In the comments for my last post, J0ns1m0ns remarked that he thought the issue of mode of speaking at committee meetings was perhaps a bit of a red herring, but I fear inappropriate remarks and behaviour persist and shouldn’t, indeed mustn’t be ignored. In some senses they are the tip of an iceberg. Despite my relative seniority I am not exempt from being at the receiving end of them. I would like to share two recent examples, I hope appropriately anonymised, and see if readers have tips to share for how to handle these situations, any means they may have discovered which are effective. I know that, despite years of apparent survival in the academic world, there are still situations in which I find myself at a loss for an appropriate response to inappropriate behaviour.
The first example is summed up by the title of this post. It arose, not at a committee meeting, but during a phone conversation with a male colleague and within the last year. We were in disagreement. A document was being produced, the initial version of which I felt had serious flaws. It took some time to convince others in the decision-making chain of this, but once I did there was general agreement that the document must be modified to take these concerns into account. The phone conversation arose when two of us were subsequently discussing the amended document, which I felt still fell short of what was required. Clearly, some way into the conversation, both of us were getting frustrated. Nevertheless I was gob-smacked to be told that the guy at the other end could
hear I was getting emotional,
implying it sounded as if I was about to burst into tears. An extraordinarily effective ploy – for him – because it completely stopped me in my tracks, not least because it was so far removed from what I was thinking or feeling. I was even more annoyed with myself afterwards because, had I been more quick-witted, I could have said
and I can hear you’re getting angry
– which he was. The standard double bind of women’s emotion being unacceptable (even had it been present in me), but men’s anger is apparently OK, the point I was trying to make in the earlier post. L’esprit de l’escalier always comes too late; it was a missed opportunity for me to counter his assertion. Unfortunately, whether his ploy was deliberate or unconscious, I feel it enabled him to win that round on the phone. Nevertheless, and in reality much more importantly, I won the battle since the document was duly changed further to remove the pitfalls I saw in it, despite his apparent attempt to throw me off course.
The second example also happened relatively recently, but exemplifies something that has happened too frequently to me in various guises. I was at a reception after an event – in this case outside Cambridge, although the location is irrelevant – and someone wanted to take photos for their own publicity purposes. At the time I was talking to a grey-haired complete stranger (I never discovered his name). What did he do at the thought of a camera being pointed in our direction? He put his arm round my waist! I muttered,
I don’t think that’s appropriate
and moved away but, the unfortunate truism that nice girls don’t make a fuss, meant that I didn’t feel slapping him round the face was procedurally correct, though I was sorely tempted.
It is not the first time that a camera being pointed in my direction has led to someone in the vicinity thinking that draping an arm around me is the correct thing to do. This floors me. Men, please, please realise professional women do not necessarily (ever?) think this is a compliment. A box of chocolates, with or without the camera being focussed in my direction, would definitely be better received if a compliment is what is in your mind. Otherwise, well I’m sorry I really don’t know why, in a professional situation, this is regarded as in the least way appropriate. But I also don’t know how to stop it in ways that are not perceived as aggressive and end up making me look at least as stupid as the male malefactor. I’ve had a long time to try to devise a strategy, because this happens – even with the grey strands in my hair – far more often than I would like, with or without a camera. Worse, it usually occurs in situations where the male is probably counting on me not being prepared to erupt in their face including, in one case, when I was sitting across the table from a vice chancellor (who didn’t bat an eyelid, which hardly improved the situation).
So Jon, I can’t agree with you, bad behaviour in committees or elsewhere, must not be tolerated and it does matter. These examples not only demean me as a professional, trivial though they are in some ways and certainly in comparison with the horrors some women get subjected to, but they are damaging because in effect they render me – or any woman in a similar position – powerless. And that may be the perpetrator’s intention. How can I continue a high level dialogue when someone is so infringing my personal space and treating me without respect? How can I look like a serious member of the academic community when I am reduced to bimbo status by that wandering arm? And if this happens to me, as a professor, what must the younger researchers have to put up with at these same hands (or arms)? Is it surprising we have such a leaky pipeline in academic science when this sort of thing is allowed to persist? I have kept silent long enough and at least my blog gives me a chance to voice my extreme annoyance whilst keeping names out of any complaint expressed. Men who behave like this should not have it all their own way. Suggestions please, for appropriate responses and put-downs!