Name-calling, Favourites and Bystanders

Name-calling of any kind is painful. My first experience of it that I recall, dates back to primary school when the other kids used to call me teacher’s pet. Probably deserved as an appellation, in so far as I undoubtedly applied myself more to my lessons than some of my more troublesome peers. Nevertheless, looking back I feel aggrieved that I was so castigated because of the teacher’s slightly creepy predilection for me, obvious even to my eight or nine year old brain. Indeed, that probably upset me as much as the name-calling. I had no time for the teacher, not least because he was so ignorant he classified bats as birds.

That was merely a mild form of childhood bullying, albeit one which certainly left me feeling isolated amongst my classmates. There are many worse ways in which bullying can occur; name-calling is just one of them. I wrote previously about Jane Willenbring, who was repeatedly referred to (amongst other things) as ‘slut’ by her then PhD supervisor David Marchant during a season of fieldwork in Antarctica. Although on the surface impervious to this – according to a fellow student present at the time – it ate into her, so that a decade later she finally filed a complaint leading to his dismissal from his faculty post at Boston University. But comments eating away inside are immensely damaging. The facile statement that sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you, is just rubbish. Words can colour who you think you are and, if you are a researcher may mean you simply turn your back on research because the pain is too bad. Mentally, the labels that are applied in the insults can become part of your inner being.

Labels come in many forms. I don’t recall ever being called a slut, but I’ve had plenty of comments fired in my direction, derogatory and dismissive of me simply because I’m a woman.

“You only work on starch because, as a woman, domestic science is all you can do”

may have no explicit word of insult in it, but the message is still insulting to receive (this, after I had given a talk about several years’ worth of cutting edge physics research on starch).  PhD students who are repeatedly demeaned by peers or more senior members of their team or department are, in far too many cases, going to quit, whatever their intrinsic abilities may be. That is why I believe observing such behaviour – say, in a group meeting – and doing nothing makes that individual complicit. It is so much easier for the person who isn’t the one being bullied, or otherwise verbally attacked, to step in, than for the victim. Too often, if the latter attempts to speak up, they are accused of not being able to take a joke or, worse, the severity of the attacks increases. Such a ‘bystander’ intervention is much easier done when all that is under consideration is verbal abuse, not unwanted physical attention, but practice always makes perfect.

Catherine Sanderson has written a whole book, The Bystander Effect, about when people do and do not speak up against a bully or harasser (looking across many sectors and situations, although education is one she mentions). It provides both information on the psychological responses people experience when watching bad things unfold, and insight into how you can improve your toolkit to do something when things do go wrong in front of you. She certainly believes in the importance of practice; having ready phrases at hand makes it easier to intervene in the heat of the moment. It is always frustrating when, with the best of intentions, the moment slips by and your mind remains a blank and what you should have said only comes to you some minutes later when it’s far too late. But, as she reminds us, you can always go and give support to the victim later, even if you haven’t actually confronted the aggressor.

Bullying is well recognized, even if rarely well dealt with. It’s a problem in academia as in any workplace. But I also want to highlight a second kind of demeaning behaviour from the lead in any team, something I certainly was on the wrong end of during my first postdoc. That is, the case of a supervisor/Principal Investigator who has favourites. If you’re the blue-eyed boy or girl, you get all the attention. Any others in the group are all but ignored. This is the situation in which your work gets presented at a conference by someone else while you stay at home kicking your heels; your name does not appear where you feel it should in the list of authors on a paper; and you are not tapped on the shoulder to apply for a relevant postdoc the PI hears about, or some major fellowship scheme. This is insidious and can be quite hard to spot.

In my case, I really only worked out what had been happening much later. I am quite sure, in this specific case, a lot of the fault was down to the fact that, at the time, I was completely unmotivated. That is, however, a vicious circle. I was unmotivated not only because it was not a project that I felt any enthusiasm for, but also because, being ignored a lot of the time, there was nothing to stimulate me coming from my supervisor. I was not inspired to try harder, but just spiralled down. Luckily for me, my second postdoc was utterly different. Not everyone is so lucky.

By the time I was back in the UK with a Fellowship under my belt and grants to hand, I hired as a postdoc a student from that very same group I had worked in a few years before, with whom I’d overlapped. He regaled me with how he had been so fed up with Professor X because of the favouritism he had shown to another student, while he and others had been given very little attention, and how he’d seen that happen to me compared with another postdoc. That was a lightbulb moment for me, albeit the other postdoc had accomplished a great deal more than I had (and went on to join the faculty in the department and thence to have a very successful academic career in various US institutions).

The constant passing over of one student in favour of another is all too common, as is the unevenness with which academic benefits of any kind are handed out. I am not sure though whether it is always the case, as my freshly-hired postdoc opined in the case of our mutual professor, that this is because the supervisor only feels they can handle one student and one postdoc at a time, regardless of the size of their group. I think, too often it is simply that they respond more to one person than another, someone, perhaps who is the one that reminds them of the student they once were. In other words, they are swayed by affinity bias. Here gender and race are undoubtedly likely to play a role. All kinds of bias – against a woman doing physics, against a woman or black researcher in an otherwise all male/white research group and so on – can come into play. The upshot may be the kind of favouritism I am describing. Like name-calling and bullying, it can be immensely detrimental, but even harder to put a finger on let alone counter.

Academia, like any work-place, has a long way to go to be a truly fair and comfortable place to work. Each of us have our work to do, to support others being unreasonably treated and to make sure we are not ourselves guilty of these sins.

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