentially, they did not view us women as real, serious colleagues and scientists. If you asked them, they would deny this vehemently (and I think they would honestly be flabbergasted by the accusation), but this is how they treated us, and actions certainly do speak louder then words. Now that these same men have jobs as academics, and many of the women with whom they interacted previously are also academics, their behavior towards us (I am still in contact with many of these same women) is respectful- because I think they are aware that their careers may depend on collaborations, letters of recommendation, etc. from us. Essentially, they view us as colleagues now, because we have some power, and treat us accordingly.

So, have their general attitudes towards women changed? I doubt it. BUT their behavior toward their female peers has changed, largely, I believe, because they view us as having some power relative to them (as we all do relative to our colleagues). How do they treat female subordinates, who are not in the same position (e.g., students)? I don't know. I suspect that if they think there will be repercussions for their behavior, they will keep it in check. I hope. Again, I believe this is a behavioral change, based on necessity, not an attitude change. Call me cynical. :)

Anyway, I think that there should be some sort of professionalization training that specifically addresses how to treat colleagues, female or male, in a respectful manner. Some people think this is ridiculous and unnecessary in this day and age, but I can tell you as a young female scientist that it is not. I like to think that people (in this case, men) are often completely unaware of their own attitudes and how their behavior makes others feel, and once this is brought to their attention, will do some self-examination and change. I hope. Anyway, we may as well try.

Sally said...

I also vote 'maybe'.

As Lauren said, this postdoc knows how to play the game. His sexism toward his peers sounds like a very calculated way to poison the well for his competitors.

But if he's so calculating, a reminder about how the peer review system works may rein in his bad behavior. Tell him his women colleagues will referee his manuscripts, his grant applications, and his national facility use applications. Even though reviewers are supposed to act impartially, he'd be incredibly naive not to expect retribution.

Anonymous said...

I am reminded of children. When boys are attracted to girls on the playground they push or tease them. Maybe he just has a crush on some of these peers.

Julep said...

The first Anonymous, while annoying, does have one point. It is possible that this man behaves similarly toward other male postdocs with whom he is in competition but that they are just less likely to report such behavior.

Regardless, continuing to make excuses or accommodations for this behavior is just making the problem worse. It's like promoting a failing student to the next grade. Given the number of complaints, a university ombudsman, postdoc office leadership, HR, etc. need to be involved to develop a plan to deal with this individual. I'd suggest sensitivity training and long-term follow-up in the way of monitoring.

Anonymous said...

Is this postdoc in/from a foreign country? You alluded to something like this in your post. If so, and if the culture he comes from is just more sexist (sorry to be blunt but I'm thinking along the lines of being from Eastern Europe vs being from Scandinavia) he may not be aware of how serious his harassment is. He may think that he is just being harmlessly competitive and not realize how hard it is to be on the receiving end of his treatment.

This may be giving him too much benefit of the doubt. But I would have hope in this case that if he is called out in a scary enough way by one or more people he respects, he may shape up. In other words, he may not be as calculating as some other commenters have suggested. If he is though, I agree it may just drive the problem deeper underground by making him more careful about how he does his harassment.

Stephanie said...

Wow, Anonymous 12:19:00 AM, I don't think FSP said anything about hating men in her post. In fact, I believe she likes and respects many men enough to work with them and be married to and have a child with one in particular. Why do some people assume that noticing sexism means you hate men?
Onto my comment:
"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."

I'm very disturbed by this. I can understand saying that he is unhappy and taking it out on others, but why would he only take it out on women? How does having his girlfriend back in town make him stop being sexist towards his peers?

Anonymous said...

"How does having his girlfriend back in town make him stop being sexist towards his peers?"

Maybe the idea is that having a woman his age around whom he respects and knows is intelligent and capable (I hope??) will remind him that other women his age (the peers he harasses) are also intelligent and capable?

And Anon#1

Please learn to read. FSP specifically said that he was respectful towards everyone other than women in his own peer group. This includes men in his peer group.

Alex said...

So, it's interesting that in addition to treating female superiors respectfully he was also well-behaved with the female grad student under his supervision. Maybe he's really, really calculating, and knows that there are more rules concerning treatment of subordinates than there are concerning treatment of peers. Or, maybe he just has a very specific hang-up about female peers but not female superiors or subordinates.

Does anybody know how he behaved in grad school? Was he decent to female postdocs and undergrads but a jerk to female grad students?

If this is something that started as a postdoc, maybe he has some sort of hang-up that developed recently, or he's under some other sort of stress. There's probably hope. If this is a pattern, well, I don't know what to say for him.

Also, I don't like the notion of simply writing him off permanently, nor do I think that people looking for explanations are making excuses. He is a trainee, universities exist to train trainees, professors in particular are supposed to train trainees, and if there is some way to get to him and train him in appropriate professional conduct, then that's what his mentors should do. If he's truly irredeemable, then yes, write him off. But if there's a way to train him, then he should be trained. FSP seems to be searching for a way to help him rather than just write him off, and I think she's making the right call there.

Finally, to the first commenter: If you're going to burn that much straw, please purchase carbon offsets.

Anonymous said...

As a new postdoc, I had a male peer who had alienated a senior grad student in the lab with fairly sexist disrespect (not harassment). He treated me the same way, until he found out I had several very high profile papers (i.e., I was a very good scientist). His attitude completely changed to one of respect or even a bit obsequious. It seemed to be a case of assuming inferiority until proved otherwise by accomplishment.

Minos said...

The original post was a little too vague to get a good sense of what to make of the sexist behavior. Are we talking about general locker-room language and behavior (which one typically reins in, even when among men, around both superiors and subordinates, but not peers), more directed personal behavior (touching, propositioning, commenting on a co-workers' body), being disparaging of womens' abilities in general, the abilities of the women with whom he is working in particular, or a non-sexually focused habit of putting down those he works with that seems to focus more often on his female colleagues? It seems to be the answer to the questions, "what is to be done?" and "will it work?" depend greatly on the nature of the behavior.

This is one of the problems with the way that we as a scientific culture simply refer to such a wide array of behaviors as "unacceptable", "sexist", or "harassment". It confuses a whole array of motivations, habits, thought processes, and degrees. Of course, adding nuance always seems to lead toward declaring a lot of behavior we don't like as being "not too bad..." and therefore somewhat condoning or tolerating it (which is why we eschew that road often), but if our goal is to change rather than to deter (both goals having merit), then subtlety is important.

Anonymous said...

I think some guys find it hard to compete with women, that they don't know how to express their insecurity about women they feel threatened by professionally without resorting to sexually denigrating comments. In my experience it's something that can be dealt with within a peer group - but often others don't speak up, which I don't understand.

I once gave one of my peers a bollocking, in front of his wife and several other students & postdocs, for making an extremely sexist remark about a female fellow student whom he clearly just felt threatened by. I think the telling off by one of his own peers, publicly, was pretty effective.

A comment about it by someone very senior could be effective, but it can also just make the guy feel even more insecure and threatened.

Anonymous said...

FSP: Why the great lengths to cure this person? Why not warn him, ask for change, and if he cannot immediately change, then let his position run its course (or shorten it) and move to the next/better qualified person -- a male who behaves properly or a woman? Is he THAT good?

Anonymous said...

I think his postdoc advisor needs to be made aware that he is leaving himself liable for a lawsuit, and then he needs to share that info with the postdoc and what it might mean for the postdoc's future. Would you write a good letter for someone whose behavior got you sued? It's all about incentives. There are laws against creating a hostile work environment. Being aware of multiple complaints from independent sources on harassment in the workplace and failing to do anything about it, including removing the harasser, or penalizing the whistle-blowers (are women kept from potentially good projects the postdoc is involved with? that's punitive for them), these are good grounds for a lawsuit with the advisor as the subject of the suit. He is permitting a hostile work environment - he's liable. This info may do a lot to clarify things in the lab.

Ms.PhD said...

BRAVO, FSP! You're finally getting it!

This peer-sexism or selective sexism is EXACTLY the type that has plagued me most in my career.

And having female professors who *denied* that the guys in question could possibly be a problem, only worsened my situation!

I'm very impressed that, when overwhelmed with independent testimonies (holy crap, how many women have complained about this guy??), you did the logical analysis and realized that *you* are the exception, not us.

For example, I've worked with men who harassed and disrespected me, but not my taller, older, foreign labmate, even though we were both women.

I've worked with men who were respectful of non-threatening subordinates (e.g. women without PhDs) but extremely aggressive towards me. It's like they only have three settings: condescending (toward younger/underqualified women), ass-kissing (toward senior, potentially useful women), and aggressive (toward female peers).

I've also worked with men who were married to other female profs and seemingly respectful of them, but still not respectful of other female faculty or their own female postdocs.

Selective sexism is indeed the most insidious form, and I agree with the posters who said some form of punishment must be enacted, or these offenders are going to continue behaving as if there are no consequences (because there are none).

The idea that having a girlfriend in town might solve the problem is exactly the sort of reasoning that keeps these people in the system for their entire careers, harassing whole generations of women who end up dropping out of science. Quit pussyfooting around. Seems to me you either have to confront the postdoc yourself (how can you live with yourself? Really? Can you sleep at night?), or you have to give the advisor an ultimatum.

Good job posting about this problem! Now go fix it.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the commenter that perhaps those sexist comments stemmed from his insecurities towards his female peers. Though it hurts, being a receiver myself though by people up above, once it's been confronted it usually subsides a little. Though a little bit of therapy to the sexist person is warranted.

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy said...

I've had an ugly thought.

In my particular business the women are very much in demand as the departments and research groups are still heavily loaded with men. The result is that the women get interviews sooner than the men.

My casual observation is that poor or unqualified scientists don't get interviews (or rarely--one case comes to mind), but that most of my female colleagues of similar accomplishment been invited to interviews and I have not. A few of these women (the really outstanding ones in my judgment) have been hired for tenure track jobs, while I languish with nothing but a very nice postdoc at a good school and the respect of my colleagues.

It is possible that this guy feels bitter about his situation and blames it on a real or perceived advantage given to his female colleagues.

Or he could just be a jerk of one flavor or another. People who present really convincing false faces sometimes are.

//starting a new job search for next year with high hopes and the slightest hint of desperation...

Kea said...

the postdoc's job should be given to a deserving unemployed female postdoc. This does not surprise me. I think these guys can respect your authority without really seeing you as a woman. A guy explained it to me once: we are unusual, because women are not usually so capable. In other words, only the freak women should be encouraged, and ordinary women should be put in their case.

Anonymous said...

Can peer sexists be reformed? Can any sexists be reformed? Can anyone be reformed?

Perhaps on my better days, I treat all of my colleagues and students with respect. But can I gracefully navigate the university parking office? Can I be a good parent after the fifth straight hour of my three-year-old's chatter about nothing? Can I keep my cool when the administrators are evil and my colleagues are lighting torches for a mob? Perhaps some folks only need to be reformed from minor faults. But nearly everything wrong with me is deep-seated and hard to change.

Where does that leave us on the quick and decisive action that is obviously needed in the case of the idiot postdoc? Well, that's harder. But on the bare question of whether there's hope for him, I have to say yes --- after all, I think there's hope for me.

Anonymous said...

It's kind of funny (but not really) when people leave rude and patronizing comments like "Go fix this", "Go do such-and-such", "Get over it" or whatever, and possibly even kind of ironic coming from certain commenters.

Madscientistgirl said...

Yeah, so I've been on the receiving end of this sort of selective sexism in a couple different scenarios.

As a graduate student, two of the post docs in my group openly said that women didn't belong in physics when the professors (including one woman) were not around. One of them maliciously targeted me, using his position in our collaboration as a working group convener to apply noticeably higher standards to my work than what was applied to others and deliberately not notifying me of his vetos of my work in a timely manner (once leaving me to franticly work on preparing results for a conference for two weeks after he'd told others this work would not be shown no matter what.) He ridiculed me in social situations and tried to incite other group members to do the same. He spent much of our time working together trying to incite me to do something unprofessional in response to his actions. He never did this in front of the profs. I never bit - I just told my (incredibly supportive) advisor what was going on. He also regularly gossiped about his (female) boss behind her back and spread rumors about her - but to her face he was an angel. I think it may have hurt his career, but not seriously. I don't think he really changed. He now has a permanent position at a national lab - heaven knows they need more sexist SOBs there. All the old ones are retiring.

The other post doc was mostly just highly uncomfortable working with women. When another grad student and I were working on a project he was supervising, he let the other (male) grad student have complete control over his tasks. He micromanaged me, once complaining (seriously) that I had taken a whole five minutes to respond to an email. He even duplicated my work behind my back - he did not trust anything I did. I don't think it was ever a conscious decision - he just was inherently uncomfortable ever working with women. He somewhat improved after an incident where he was espousing the opinion that women should stay at home and cook and clean for their husbands and a (female) colleague asked him if that was what he wanted for his daughters. Obviously he does not want his daughters to become domestic slaves. He's still uncomfortable working with women but he's not actively destructive to women working with him.

Now that I'm a post doc, I've also had some trouble working with one of our graduate students. We were on a long work trip and he simply would not listen to me. He repeatedly showed up to shift late (~2 hrs) and apparently even told one of the professors that I had acted inappropriately by telling them (the profs) he was showing up really late. He espouses equality for women, but on a practical level, he doesn't actually listen to me or view me as knowledgeable. I think the jury is still out on this one - but I'm not holding my breath.

I have had peers challenge me or try to discredit me so many times I don't even keep a mental note of it now.

I would watch your back if I were you. Just because you don't see it doesn't mean it doesn't happen. Like the other posters, I'm curious exactly what he did, but if multiple female colleagues went out of their way to independent complained to his boss, it must be pretty pronounced and pretty bad.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, albeit about a troubling situation. I was in a position where peer sexism ran rampant. 4 out of 6 female PhD's (including me) quit or switched groups within a year, and another one nearly did. However, the male boss/coworkers in question were not obviously sexist in any way, and the less senior women did not have any problems.
I think it needs to be actively combatted by FSP and the postdoc's advisor, because it is wrong and for the sake of this person's future female coworkers

GMP said...

As Anon at 8:08 said I would watch your back if I were you.

This. The guy sounds like a very smooth operator. He's nice to you because you are senior and useful.
I know a number of people who are impeccably pleasant, friendly and civil, it is impossible to detect a hint on insincerity... You may even say they are your friends, but it is only because you are deemed as useful. A female colleague of mine shared how she used to be great friends with another slightly junior but now stratospherically successful female colleague, but the junior one -- an absolute master in respectfulness, friendliness and overall political correctness -- no longer finds any time to hang out with the senior one. My cynical opinion is that they were never friends, it's just that the senior woman's advice, support, and time were useful/necessary for a while but no longer are.

So the postdoc is totally sexist, certainly to the core, as well as a jerk all around. But even more so he is very smooth and focused on his bottom line, which is career, hence nice to you.

All you can do is watch out for yourself and try to protects others as much as you can.

yolio said...

This guy sounds enormously average to me. The logic of patriarchy is based on comparison, men are inherently important and we know this because we compare them to various inherently unimportant people, such as girls. Under this system, a female peer who has just as many claims to accomplishment is very threatening. If a girl can do everything that he can do, then he is no better than a girl! Few things are worse.

Superiors and underlings are not threatening in the same way. However, part of the reason FSPs high status is acceptable is because she is so rare, she is a token. That is allowable because having a few exceptional women proves how modern and not-sexist the field is. But I bet that this guy looks down upon fields where there are a lot of women in the professor ranks and consider his low female field superior.

His outward sexism is likely to get better with time, just because post-docs are particularly insecure about their status and thus most likely to act out like he does. But the basic patriarchical logic that he lives by is unlikely to go away.

Anonymous said...

His outward sexism is likely to get better with time, just because post-docs are particularly insecure about their status and thus most likely to act out like he does. But the basic patriarchical logic that he lives by is unlikely to go away.

Amen to that. I have seen many postdocs and senior graduate students (close to the job search time) acting out their frustrations on their peers, particularly those that are less likely to fight back. Usually these people mellow out with time, or when they do find a job.

None of this justifies any of their actions though.

Tim said...

FSP you are acting like a moron. Please try to remain a scientist also in your gossipy blog life. Don't judge people by what you hear about them, no matter whom you hear it from. Judge from your own flawed experience, and admit that it's flawed, that is what comes closest to objectivity. Please arrive at the conclusion that it is not possible to judge this person, by lack of experience.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, don't believe anything you hear or see or experience yourself. Don't write about your life because that is gossip (because you are female). Don't write from your own point of view because that is flawed. Don't write anything that upsets Tim. Then go fix all the problems in academia in your own country and others because you have a responsibility to do this for all the younger women, but don't write about it because it might upset Tim.

Tim said...

Hey, Im just saying: if you are a scientist, then believe what you can prove. Don't go along with what people say... that would be more like religion. As the great Carl Sagan said: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Moreover, please don't make everything about sex. It's not all about sex, and to be honest, i don't give a rat's ass whether you or anyone is female or male.

Kea said...

Tim ... ROFLOL ... guffaw ... have you told a few other feminist scientists to stop being annoying? ROFLOL. Because there are quite a few of them! You've got your work cut out for you.

Anonymous said...

That postdoc needs to be fired.

Sorry, there are too many starving scientists out there in this job market, in every field and sub-field. He can't behave like a decent human being, he can hit the road. Cut your losses and next time, vow to do more background-checking and phone calls on applicants.

Moreover, as Anon @ 8:40 pointed out, his behavior will likely cause enough turnover that it will be disruptive to productivity--who would your colleague rather lose, one jerk or all his female postdocs plus be whispered about as "oh, he's OK but That Guy in his lab is a total jerk--really, try to get in anywhere else"? There's an opportunity cost above and beyond the immediate costs, where suddenly your colleague is the guy whining to Professional Society Publication that he has no good applicants these days, not enough Countrymen are studying Sub-sub-sub-Field, etc.

I don't really care if postdoc is sexist because he has personal problems, because it's a Monday or because his mommy didn't love him enough. Getting along with your colleagues in a professional manner is something he should have learned in high school, whilst working as a fry cook/grocery bagger/waiter. If he hasn't learned it yet, welcome to the School of Hard Knocks.

Anonymous said...

There is certainly evidence for both sides of this argument. As my short answer I think it can be masked. Which is obviously not ideal but can help discourage the behavior in other male students. It seems that this behavior is deeply rooted in the individual and, without some dramatic awakening, will always be present to some degree.

Anonymous said...

I actually know of a few graduate students who are this postdoc in making. Last fall, I was harassed by 2 graduate students in my department, simply because they wanted to coordinate the seminar I had been working on for the past year. I had tried to coordinate meetings with them so we could all work together, they simply refused and would disagree on any change I might suggest. I went on to call me selfish and some not so pleasant words. Unfortunately, I was so disturbed by these emails, I deleted them, before I went to my graduate chair, who did nothing to stop this. I finally gave up the seminar. And then at the end of the year when it came time for awards, the same graduate chair praised the 2 students for reviving the seminar. Thankfully, I was not the only one annoyed by his email and other faculty brought up the fact that I had worked on the seminar as well.

And now due to this and several other reasons, I am considering switching institutions.

Anonymous said...

Haven't had time to read the other comments, but I thought I'd add that this behavior describes to a T that of a grad student whose lab I shared. After several years we figured out it was some version of borderline personality disorder. This student started out pretty respectful of everyone and started developing enemies, one by one, who were almost inevitably female. He finally turned against his female chair, but not before alienating almost all the other female grad students and postdocs in the department. Fortunately, his attacks against these people were so ridiculous that if you happened to be fortunate enough to see (or be on the receiving end) of one of his contemptuous tirades, you'd realize something deeply pathological was at hand. He's still doing science somewhere and probably burning bridges. I never figured out how to deal with him, but I've learned that it's important to ask for references should I ever be in a position to hire someone.

Anonymous said...

On nth thought, I'd like to echo the other commenters who've said this is grounds for a lawsuit, carries enormous opportunity cost, and shouldn't be tolerated at all. Training is for technical and professional skills like networking. If this guy manages to alienate and offend consistently all the women he's working with, that's really not something to be casually "worked on." That's something deeply unprofessional. Sexism constitutes a "hostile environment," which as a country, we've decided we have a right to work without. It's not okay to let this behavior persist in any way.

Female Science Professor said...

The particular situation I described is not at a North American university, although it is clear from the comments that such things can happen anywhere. For the case I described, there may well be some university structure or policy to deal with such situations, but as far as I can tell, individual professors can run their own research groups however they want. Fortunately the head of the research group in question is a very good person who cares about all of his researchers.

Cara said...

If he has some type of deep contempt for women, or women that are succeeding in his field, then he is probably a lost cause. If he just has the wrong opinion of women (either think they are less smart than he is, less hard working, whatever), then perhaps just the process of seeing that you are successful, hard working, smart etc as a sort of new mental prototype could have a strong beneficial effect on him.

I'm failing to see the difference between "deep contempt for women" and "wrong opinion of women [because he thinks they're dumber than he is]".

Oh, wait. That's because there isn't a difference.

FSP, if this kid makes the distinction between women he can harass and women he can't, he's not stupid.

He needs to be informed with as blunt an instrument as possible that every woman is a colleague, not a potential appliance for his use.

app said...

Considering that the guy has "a perfect record of offensive behavior towards his peers who are female", seems to me the obvious thing that should happen in this situation is he should be fired.

FSP, I don't understand why you and your colleague are so interested in wanting to "help" this guy with his "problem". Is he so much better than the any other postdoc that could be hired to replace him? Or are you and your colleague sad at the thought of him no longer being around to suck up to you, considering how skillful he apparently is at this?

If I found out that a student or postdoc in my group had been behaving like this I would fire him without hesitation. If it was a collaborator's student/postdoc I would urge my collaborator to fire him, and wouldn't have any more interaction with that group as long as the guy was still there.

Anonymous said...

The issue seems to be addressed in a skewed, uni-directional female-centric manner. Of course, there might be some lone incidents, but to generalize this into sexist issue seems quite illogical. The postdoc in this story needs to be fired from the details provided. However, do we know how the women folks (peers) behavior to that guy. I have witnessed many incidents as a new postdoc, where the women peers (established) in the lab are extremely rude. For eg. A general question asked in a polite manner such as 'How long will you be using the instrument?' will get a rude reply 'Check the calendar (sign up sheet)'. My point is that women are not always innocent, well-behaved, respectful beings.

Bagelsan said...

I have to second the "opportunity costs" caution... hearing this story, and hearing how reluctant the higher-ups are to ditch this guy asap, makes me really not want to work for FSP or her friend. And it would make me warn off any of my friends from working in that lab. By sheltering a sexist jerk you guys come across as supporting that sexism.

I would want to be valued in my lab more than his female peers are being valued right now. How many hurt female postdocs have to be weighed against one hurtful male postdoc? Need a couple more women to suffer (or leave, or not apply) before the scale tips over to "not worth keeping him"?

Anonymous said...

Whether or not the male postdoc intended sexism or not, the truth is that his behavior is highly distressing to other individuals. If he has been repeatedly asked nicely to change his behavior and doesn't, then he should be fired. Why does one person get to negatively affect the lives of others, repeatedly, without recourse? What about what those others (his "victims") are going through, doesn't that count for anything??

PhyPhoFu said...

I find it so sad that there seems to still be a lot of sexism around in science! I'm a female graduate student in a very much male-dominated field, and so far I have always been treated respectfully.

The whole concept of sexism, especially in science, seems ridiculous to me. There have been many studies that show that females are just as mentally capable as males, so how can people who call themselves scientists behave this way? It is logically inconsistent!

Anonymous said...

I have to agree that men are good at hiding their sexism until they become stressed.

Anonymous said...

Short answer: yes IF it is addressed my management in a supported & structured way. I am a female postdoc (science) & am in an identical situation. I made complaints to my manager twice over a year & only when I threatened resignation, did he sit up and listen. Even then, the situation was minimised and dismissed. I was asked if - because he was from another culture (Zimbabwe) - I had in some way offended him into behaving in such a manner.

I think situations like this are rampant in academia where management rarely seem to implement any hardline approach to respond to the situation. I don't believe they're equipped to deal with it. Having worked in industry, I can say the situation would be dealt with far more quickly.

Quark Chowder said...

Perhaps the post doc views the female post docs as competition and belittling them is his way of getting some sort of "edge" over them?