I received this email before I left for Experimental Biology. Throughout the meeting I felt guilty for not answering it right away, but now I am glad that I waited. Some experiences at the meeting have offered me a perspective that I am not sure I had before I left…
One of you lovely little darlings writes
O Great Dr. Isis,
I am fashion-impaired and unfortunately have no fashion offerings for you. The majority of my income goes to pay off the fashion police so that they turn a blind eye to my crimes against fashion. But your great wisdom in dealing with cockdoucheweaselmonkeys is inspiring, and I beseech you to grant a tiny sliver of your wisdom to an undeserving mortal such as myself!
Far too often, when I am conversing in a professional setting with one or more other women, a d00d approaches us and interrupts our conversation to express his discomfort with the existence of women having a conversation. There are different ways in which different d00dz say it, e.g., “What are you ladies plotting?” “Is this the local NOW meeting?” “Seeing you three scheming together makes me nervous!”, but it is all variations on the same theme.
Every time this happens, I nearly lose my junk. The last time it happened, I talked to the d00d’s supervisor (who is also a woman), who put the fear of God into him. But far too often this comes from someone who is not at the career level where I can just talk to their supervisor — a lot of times this is a man who is a collaborator, a senior scientist, or even a manager (although luckily not my manager — mine is made of elemental awesome).
So, my question, O Great One, is what to do? I want to go all Hulk and SMASH! but I know that would not be the best idea. Is there a witty rejoinder I could use next time (because yes, there will be a next time, probably within the next month)?
Thanks for your awesomeness and for serving as an inspiration to all us mortals!
[Name redacted a la Isis]
This darling left her blog name in her signature, but I err on the side of caution. If she would like to take credit for this question, I would invite her to do so in the comments section. But now, on to my answer…
I find these kinds of situations both hilarious and disheartening. I’ll never forget a conversation I had after being here at MRU for about 5 months. I had just turned in my first protocol to this university’s animal use and care committee (IACUC). Not long after my submission, I ran into Dr. Triple Threat in our university’s fitness center. He was leaving as I was arriving. After we exchanged greetings he said something along the lines of, “Oh, I just ran into the chair of the IACUC in the shower. We were talking about you and he said how impressed he was with your protocol.” I replied to him, in blatant Isis-style honesty, “You two were showering and talking about me?”
Figure 1: An artist’s rendition of the showers at MRU.
Since, I occasionally tease Dr. Triple Threat about his “in the shower meetings,” but the fact remains that the barriers for communication are different for us. In my field, many of the male scientists are friends. They hike, rock climb or play golf together. They drink scotch together, and they pee at the urinal and shower together after they exercise in the fitness center. And, although I have frequently yearned to be able to pee standing up, I hadn’t considered myself to be missing much by being excluded from the shower conversations. I can assure you that there have been few men in science that I have wanted to see with a loofah.
Video 1: Perhaps their loofahs are peach.
However, I suspect that the reason that I am less bothered is because I have never had access to those conversations. On the other hand, it must be strange to be a dude who has spent his entire career with little to no barrier to inclusion and suddenly find himself thinking that he has been excluded from a discussion where important scientific scheming might be happening.
Figure 2: What happens when science women congregate.
I’m not saying it’s right. I’m just saying that it is an interesting sociological exercise to imagine the situation.
So, how do you deal with it? Lately, I have taken to reaffirming their paranoia. If someone says, “It makes me nervous when a group of women get together.” I say, “It should.” If someone says, “Is this a NOW meeting?” I just say, “Yes.” I find it well worth the hilarity of watching the frank affirmation stop them in their tracks. If someone asks, “What are you ladies plotting?”, you can answer “World domination.” What you can’t do, unfortunately, when you are not in a position of power, is to completely lose your junk all over the place. The obnoxious dude you knee in the balls today is the guy who sits on your study section tomorrow. So, you’ve got to be more stealth in how you affect positive change.
If I had answered this email a week ago and it included that comment about affecting positive change, I would have ended it with a gigantic, cynical, “fuck you, science.” But, today I am more of an optimist. You see, I travel to a couple of scientific meetings a year and it seems like, for the last couple of years, I have been touched, or groped, or hit on at every meeting. Experimental Biology was no different, except that this time it came with an added twist. After the offending groping had occurred, I saw Dr. Triple Threat. I tried to coax him to leave with me so that I could get away from the situation and he, unaware of what had happened, gave me a little gentle teasing about walking to our next venue in heels. I reacted poorly. Dr. Triple Threat and I have developed a comfortable relationship. Our families spend time together, we’ve done some wacky experiments together, and any other day this level of teasing would have been part of our usual banter. But, that day it was just too much and I said something along the lines of “Then just leave me alone and don’t touch me”, as I actively swatted his hand away. I have no doubt that I had that little “I am about to cry” quiver in my voice.
I just felt so raw and humiliated over the previous interaction that his teasing was enough to obliterate the defense I had built up. This left me feeling even more vulnerable and hopeless. We parted ways and he texted me with an “I’m sorry,” but it took me a day to rebuild my confidence enough to talk to him. When we met a day later, I shared with him what had happened moments before I had lost my cool and he seemed really, truly, genuinely surprised. Then he said something to me that meant everything in the world. He said, “I’m sorry that I didn’t realize you needed me. You normally appear so confident that I forget that sometimes you need my support. I promise to pay more attention to how you are treated.”
What’s the point of telling you all of this? Science can be a hostile place toward women, but there are some allies out there and I think that finding and influencing these allies is going to get us farther than lashing out at every sackwart we meet. A week or two ago, I was more cynical about the ability to do this. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll still continue to call out asshats on my blog, but I am learning that the most important thing I can do is to surround myself with people who are supportive of me and my career.
So, enjoy surrounding yourself with female colleagues and mentors, and male colleagues who are supportive of your place in science. Rely on these people to be your sounding board and defensive shield. Leave the folks who harass you to their own devices. Then, when you do take over the world, they’ll have confirmation of exactly what you were up to.