Not-quite-harrassment and (lack of) professional conduct

I’ve been lucky enough in my career so far to not have experienced any much overt sexism, or had harrassment or assault directed at me, unlike these ladies (and many more). What I have experienced in the last year, though, is the ignorance of young, mostly white, heterosexual men about how people who aren’t them experience the world. My PhD lab is pretty international – I doubled the numbers of British students – and pretty gender balanced. Somehow, even this diverse group of highly educated people manages to contain some complete bigots – racist, sexist, classist. The thing that most affected me (read: pissed me off) was the way some of my fellow students would talk about the women in our department.

For the sake of anonymity, I won’t describe in detail – suffice to say they had a codeword, for whether a girl was “hot enough” or not. New starter? Is she, isn’t she? What’s she wearing today? She looks goood. Don’t you think she’s attractive? Does she have a boyfriend?

It took me a year to get the words together. First, I didn’t know the guys well; then, I knew they didn’t mean any harm; then I realised that it didn’t matter what they meant, the comments could still cause harm – but I couldn’t vocalise my thoughts coherently. Then I still couldn’t vocalise my thoughts as coherently as I’d have liked, but I got fed up and told them off anyway. I’m not sure how effective it was. I’m not sure I convinced them that it’s degrading to judge female colleagues – women who are there to work, to do awesome science! – on their appearance, that even if they are joking, such comments can cause harm to those around them. I’m afraid they agreed not to make such comments at work just to avoid upsetting me. I’m afraid they’ll treat me differently – that we won’t be friends – from now on. (Then again, I don’t want my friends to talk like that either, not just my colleagues). But, there have been no incidents of this behaviour since, at least not within my hearing.

The thing that the recent science-writing-harrassment-deluge has brought home to me is how hard it is to speak up against these sorts of behaviour. Posts like this:

You wonder if, objectively, what happened to you can really be as big a deal as it feels like it is to you — if the fact that it feels like a big deal to you, one that you can’t just shake off, means that something is wrong with you.

And this:

It was all reading between the lines, which made it easy for me to discount my own experience. Instead, I did my best to ignore my discomfort to avoid conflict, or otherwise convinced myself that I was reading too far into it.

… I really recognise those feelings. And the thing is, I’m… well… kinda a belligerent person. I always used to get in trouble at school for being stubborn. I do try to consider my opinions before I form them or if new evidence appears, but I generally have no problems stating them, and backing them up, and arguing about them. I’m not usually worried about not being liked. I’d rather be a good person than a good scientist – maybe that’s something I shouldn’t admit. And if it took me a year to tell these guys they were out of line? These being fellow students, not people in a position of power? What about less short-tempered strong-minded women? What would I do if it was my boss saying this?

I have another data point: another female student in my lab tried, somewhat, to tell them off when she first started. But, she said to me (paraphrased), she realised they were just young guys joking around, and she’d rather be liked than make a fuss. And this woman is the other most outspoken person in the lab, the only other person to call out the blatant classism we overheard one day. It makes me sad that we feel this way.

My opinion is that this kind of inappropriate, disrespectful behaviour can come from a blurring of the lines between professional and personal life. In academia, work takes up so much of your time and has so few rules, so few expectations – e.g. no dress codes! – that it doesn’t always feel like a job. Often, you socialise with the same people you work with. And it becomes really easy to act the same way in the lab as you on a boys’ night, or down the pub with your close friends. Note, I’m not condoning objectifying women or being racist in those situations – but there’s no denying that it happens. I don’t have the energy and I don’t think it’s my business to tell people what they should or shouldn’t say in the pub – but at work, it’s different. None of these racist, sexual, derogatory comments would be acceptable in a normal workplace. As much as it may not always feel like it, as PhD students / postdocs / academic staff, we are in a professional environment and we should act like it.
The question is, how to get this message across? Professional conduct codes for students? (Do some institutions already have this?) Mandatory diversity / privilege awareness training? Suggestions welcomed, as well as anything you know of that is already in place.
Edit: to add a link to this post, How Not to Be That Dude – perhaps this should be required reading for first year PhDs!
 — Bob

3 thoughts on “Not-quite-harrassment and (lack of) professional conduct

  1. Pingback: Everyday sexual harrassment in science |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s