I Am Not A Bimbo

 Not so long ago I read a distressed ‘rant’  about being catcalled in London, from a woman who seemed persistently to be subjected to it – and worse. Alice voiced her anger and her misery in detail and provoked a storm of comments – supportive, although also occasionally mystified – on her blog and through twitter. Many if not most women will have suffered name-calling and unwanted physical contact from strangers on the streets of the sort she identified. It can be hard to avoid when random individuals feel they have a right to comment on one’s appearance, dress or figure. (I will admit as a teenager in London myself, the typical comment I got was the more innocuous ‘don’t worry dear, it may never happen’ rather than something referring to my anatomy; it was rather depressing to think I walked around with a permanent frown or grimace on my face.) The verbal taunts are bad enough, but the groping and quasi-assualts are infinitely worse.

What Alice found interesting was that, having vented her spleen through the medium of the blog, the nastiness appears to have ceased. As she said in a follow-up post, she can’t prove what caused it, but 5 weeks of freedom from attack must demonstrate something and the most likely explanation she could come up with is that by offloading her distress and annoyance she subsequently walked taller, as if she had confronted the enemy face-to-face instead of in print. My guess is that she unwittingly found a means of freeing up her ‘inner assertiveness’ and by becoming stronger internally she no longer appeared an easy target. It was interesting to note in her original blog that she used the word ‘bully’ several times and of course standing up to a bully rather than allowing oneself to be the victim is always to be recommended – if one can. (For a wonderful book on acquiring assertiveness, I’d recommend Anne Dickson’s A Voice for Now, a book I discussed earlier in my interview in The Browser).

In a place of work one should be free from verbal and other sorts of assault. Should be, but of course it doesn’t always pan out that way. I’ve written about this in the past, although I have no easy answers. At my age, I don’t expect people to comment on my appearance or dress in a sexually inappropriate way, but just occasionally I find myself still subjected to behaviour that at the least could be called patronising, but more accurately demeaning. It always catches me out. It doesn’t happen often I’m pleased to say, presumably a combination of learning how to ooze apparent assertiveness (whatever my innermost thoughts might be) and the ‘status of seniority’ I have acquired en route to my current position deters most but the most hardened offender. However, as I wrote previously, I can still fall victim to the wandering arm and sexually offensive comments occasionally. And, as I discovered not so long ago, I can still be subjected to verbal put-downs in the most unlooked for places, reducing me to feeling that the culprit in this case had me down as a mere bimbo, and leaving a most unpleasant taste in the mouth.

Earlier this summer I was invited to a dinner at a location well away from my home town where several of us were guests from afar. The other guests in this category were all male and some had brought their partners, although I had not. It was (unusually for this summer) a lovely evening, drinks were served outside and everything was very informal. A crowd of us were there, but no proper introductions were done, simply first names – nothing to identify who was who, who was the housekeeper and who were the hosts, who were the visitors and who were the local crowd there to make up numbers. Given that no guest list was presented this was all rather confusing. I say all this in an attempt to create a scenario for which what followed might be considered excusable.

There was a seating plan and I duly took my place and did my duty talking to those on either side of me. So far so good. But halfway through the meal things started to slide. One of my neighbours started talking over me as if he’d had enough of dialogue and had reached the point (perhaps determined by the level of alcoholic lubrication) where he just wanted to hold forth to show what a splendid chap he was in his field – one far from mine, but one that certainly was of interest and I’d have been happy to discuss it with him. I was given no chance and felt somewhat irritated but no worse. Subsequently conversation got more general and the gentleman across the table – who was another of the visitors, as I discovered, but goodness knows who he thought I was – started to wax lyrical on a subject about which it became clear he was not at all well informed. Shall I just say, he was not a scientist but decided to air his personal views about genetics and evolution. If it had been his hobby maybe he’d have known what he was talking about, but it was clearly just his hobby horse.

Now, as is obvious, those are not subjects I’m a professional expert in, but nevertheless I certainly knew more about it than he did and tried gently to point out some of his more blatant errors so that we could have a more sensible conversation . That man had the hide of a rhinoceros; he just swept on as if I was some speck of dirt on his horizon. Clearly, he was used to holding court and could not conceive he was being contradicted. Rather than make a fuss, which would – I’m sure – have been a dreadful social faux pas and just embarrassed everyone, I’m afraid I chose instead to engage the wine waiter in a lengthy conversation so that I could gracefully opt out. Possibly the coward’s way of handling the situation, but on this occasion I was sufficiently angry that any response could have got out of hand and  it would simply have been bad manners on my own part to the hosts.

Now, the question is, would he have done that to a man? Did he just assume I was an ignorant bimbo, come along as partner or arm candy for one of the other senior males (which of course makes the dangerous and unreasonable assumption that such people are themselves beneath contempt)? Or am I being too sensitive and he was the kind of boor who enjoyed pontificating whatever the nature of the audience he had to hand? I know who he is, and I’m sure he’s given lots of opportunities to hold forth in public with his audience hanging on his every word. This would be fair enough when talking about his own field of expertise – again he could probably have been very interesting if he’d stuck to that – but not when expressing idiotic opinions based on ill-informed ideas. He is, by every measure, a Grand Old Man, but I sincerely hope I never have to rub shoulders with him again.

In this case I clearly could have gone on to fight my corner and try to get him to pay heed to where he’d got things muddled up, but to be honest I couldn’t be bothered. It didn’t matter enough. Zinemin said in a recent post about unattractive displays in the bar at conferences that some individuals try to

prove their manliness to each other by trying to drink more, make the better jokes [but the right, manly kind of jokes], being louder and being ‘cooler’.

A conference is a much more trying situation than a simple dinner party, particularly for those aspiring to effective networking and serious conversation. Indeed, I found Zinemin’s post very depressing, because I thought the kind of conference bar atmosphere she described had rather faded away (as I’ve described before). But just occasionally it is worth remembering that those boorish tendencies can still escape and, for many, can be damaging as well as unattractive. I’m passed the point of it ‘mattering’; I am not past the point of caring at being subjected to such ill-mannered behaviour and wondering what I’d done to deserve it. And, if people can be loutish in this way, do I trust them not to be loutish in other ways that are even more offensive? But whether one should just confront every instance of it to try to stop the perpetrator doing the same thing again or worse, or simply turn the other cheek – that is always the conundrum.



This entry was posted in Equality, Women in Science and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to I Am Not A Bimbo

  1. zinemin says:

    Thanks for linking to my post. I identify with this situation at the dinner table, this has happened to me often. I have one male colleague in particular who likes to preach about stuff he has clearly never thought through. If I protest, I can really feel the wave of irritation going through the room. I think it has to do with men caring much more about dominance than most of women do. For them getting interrupted while preaching is really a blow to the ego, particularly if it happens by a woman. I have recently started to protest regularly if I find a clear mistake in an argument. The result is that some male postdocs in my institute really seem to dislike me. But on the other hand it also makes me sometimes very happy to protest. It is enjoyable to be a little aggressive, in particular to people who talk and talk and say nothing of substance, and force us all to listen to them. This is aggressive in the first place and deserves some aggression back. If my behavior is extremely inpolite according to male standards, I don’t care much. Talking about stuff that someone knows very little about like he was an expert is very impolite according to my standards too.

  2. LL says:

    Thanks Athene. It is go great to see someone write about these things. I and many of my female colleagues often have a sense this is happening to us, but similarly tend to avoid making a fuss at the time. I have had similar experiences in work situations. Particularly when I am the most junior and often only female scientist participating in small group meetings. Inevitably (if I am unknow to the other participants) there is an assumption that I will just jump up and serve everyone tea and coffee as I am almost certainly ‘just the secretary’ . The more subtle and pernicious effect of this attitude is, however, that as you describe, I then have to struggle to get my view across and to make an impact as these colleagues tend to be too busy enjoying the sound of their own voice to even notice that I wish to contribute! As with Zinemin this leads me to interject quite forcefully sometimes. But then I see this as assertiveness and not aggression.
    The important point I realise writing this is that I rarely encounter this problem with the senior male colleagues to whom I am well known, or where I am introduced to a new group of people by my mentor (who is very senior and widely respected), the association with him apparently trumps my other ‘deficiencies’ of age and gender.
    Again, thank you for writing about this. I think it’s is vital that we fight against these pernicious, lazy and downright offensive assumptions about the relationship between your lack of a Y chromosome and your scientific aptitude. Part of this involves trying to help all women in science to be as confident as you are in your own expertise, and not to be afraid to demonstrate that confidence in group situations.

  3. Ursula Martin says:

    I came across this today – a group tackling harassment at tecchie conferences. How depressing this should be necessary

    The group is here

    The policy is here
    The Ada Initiative’s first project: an example written policy that bans harassment at conferences, sexual or otherwise, of people of all genders. Organizers for literally hundreds of conferences have adopted some form of this policy, including open source software conferences from Linux to Python to Git, the world’s largest Wikipedia conference, Wikimania, and a plethora of others including gaming cons, open video conferences, science fiction conventions, and even skeptic/atheist meetups.

  4. Fabio Noviello says:

    Hi. Just an extension of my twitter reply (also extended to zinemin & LL)

    I agree that some (many) men might want to impress an audience and, especially the women in it. And also might not want to be contradicted by women. But, in the case of the gentleman @dinner mentioned in the post, he could just be plain thick and would have done the same with a man.

    More generally, sometimes when I read feminist blogs (not this one), I perceive (just by a few bloggers) an open hostility towards men which border on sexism. By this I mean that the “average” man (whoever that may be) is stereotyped in a very negative way in his attitudes towards women. In turn, this implies that any action by men is immediately filtered negatively and suspiciously. This is somewhat unfair.
    Speaking for myself, I’ve grown simply considering gender equality to be (should be) a natural thing and, please believe me, i’ve seen quite a few unpleasant things along the lines of discrimination (unfortunately) and have contributed actively to avoid it.
    Yet, sometimes, I’ve been very annoyed by some (thankfully few) female colleagues who immediately are suspicious if you treat them in a friendly manner or want to discuss openly problems that might have arisen.

    Mind you, I’m not belittling the issues you all describe (*far* from it). Merely making a statement on the danger of prejudice an all sides.

  5. Fabio
    I know that the person concerned might just have done the same thing to a man. That’s why I asked ‘am I being too sensitive’? The trouble is, when you’ve seen it happen so often in ways that clearly are sexist, it is hard not to assume that’s the underlying problem whilst simultaneously knowing it might not be. Whatever, it is inappropriate behaviour. I’d be interested to know if you think if it happened to a man it would be any easier to handle? Or if you’d agree ignoring it and moving on is always the best policy.

    But as LL says, these things do happen, and they happen frequently. Zinemin’s post gives specific examples in a conference setting. They are very, very tedious and they contribute to the climate that makes some women leave the field. The best solution would be for men like yourself to confront the boors, the sexist males whenever possible (as you indicated you do), rather than leave it the women to try to ‘fight’ in ways that it is all but impossible to win. As an example of a strategy I used once when a committee was collectively referred to as ‘gentlemen’, please read my earlier post, where I consciously got some ‘sympathetic males’ onside. These problems have to be solved collectively by men and women, and my view is the more men are involved the better. It isn’t a case of male bashing of the sort you fear some people (all right, women) pursue because very rarely is that appropriate or helpful. But if you’ve been subjected to too much of it, it is a natural reaction to be suspicious I’m afraid.

  6. Michael Merrifield says:

    Is it acceptable to state

    I think it has to do with men caring much more about dominance than most of women do.

    which, in a single short sentence, encapsulates an unsupported prejudice, a gross generalization, and a sexist stereotype? If so, what grounds are there for objecting to sexist stereotypes that go the other way?

    • rpg says:

      I’m not sure that Athene is objecting to sexist stereotypes as such; rather the boorish and rude behaviour of men who do not treat women as fellow human beings. I’ve seen this kind of behaviour all too often, in the physical world as well as online, and I have to say it pisses me off. If anything, Athene is being far too gentle and sensitive in her post.

      • cromercrox says:

        There are some pretty boorish women around, too. Usually in pubs in Great Yarmouth. But one in Cambridge noted that the extinction of most of my extended family in Auschwitz had been ‘A Good Thing’.

  7. Fabio Noviello says:


    Regarding the gentleman@dinner I’m not sure how you can deal with “inappropriate” behaviour of that kind. You can’t really do anything about people who talk too much about topics they completely ignore. And, besides, it’s very difficult to decide whether “I’m being too sensitive” or whether the person is just a fool?. Best to ignore them, whether they be men or women.

    It’s completely different if the annoying behaviour is expilcitely accompanied by comments such as “since you’re a woman” (or since you’re an X, whatever that may be..). Then a straightforward answer is the best thing.

    Personally, I tend to block sexist or racist comments pretty quickly and directly (I’ve actually done more than that) Just imagine chatting with a “gentleman” who says you shouldn’t get a girlfriend older than 23 since she might be too old to bear children when you marry (!) and, in the same conversation, justifies the Holocaust….

    As for your other post, thanks for not supporting male-bashing! I agree that these kind of issues need a joint approach. I also realized I have a hidden prejudice against administrators and technicians, since I automatically assume everyone in a lab is a scientist when I meet them.

    Besides, I give some (a few…) of the male-bashers the benefit of doubt. Perhaps they’ve gone through some experience that has made them extremely wary and this might explain their attitude. Personally, even if their behaviour hasn’t been to my advantage, I’m always ready to mend fences if things are reasoned through. Diplomacy is usually better than outright war,

    Finally, this answer might sound a bit self-righteous, I’m not saying I haven”t made my mistakes…

  8. cromercrox says:

    I don’t get invited to dinner parties like that.

    All the dinner parties I attend are jovial, relaxed, and most often with knit-your-own-muesli grow-your-own-birkenstocks niddle-class hipsters of all genders, usually either just off to Glastonbury or having just returned. And because all our friends live in variously scattered parts of the middle of nowhere, everyone has to drive, so nobody is ever drunk.

    The other social occasions I attend are gigs, in pubs, often very rough, when I am in the band. The clientele is working class, the men are coarse, the women are inclined to be brassy, the air is blue, people are nice to one another (because a smack in the mouth often offends) and everyone has a great time.

    I think you ought to be more selective about the parties you attend.

  9. “Now, the question is, would he have done that to a man?”

    Obviously (and as you’ve already said), it’s impossible to know with this particular person. However, I do know that there are men who display this behaviour towards other men, because my husband has been the brunt of it a couple of times when accompanying me on work functions. My husband’s a carpenter, and I think younger male grad students in particular – those still in that phase that so many of us have gone through to some extent of thinking they’re the bees knees because they’re doing a PhD – have therefore assumed that he’s not very intelligent, which could not be further from the truth. In one case during my postdoc years we were out with a group of my colleagues when someone started talking about evolution. My husband started talking about a new study he’d heard of, in some detail, linking it to other topics in the same general area. A young male grad student (a good few years younger than my husband) told him, quite condescendingly, that he’d got it all backwards (he hadn’t). Before I could intervene, an older (female) grad student loudly said “actually, [Cath’s husband] has it right, so rethink your attitude”.

    So, for some people such behaviour may be driven by gender, in others it might be age, and in this case it was perceived status within the group. Whatever the motivation, it’s a terrible habit – but luckily one this grad student in particular was able to break quite quickly – he’s now a friend.

  10. Validated derogatory language is a measure of human society based in intersexual dominance of others of either sex, using male hominoid dominant power hierarchical structures, therefore potential physical aggression to coerce with. Coercion is covert because no sooner than brought to light the coercer will try to bluff its way out claiming that it was all a joke.

    The bit on Zinemin about the myth of the benefits of alcohol abuse in supposedly intellectual circles at conference bars, struck a cord. In all walks of life, but certainly at bars, it’s very easy to tell who is the incompetent that forces an erroneous opinion rather openly discuss an issue. The moment someone starts talking directly to one of your ears close up and not in the face without the need to do so, very often accompanied by a pointing finger, is a dead giveaway. No matter how difficult it is to suppress telling people like that how much of an idiot they are and to please breath somewhere else, it is always best to totally avoid them. Forced opinions are projected from a subjective point of view and are aggressive because they lack the objectivity to accept that others might think differently and can be learnt from, even if it’s just to fortify one’s own convictions.

    It’s a marvel that the ordinary human being has the capacity to be brain trained on any field to a very high degree, but that does not always mean that the highly educated individual produced will necessarily have a rational outlook on life. The Unabomber and James Holmes are excellent examples of how much you can educate someone that ends up insane.

  11. rpg says:

    Athene, I saw this today (again) and thought of you, and some of your commenters…

  12. Michael Merrifield says:

    I give up. Thank you, Athene: arguing with you has made me think an interesting subject through and revise a variety of opinions. We deeply and fundamentally agree about the end, but I think we disagree almost as fundamentally about the means. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem possible to hold this discussion in the honest way it deserves without unpleasant allegations being flung, ironically enough by someone who presumes to stick up for you. I hope I bump into you sometime in person, as I think the discussion would be illuminating as well as heated (and perhaps rather more nuanced than 140 characters allows!), but I won’t be commenting online again.

  13. katboh says:

    “Now, the question is, would he have done that to a man?”
    I was wondering, would you be bothered if this person was a woman?
    Obviously, this kind of behaviour is impolite and inconsiderate regardless who does it. You asked whether you were too sensitive. Although I don’t have an answer, I think this is an important question. I was wondering whether being too sensitive (in general, not in this case) could be a problem that might help promote sexist/racist/etc. behaviour. By paying too much attention or reading too much into different situations, can we unintentionally support the very same problems we are trying to solve? Would you feel differently if you dismissed the anecdote as an unpleasant encounter with a rude person who is full of it or is the emotion much stronger when labelled as potentially sexist? Does the presumably different emotional response have an impact in a broader context?
    Just a thought. I would be interested to know what you think.

Comments are closed.