Thursday, April 07, 2011

Kick Me

What a week.

This week, I participated in a meeting of a working group with which I have been associated for the past 6 years or so. I have devoted a lot of time to this particular service activity, and overall I have enjoyed the work. It can be frustrating when there are lots of deadlines all at once, but mostly I feel good about making a contribution in this particular way.

I am the only woman involved in this working group of Science Professors, and I have known all along that I was asked to join the group in part because I am female. This was (and is) fine with me because I think it is important that there be a woman in this group and because I am highly qualified for the work. It's not as if I am getting a *special award* for being a woman; I am contributing my time and efforts to a service activity, and I think what I am doing is important and worthwhile. The diversity issue is a positive aspect of this work, not something to be ashamed of.

So anyway, The Guys and I got together one day this week. We don't get together as a group all that often, but we had some things to discuss that were more efficient to deal with in a meeting than through endless e-mails or a conference call.

TWICE during the first half hour of the meeting, somewhat out of context, and completely gratuitously, one of The Guys mentioned that I was only part of this group because "they had to have a woman". He hastened to say that he was totally on board with this because he recognized the realities of the world today. Diversity has been deemed to be important -- although he noted that he has seen no evidence of the discrimination that some women in our field claim to experience -- so our group should be diverse.

He's a jerk, but I've been working well in this group for too long to feel humiliated.

I don't know what the younger man added to the working group in recent years (i.e., after me) thought of all this. Did it previously occur to him that I was a Diversity Addition to the group? Does he believe that he (unlike me) was invited to join us owing to his awesome skills? Do I really want to know the answer to that question? Should I re-read my own post from yesterday?

What did I do when my esteemed colleague made his "FSP is a token" comments? I calmly changed the subject to one more relevant to the meeting, made a point that no one else had thought of, got complimented (by someone else) for having noticed something that had long been overlooked by other members of the group, and basically just moved on with the tasks at hand. I am a useful member of this committee, and I will continue to contribute for as long as it is worthwhile for me to do so.

And yet, I did briefly wish that I could do something a bit more dramatic. I don't mean that I wanted to yell or slash my colleague's leather jacket, but something a bit symbolic might have conveyed my dismay at still being considered a Token after all these years of working with this group.

For example, what if I had a special Token Hat with pink ribbons and flowers? I could bring it with me and keep it in my briefcase purse until I needed it. Then, when the occasion arose, I could put my hat on and go sit quietly in the corner, except when one of the guys said something they thought was brilliant, and then I could sigh and say "Oh Bob, you are so smart". And when one of them made a little joke -- like when Professor Not-A-Token made a joke about all the lame people who read and write blogs, which he never reads (good!) -- I could be sure to laugh in an appreciative and admiring way.

But mostly of course I would be very quiet. That way, I could be in the group, the group could get its diversity creds, but the guys wouldn't actually have to listen to me. Wouldn't that be better?


Female postdoc said...

I love you blog and I think you are great, but as a female postdoc I wish you would have confronted this guy. You are on the same level, which means that it would be easier for you than for a female PhD student/postdoc (who I assume he treats the same way). Also you should not have to listen to this kind of comments.

kamikaze said...

People get professional advantages for the weirdest things, such as playing tennis with the right guy, having the right name for a PhD supervisor, having spent 3 months studying in the Princeton (or other famous institution) library (listed as research collaboration in the CV). Or for being a woman. I don't see why the last is so much worse; in my experience, scientific qualifications -- unless they are realy extraordinary -- will only bring you so far and then weird factors determine the rest. Why is gender a worse weird factor than, for instance, the so-called "networking skills"?

I wish I knew a smart way to say this to the guys who make a point of someone getting advantages for being women.

Anonymous said...

Well, I suppose these days every group needs to recruit at least one token jackass, like this one.

There has recently been a trend toward discrimination against the willfully stupid, you know, so no doubt he's just there for the sake of diversity.

Female Computer Scientist said...

Depending on my relationship to the guy, I might make a joke while slapping his back, like, "Looks like they had to have a token man, too! But I recognize the realities of the world today, with male graduation and degree completion rates what they are."

Or (more likely) I would take him aside in private so as not to humiliate him and politely tell him to not say things like that because they're hurtful.

Because he backpaddled after saying it I suspect he realized he messed up.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry this happened. I hope everyone else thought he was a jerk too.

Would you consider posting sometime more advice for dealing with jerks? I'm a postdoc in a small group, and I'm having a hard time dealing with someone (a new professor). He has said nothing antagonistic toward me, but he seems to take particular joy in turning critiques of ideas into ad-hominem rants in which he laments how stupid other people are. He prefers doing this in front of an audience. I've made small, ineffectual jokes about it in an attempt to redirect his attention. My feelings for him are not improving, and it's coloring my whole experience at work and my interactions with people who closely interact with him. I could be overreacting by various definitions.

Judging from the behavior you describe here, your advice is maybe to focus on the task at hand, pay more attention to other people, and state what's right anonymously?

wombat said...

Ugh, STILL? Even YOU still get this crap. That is discouraging for obvious reasons, but it is also good to know that all us other women aren't just imaging similar things happening to us, but that those also happen to you, despite your seniority. Female postdoc, it's easy to tell someone how you think they should respond, and it's easy to think you'd respond a certain way, but it can be entirely different when you're actually in the situation. You might be surprised at your own response (or lack thereof) to a situation where someone says a douchey thing to you.

DrDoyenne said...

I understand FSP's reaction--and wish not to distract the group from its mission toward the topic of female tokens. However, the other viewpoint is that if we allow jerks to continue their inappropriate behavior, they'll never learn and perhaps teach younger men similar bad attitudes.

I've written several posts about some ways to counter what are termed "Verbal Attacks":

Joseph said...


You don't even need to say anything. Just, when the tokenness is raised, silently reach into your bag and don the hat.

Fantastic. :)

Anonymous said...

I think South Park did the token thing really well. (They even make action figures.)

Anonymous said...

I wonder if you have any advice for male third persons in this situation (i.e., me). I have more than once been caught off guard by comments from some jerk like this one against women -- unfortunately sometimes I don't know what to do, or react too late. My sympathies!

Female postdoc said...

Wombat, I did not mean to tell anyone how they should respond. I have been in similar situations and I had a very hard time during my PhD until I learned how to fight back (then it stopped). I can perfectly understand FSPs reaction though, it is not always easy to find the right words.

Anonymous said...

"...I think it is important that there be a woman in this group..."

This is a similar problem. It is important for men, women, bigenders, and everyone else to stop using *gender* as a determinant. If you think it is important 'to attract women' or 'to get more women graduates' or for 'women to be a part of ____' then you are a part of the problem.

The correct view is 'I think the most qualified person should be on the committee' or 'we need to attract the best students' or other such views.

I am aware of the evidence that shows that given identical resumes people tend to pick the male names over the female names and other related research. This is an attitude that has to be corrected. However focusing on gender and encouraging people to think along these lines is wrong.

EliRabett said...

Simply ask, Why is Prof. X part of this committee, he adds nothing to it and actively tries to sabotage our work. I move he be asked to leave. Or more subtly go to the person the committee reports to and do same.

Anonymous said...

The other men present were in a difficult situation, but it is too bad that no one found a way to immediately say a positive comment about you to deflect the jerk's comments. (Sounds like they did later on, after you spoke.)

I struggle with this in faculty meetings -- watching one person beat up (verbally) on another, and we all just sit in watch. I'm not tenured, so I guess that is the best thing, but it goes against how I would behave in real life. Or maybe it is best to learn to ignore the idiots and not try to converse with them?

Amber Lynne said...

On top of wearing the hat I think you should wear a skirt to your next meeting and instead of participating read a parenting magazine. And don't forget to bring brownies with you.

But in all honesty, next time he says that tell him that he is the token sexist/bigot member of the group. Keep eye contact until he apologizes. He is trying to put you in your place and by ignoring his comment I feel he is succeeding. It makes him feel good to say it, make him feel bad about it.

Anonymous said...

I would have said something hugely exaggerated like "Oh, that is the only reason I am in this committee, not that I have contributed any ideas or work over the last XX years". That would be a cue for everyone else to jump in and protest that yes you had contributed a lot, and for this guy to apologize. Does not always produce that reaction, though, but gets the point across.

Female Science Professor said...

I have known Professor Not-A-Token for 25 years. Sometimes I call him on his jerkiness, sometimes I don't. We recently had a 2-year argument about an issue. Those and other issues go into my decision about whether to confront him or not at any particular time. I did think that eventually my tokenism would fade as an issue, and thought that 6 years was sufficient time, but apparently not.

Anonymous said...

For the anon who struggles with this in faculty meetings, we recently had an incident which I found very freeing. During a horrible verbally abusive tirade, one of our faculty (the one being abused) simply stood up and left. She wasn't going to take it any more. In shock, several of us (mixed MSP and FSPs) looked at each other and then all left too. It was very freeing. Even pre-tenure, I learned that we don't have to put up with this crap. If it ever happens again (and it will as it has happened repeatedly in this department), we will leave again. And btw, in our meetings, it is always MSPs abusing FSPs.

FrauTech said...

"Well I tried to get in as the token self-centered douchebag but they told me that slot was already taken."

Though I too usually just sit there surprised. Sometimes I just say something like, "Really? Really?!" While staring them down. Or if they have daughters I might make a comment like "Ahh look what your daughters have to look forward to" if it's some genderizing comment about what women are good at or not good at. In my case it's almost always a superior with more power than me to whom I can't say anything to that will offend.

LizardBreath said...

We recently had a 2-year argument about an issue.

This would almost cheer me up -- that he wasn't exposing an unthinking undercurrent of sexism in how people think about you, but that he's a jerk who dislikes you, and was needling you on purpose. Straightforward interpersonal hostility is easier, somehow, than background prejudice.

Female Science Professor said...

I think he has both issues: interpersonal hostility layered onto background sexism.

Ms.PhD said...

I think this committee needs at least one other woman.

To the person who said gender shouldn't matter, that's a bunch of bullshit. As long as there is sexism like this, it's a war for equality.

I love FrauTech's response, but really I wonder what would happen if next time he says he hasn't seen evidence of discrimination, if you just said quietly, "I have. How about you, Bob?" etc. if you have allies among the other guys on the committee. All they have to say, "Yes, I have too." I think the best way to deal with these douchebags is to gang up on them. They're only in power because they're part of the majority, so take it away from them. That way it's not about your personal disagreements with this guy, and he might learn to adjust his behavior if he feels ostracized.

For that matter, if you're going to make a hat, make hats for the other decent human beings on the committee. You could all just silently put them on together. They could say something clever, and I'm sure someone else could come up with a better slogan, but it could be something along the lines of "I Support Diversity".

Materialist said...

When you first started talking about the hat, I had a vision of it getting plunked onto the head of anyone making a "token" comment.

As for how to judo the comment, it could be a chance to say "Thank you for recognizing the value of a variety of viewpoints in this committee. Are there any other perspectives we are missing? Are some redundant?"

Anonymous said...

Sounds like prof-not-a-token is too old to change really. Your other colleagues probably just rolled their eyes and made a mental note not to invite this jerk for dinner. If your young colleague learns that he can make inappropriate comments too, then you can squish him like a bug.
I think your response was right FSP, you can't fight all the battles, and sometimes it's just worth getting things done rather than hung on a stupid argument. This is something that young FSPs should learn as well.

Clarissa said...

I don't like talking about people behind their backs, so this is the link to a response I wrote to this appalling situation:

Anonymous said...

FSP, why did you basically ignore your colleagues' blatantly unfair behavior? By not saying anything, by not correcting his erroneous remark, you are colluding. You are sending the silent message that blatantly prejudiced and INCORRECT assumptions about women and about you personally, will go unchallenged and therefore must be correct.

Maybe you wanted to be the "bigger person" by letting it go. This is a very noble and admirable idea but on the practical level I really think it does not make the actual problem go away. The "be a bigger person and let it go" approach works if it's a passing incident that will blow over on its own (like if it was a complete stranger on the bus who made that remark, someone whom you will never cross paths with again) that making a fuss wouldn't help and only make you look petty.

BUT your situation is obviously different because this is an ongoing work group of which you're a part, these are your colleagues who are not going anywhere anytime soon (and neither are you, I assume). You will encounter this exact situation again and again because the situation is not changing on its own.

And that's the point. The situation will not change on its own, except maybe in the sense of getting worse because nothing is done to counter it.

Why didn't you directly address his remark, in front of the rest of your colleagues? And THEN move on with the rest of what you actually did.

If you don't like the idea of "confrontation", then why not at least use your colleague's remark to start a discussion on the topic rather than simply avoiding the topic and hurrying on as if it didn't happen?

You are tenured, and you are established in your career and department. You have far less to lose in standing up for yourself than many other women who face the same (or worse) situations.

Please, next time this happens, do not just let it slide and say nothing. please stand up for yourself!!

I don't know exactly what would be the best words to say in that situation, but seeing as how you've been part of this group for SIX YEARS, surely that's plenty of time to think about and rehearse ahead of time what to say when this situation occurs??

Female Science Professor said...

Sorry to let you down, but I would do the same thing again in the same situation. I was added to this group because they needed a woman scientist, so there was no point in objecting to this fact being mentioned. It was weird that this continues to be mentioned after so many years, but actually I think the person who made the remark was trying to annoy me (we argue a lot, so this makes sense). In this situation, the best thing to do was be professional and do my job, and that is what I did. I took the high road, and this had a more positive impact on the group than a pointless argument or return insult.

Anonymous said...

Can I respond to Clarissa here instead of on her sad blog post? I think that there are absolutely some situations -- maybe even most -- in which there should be a response, even a sharp one -- but it is naive to say that this should happen in every single case. And it is irrational to expect any one woman to go against her best judgment about what is most constructive in a particular situation just because some naive young woman would like to see us all shouting back at every obnoxious comment. And to say that it is the woman's fault that these things are perpetuated? Really? Blame the woman?

Jonathan said...

"I think it is important that there be a woman in this group"

"They had to have a woman"

That's pretty much the same sentiment, right? You agreed to be the token woman. Once you don't see yourself as that, then you should have no problem contesting your token status.

Female Science Professor said...

I don't understand the last sentence, but the first part is right. The group needed to include a woman, there weren't many options, I agreed to join the group etc. etc. I don't think we need to discuss this at every meeting for 6 years, especially when it is used to undermine my authority, and it is not relevant to my day-to-day work in this group, but I don't contest the fact.

Anonymous said...

I think that people should pick up their battles. You cannot be constantly discussing all bullshit around you. So sometimes you have to let it go.

Anonymous said...

In addition to your diversity hat maybe you could bake cookies for "their meeting" ....

Seriously, that was a comment well beyond the pale and I agree he should have been called out on it. One way to think about whether he crossed the line--what would you have said if he had made the same comment about someone else in the group who was part of a different under-represented group, or if in the course of a scientific discussion he had made an obviously racist, homophobic or other offensive statement? If you wouldn't have let him offend someone else, don't let him offend you.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

When I'm not too stunned that I'm STILL running into this type of behavior, my response to this sort of behavior is to say something along the lines of, "Well, if you think that I'm not contributing sufficiently to the group, then I certainly have other things to do, and you can find another token female." Then sit there and wait until they either tell me I can quit wasting my time or apologize. I'm to the point that I'm tired of people getting away with comments like that.

EliRabett said...

Of course, FSP will soon be Chair. . .

Oh yes, if the clown objects to being picked on just smile.

Anonymous said...

what an annoying situation. Maybe annoyance is a euphemism.

is this jerk colleague married? Of course he is, I bet he's married and has kids and grand kids by now.

How does he view or treat his wife and his daughters/daughters-in-law? With the same contempt and disrespect for their abilities? I really would like to know how sexist jerks even manage to find someone to marry them. Surely they don't treat their wives like queens and treat all other women like second class citizens? And if they treat their wives like second class citizens, who would want to marry them??

In a way I can "understand" how racist or homophobic people manage to maintain their ways, they probably go to great lengths to avoid contact with the "type" of people that they hate/fear. A racist person wouldn't marry someone of the race that they hate, for example.

That's what makes me always wonder about sexism and how it's different from racism or homophobia. Because practically all sexist men are married. You gotta wonder how they are treating their wives (i.e. with disrespect or some level of contempt) and why such women would allow being treated this way.

Greg Cook said...

The importent point about such a comment is its inherent implication that you have nothing of value to add to the committee other than your gender. What a terrible thing to say! As an MSP if I were in the room I would be appalled and speak out myself against such a spiteful attack against a colleague. The chair of this committee should have said something.

Doctor Pion said...

My thought was "well, now we know which seat on this committee was reserved for a misogynist jerk that no one wanted on any other committee" or "what quota put you on this committee", but that would be best left unsaid.

Your response, to get back on topic with an insightful comment germane to the business at hand, probably felt like punch in the nose to Prof. Jerk.

Female Science Professor said...

One great thing about this committee is that there is no committee chair; we all have equal super-galactic committee powers.

I know some people think that every insult deserves an equal and opposite reply, but there are cases (and I believe this is one of them) in which being super-professional and mature makes the insulter look mean and small.

Z said...

I would probably have responded as you did, FSP, because there are just so many of these incidents and I can't be bothered to figure out spelled-out responses to them all. It is annoying, yes.

Depending on context and so on, I might say something and might not. It's wearing to be the target and also to have the job of responding just right every time.

I find these kinds of incidents wearing and it is often salutary for me to stand up for myself. But if a way to do it that really will be strengthening doesn't come to mind at the moment, not rising to the bait and coming on with a strong response re the work at hand is a good option.

I don't think that not saying something every time amounts to collusion. I used to be more surprised at certain things, and thus more outspoken, than I am now. But in the days when I felt it my duty to respond consistently, I used to admire the dignity of some people who were targets and didn't respond every time. I realized: their sense of self worth does not depend on what happens in this venue, and they will take care of themselves in good time and on their own schedule.

Cara said...

Oh, awesome. So not only does FSP get a bunch of crap from some random moron at work, she gets it from other women here on her own blog. Good grief.

And that Clarissa kid is too hilarious. Imagine, women "let" men disrespect them in the workplace! The men must be entirely blameless. It's not like misogynist attitudes are in the fricking water or anything.

As always, everyone else's behavior is a woman's fault. Damned if we do, damned if we don't, and the women who have internalized their misogyny yap away as if they're going to get issued an honorary penis if they "handle" things just right.

This is not a function of what each individual woman does, kids. This is the culture. One of the things it does best is pit women against each other.

After all, if we're policing each other and vying for the honor of being "the Special Woman Who Does It Right", we don't have the energy or the BACKUP to fight the jerkwad guys who sit in meetings and talk about how the woman must be there as a token.

The reason this is something every woman has to gauge for herself is because PEOPLE (male and female) REFUSE TO SEE THIS PROBLEM AS SYSTEMATIC IN NATURE AND WON'T BACK HER UP WHEN SHE TRIES TO HANDLE IT.

Sheesh. And I'm SO fed up with all that "you teach people how to treat you" garbage. There are some men who have been taught far too well how to treat women by the culture at large. That's why EVERY woman, no matter how smart or dumb or pretty or not or old or young has these stories. Let's put the blame for this crap where it belongs--on the perpetrator.

Anonymous said...

I think if you escalated or came back at him - you would have run the risk of coming off with a mixed message depending on the individual viewpoints of the other people in the room.
Making a point for the sake of scoring a point is not always productive.
It sounds like the approach you took was an excellent approach and likely paved the way for a better working relationship with the other person.
Based on your last sentence (and you were there - we were not) it does sound like this person probably did learn and will hopefully make a stronger effort to behave in a more professional manner going forward.
Everybody says stupid things - and it is nice to give somebody a chance to help them realize they were just an idiot. You may have helped him to adjust without turning it into a battle.

Z said...

@Cara: And I'm SO fed up with all that "you teach people how to treat you" garbage.

A very, very good point.