Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Is science is in the eye of the beholder? [Hint: NO]

This week we have another guest post by Renee Hlozek, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University. Take it away, Renee!

Side note: The past couple months haven't been great for women in science and science journalism. This post links to all the stories of racism and sexism as as experienced by Danielle Lee (#standingwithdnlee!!) and the sexual harassment allegations made by Monica Byrne and Hannah Waters. To be honest, I am pretty overcome by the stories of late. I (like a surprisingly large number of female scientists I know) have experienced sexual harassment, albeit of a rather different kind to that discussed in the articles. While I have lots of thoughts on the pieces, I'm going to save those thoughts for another time and discuss something perhaps a little less obvious. I was actually pretty nervous to discuss even this one for fear of the usual comments it might elicit, but that makes me all the more decided to do so.

We all have bias. If you think you don't, try this eye-opening test on implicit bias from Project Implicit. It'll make you think. 

But while we're getting much better on average at identifying obvious forms of bias and sexism (at least I feel there is forward momentum!), one form of sexism is much more subtle: benevolent sexism. Rather than just giving a definition of the term, I'm going to try and relate what happened to me as an example and explain how this well-meaning person made me so angry and frustrated that I had to take a few (many) moments away from my colleagues to calm myself.

I was seated and ready for an early meeting with a person in a position of power. He was meeting with me to perform a standard background check on a colleague. As a South African, I've never done one of these in the US and so I was a little nervous and wanted to be as professional as possible (I even tidied my office!).

As I saw him walk past my door, I rose to greet him, and offered him a seat. He thanked me for making time to see him. 

And then he said:

"Hm. Well, you're too pretty to be a scientist! I came here expecting you to be wearing tiny glasses with your hair in a bun."

Yep. True fact.
And you know what I did?

Ugh. Less of this, please.
I shrugged and did my best at a cold stare. Now a week before, some stranger had made a similar joke to me and I had absolutely blasted him in my slightly-over-aggressive way. But here I was, on home turf, and absolutely mute. I felt that if I said anything to him, it might jeopardize my friend and colleague's background check. Or I felt shocked. Or something. To be honest, I wish now I had been able to say something.  I've since emailed him to explain that I found it offensive and he apologized saying that he truly didn't mean to offend me, and I believe him. He was, however, extremely surprised that I could take offense at his comments. It took quite a lot of explaining to describe how it made me feel and why it was damaging to our professional encounter. I don't want to have to keep having this interaction with 'well-meaning' people. Really, I don't.

After an outraged outburst to a close male friend and colleague at work (thanks for listening Jeremiah!) I posted a rant on Facebook. What surprised me even further were some of the comments, which suggested that he was just trying to give me a compliment, and that he meant well, actually. Now I am sure that this man actually was just trying to give me a compliment (and he has since apologized after all), and yes, it is always nice to feel attractive. 

So why am I upset, so much so, that over a month since it happened, writing about it makes my heart race? 

Well, firstly it is completely unprofessional to discuss what I look like in a science meeting. This man is a complete stranger and nothing about the meeting warranted a discussion on our bodies. But even so, he actually didn't compliment me on my dress style. What he said was that my body or what he defines to be attractiveness in me was outside of the expectations he had for a scientist, and he felt called to tell me that.

Let's unpack this a bit. First of all, that far that he openly admitted that he has a stereotyped idea of what a female scientist should look like is wrong. One may have a stereotyped idea of what a female (or male) scientist looks like. While I might like to, I can't actually even stop anyone from being internally biased by those stereotypes.  But what really is not okay is for you to share them with me. Often the way this happens is through a conspiratorial 'wink and a joke', like I should actually enjoy the fact that he shared this stereotype with me. 

So what can we do about this? In general I shy away from "to-do" lists, since I think that that sometimes makes people over-cautious in the work place, and I don't think that is a good thing, but I actually think a few tips might help in this case. Because a few common sense things to think about before you say anything can make all the difference. So before you speak, think:
  • What is the relationship between you and the person you are about to compliment? The way I will tell a friend he looks good (with something like: "looking sharp!") just isn't the same way I would tell the head of department that I like his or her shirt. If they are one of your students, then think about if it is appropriate.
  • Have you thought about what you are saying (i.e. the words you are using)? For example, saying that you like the color of someone's shirt is great, saying, "that shirt fits you so well" is less so. The first comment refers to their dress sense, the other to their body. The previous point is relevant to this too - because if you are close friends then they may not be offended. If in doubt, err on the side of expressing a compliment in a less rather than more familiar way. And that doesn't mean shying away from saying anything!
  • Have you thought about how the comment will make them feel, versus how it would make you feel to tell them? This one is subtle, but for example, perhaps I see someone wearing nice heels at work saying "wow, those are great heels" is a compliment to them, but is also based on fact. Saying "wow, why are you so dressed up?!" might make them feel like they are exposed, and is also based on my value judgement about how one should dress in work.
  • If you are surprised (pleasantly or otherwise) by having one of your stereotypes challenged that is great - but don't delight in telling the person who challenged them that. What if I notice that the man giving the seminar has a much more 'athletic' body type than that of a typical scientist? What if I notice that the female speaker has a very creative dress sense? I keep those comments to myself and make sure I pay close attention to their science talk. We won't do anything to increase diversity in our field if we keep highlighting the differences between our expectations of people and their reality. No one likes to feel like a show pony.
I actually do think we can navigate to a place where we can be friendly and relaxed while still being thoughtful about our interactions with other scientists. We just need to think for that fraction of a second before speaking in these cases. And then I won't have to keep making excuses for men and women that are trying to 'be nice' and 'mean no harm'. Until then, I'm going to go paint my nails while I wait for my code to compile.


David A. Czuba said...

I took the Project Implicit test and received the result "Your data suggest a strong automatic association of Male with Science and Female with Liberal Arts compared to Female with Science and Male with Liberal Arts." as opposed to 'slight', 'moderate', or 'little to no preference'.
I have been troubled for a long time about sexism in general, let alone in the sciences. Even though I consider myself an intellectual, educated liberal with an interest in the sciences, my attitude seems to be colored when I encounter females in the workplace. As a career college instructor, I work alongside an all-female medical and dental assisting department. But their department happens to have a male chair. Meanwhile, administration is staffed entirely by women, with the notable exception of the campus president. This hierarchy has faced changes. Prior to the current president, a female ran the campus, and her methods and attitude brought disaster. The current president, although not a complete train-wreck, is a sexist pig (pardon the French), who makes public comments about staff that I find appalling. Much like the example you gave, I think our president is oblivious. He has to be, otherwise he wouldn't call teachers "scumbags" and "edutainers", nor would he sanction an outdoor dunk-tank for October holiday festivities, what faculty disparaged as the "wet T-shirt contest". My take on these and other humiliations? There but for the grace of god go I.
You see, when I say I've been troubled, I mean to say that my first impression on seeing an attractive coworker is not to align her appearance with her occupation. Rather, I gawk. I ogle. Perhaps Americans are preoccupied with Prudery, having subjected our society to conflicting moral constraints. Look, don't touch. Comment, but with taste, otherwise you run the risk of sounding perverted, which some men, myself included, tend to disguise as comedy, a slip: speak first, apologize later.
Another part of me is jealous that culturally, women have a much more broad range of attire to draw on, while men are relegated to shirts and pants (I'm currently boycotting the tie). But that's only a symptom of the deeper sexual longing or tension we're discussing. Personally, I find that monogamy is overrated, but poly-amorous relations, taken too often, cause headaches.
It may, in sum, be as you say: focus on the message and not the person, which is difficult when you (and by 'you' I mean me) would like to say "Wow, you are pretty!" As a professional dealing with staff and students, I hold myself back every day. I'm not a wanker. It is just frustrating, not to mention difficult, to emphasize and act on rational thoughts when the message sent by the senses about an attractive woman is, by far, receiving my neuron's most attention.

Anonymous said...

Something similar (though not _quite_ as sexist) happened to me during a similar background check interview for a colleague. I told someone about it afterward and got the sense that background check people are specifically encouraged to do this, because they believe it puts you at ease. ha hA HA, I guess they need to get a clue.

SJMCK said...

I too think we can navigate this in a productive and non-threatening way. I have two daughters that I hope will not have to face blatant or (worse yet) well concealed sexism.

Anonymous said...

Renee - Thanks for the post! Why don't you sign up as your own identity under the "Women in Astronomy" blog, instead of existing under some male's heading?

Barbara said...

At a family party this fall, my four-year-old great nephew was playing with Leggos. He didn't approve of a little plastic scientist because the "minifig" was a girl and girls can't be scientists. I said, "I'm a scientist and I'm a girl!" He looked like he didn't believe me. (As a field botanist I don't wear lab coats, I admit.) Others assured him that girls can be scientists. He remained skeptical.

We have a lot of work to do. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post! I never realized this before but you are completely right, I work with a male scientist who looks much more like a "jock" than a scientist, something I've obviously noticed but would never comment on. On the other hand, I've lost count of the number of similar comments on my appearance falling outside the stereotypical scientist. The one I hear the most and have the hardest time with is: "YOU'RE in physics?! you must be so smart" which is always well-meaning, but I always find to be condescending and demeaning. Yes, I'm a female in science... and thanks for the double-whammy to let me know that I'm not fitting into the stereotypical persona you created for me.

Anonymous said...

I know this comment is kind of late to the party, but I think we're somewhat mixing male-female issues with the basic stereotype most people have of scientists. If you ask the average person on the street what a scientist looks like, it will be something like Einstein, or in a lab cost with glasses mixing up colored test tubes. If they envision a female, it will almost always be a dour, severe, person with glasses on chain and a tight bun.

This stereotype of a scientist is reinforced by text books which are illustrated by classic stereotypical images; by pop culture; TV and movies. The general public has been educated since kindergarten to think of scientists as dull, boring, unattractive, poorly dressed, socially inept people who can do those hard subjects like math.

So, when someone says you don't look like a scientist, it can also be the surprise of seeing years of "education" and belief upended by the meeting. Better to use the opportunity to educate them than take offense. Plenty of true pigs for us to be offended over.

Anonymous said...

In no way do I mean the following to take away from any of the points that you made, all of which I agree with and think are spot-on and insightful, but: as a man and a scientist, I can tell you that telling a male scientist you are surprised that, being a scientist, he has an athletic body, is probably not going to bother him. It's still good to avoid comments like this, but mostly for reasons of professionalism (and a professional environment will help keep men from making these comments to women). Men and women experience our society differently in some ways, and this unfortunately makes it difficult to explain women's experiences to them using gender-swapping parables.

Lisa said...

You're a great girl. I advocate you.