Open season for female scientists

My post on the Soapbox Science blog

Because I’m a zoologist working in a rather gender-balanced and female-friendly environment, I have for a long time thought that the discrimination of women in STEM is a largely exaggerated problem. But then it hit me with the force of a charging elephant (the one that’s in the room).

A couple of years ago I found myself at an engineering conference, eager to develop collaborations for a biotelemetry project. My enthusiasm for networking was, however, curbed very quickly – to be precise, at the point when the organisers gave “a warm welcome to the engineers and the beautiful ladies”. From then on things went downhill. The conference crowd consisted mainly of middle-aged, moustached men who insisted on telling me to “smile”, while asking my male colleagues about the details of their projects. They posed for pictures with me, as if I were a Disneyland mascot. During lunch some said that they would like to sit opposite my female friend and me because “such a great sight whets their appetites”. Have I said something ditzy to encourage this attitude? No – I have not even had a chance to open my mouth before the judgment was passed: a young and pretty female surely can’t be competent.

To be honest, they were not trying to be sexist – they were simply trying to be nice. Well, it is nice to be complimented, but there’s a time and a place for everything. If I wanted to be noticed for my looks alone, I would have completed a four day make-up course, and not a four year PhD. Plus, I don’t mind a bus driver calling me “my love” in passing, but I do mind when a conference participant calls me that, while simultaneously addressing my male colleague as “Dr Smith”. This, incidentally, is notorious in panel discussions, when the chair switches between “and now we will hear from Dr William Jones” and “would you like to add anything to that, Suzie?”.

Yet this casual sexism of the middle-aged engineers proved almost endearing compared to my experience at a business conference. There, the businessmen simply assumed that any female under the age of thirty is provided purely for their entertainment. Young women who tried to network and obtain business contacts very quickly found themselves fondled or groped. Some dealt with it through icy politeness (“Excuse me, but this is MY buttock!” – “Well, I wouldn’t be grabbing my own now, would I, kitten?” – “Then be so kind as to leave mine alone, too”) thus gaining the label of “cold” and “difficult”; some were too shocked and panicked to react (you don’t normally expect the head of a major publishing house to put his hand up your skirt in the middle of a conversation, do you?); others would stay close to a group of trusted male friends, counting on masculine territoriality to take effect. Needless to say, my female colleagues and I did not leave this conference with new connections or feedback on our start-up ideas – we left with a trauma, feeling like game animals in open season.

Worryingly, the response from a lot of colleagues, to whom I told the stories later, was “oh well, you’ll turn fifty and then you’ll miss these behaviours; treat them as flattery; lap them up while you’re young”.

This text is not meant to be a generic rant against mankind – most men I know are lovely and supportive, and, in fact, some have had similarly traumatic experiences with predatory cougars. It’s an appeal, to both men and women, for professionalism. Don’t take advantage of others; don’t use your status to intimidate or bully; if you witness sexism – call people out on it. It’s a plea to those high up on the academic ladder – show support to the newbies, they are most vulnerable to abuse and less likely to stand up for themselves for the fear of burning key bridges in their career. It’s not rocket science, just basic human decency – but if all of these points were obvious to everyone, the two conferences I described would have been a much better experience for all.

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