It’s probably the most eagerly awaited part of a conference, and if you’re female, I suspect one of the most dreaded. As a guy, it is really simple, right – put some clean, nice clothes on (hopefully, but perhaps not likely if you’re a physicist :D), turn up, have a good night, go home – probably the only awkward bit is that horrible game of musical chairs that ensues after pre-dinner drinks. You don’t have to worry about whether what you wear will bring you unwanted attention from the opposite sex. And you don’t have to worry that just being friendly and making conversation, or dancing with someone, means you’re itching to join them in bed at the end of the night, and they can sleaze you up until you do.
Sadly, for the girls, this often turns out to be the exact opposite. I’ve seen some pretty shitty behaviour lumped on women at conferences. From undue and persistent advances, even when it’s obvious there’s no interest in such, to comments about ‘getting laid’ and such that are just blatant sexual harassment (and should get you fired), to groping and hands put in inappropriate places. There are no excuses for this, and we should accept none. It happens for a mix of intent and insufficient education – some men know this is wrong and do it anyway; some are young, stupid and inadequately educated about the harm in their behaviour.
Men have a responsibility to fix this problem because it will only continue while we stand idly by. Those with intent are a separate issue (perhaps a different post), but one thing we need for the latter is to be much more engaged in setting the standards for those following us. We can change these behaviours, we just need to invest the effort into doing it.
For the most part, how we treat women comes from the influences of our fathers, be it as the example to follow, or sometimes sadly, an abusive example to anti-follow. I was fortunate in that I had a great example to follow (mostly… again, no man is perfect! But the imperfections are lessons in themselves :) ). I also grew up as the only boy with four sisters, which at least provides some empathy – it is easy to wish that my sisters would have the same opportunities I do, and thereby see how that is still not the case. Nonetheless I’m not going to claim angelic perfection. I have said and done some stupid things in my years; peers and media can be strong negative influences. Why is this? I think it is mostly that by our late teens, the influence of our fathers has eroded/saturated, and we lack good role models for acceptable behaviours.
To bring this back to academia, the only way things change is if professors (male and female) start ‘fathering’ male students by both setting the example for behaviour and having the sometimes awkward discussions that are needed to correct inappropriate behaviours when they do arise. Indeed, we need to even do this for others’ students, because in the brilliant words of Lt Gen. David Morrison, “The standard we walk past is the standard we accept.” When someone is being a creep, or even indulging in inappropriate behaviour, the only way it might change is if it is brought to their attention that it is unacceptable and should not happen again.
We have a responsibility to do this, and it is more important than papers and grants, because we can’t afford to continue pushing women out of science with our creepy, awkward and unpleasant behaviour.
Finally, to my younger male colleagues (in maturity not necessarily age), check yourselves a bit more. Think about what you do and what you say, if not before you say it, then after… sure, you can’t unsay stupid statements (I know this all too well, and certainly regret some things I’ve said in life), but you can learn not to make the same mistakes. If the next morning you regret what you said, apologise if possible, at the very least, make sure you never do it again. Always put your female colleagues off limits for anything other than the same level of interactions you’d have with your male colleagues. Do not assume that a chat or a look or a smile is a sign that you should lay down all your moves for a night of hot love; if anything, assume that this is nothing more than just being platonic friends. Put yourself in your female colleagues’ shoes; they are surrounded and outnumbered by men, they need and want to interact with you, and as colleagues not sex objects. Help them do it. If a romantic attachment is gonna happen, it will take more than one night out. Take your time and be sure the signals of mutual interest really truly are there; do not make unwarranted passes on your colleagues, and do not be laying moves for one night stands. Trust me on this, my girlfriend is also an academic, so I know from experience. This is real life, and you are not Hank Moody, no matter how much you wish you were. Keep your hands to yourselves (obvious). And do not succumb to this pick-up artist bullshit, such as in books like those by Neil Strauss (which I’ve read, so no claiming I’m uninformed on this). It’s purile and insulting and exploitative and makes you look like a desperate arsehole. If you want to learn how to be better with women, go follow Dr Nerdlove on twitter, and leave your moves for women outside your work environment unless you’re getting clear signals of interest.
Finally, treat women with respect; they certainly deserve it as much as you do (if not more given the crap they often have to deal with in our male dominated work environment). Yes, they are different but that does not ever mean they are inferior. Learn to accept and embrace the differences, put sex aside, and make yourself some female friends. Trust me, your life will be so much better for it (I love all my female friends, and in the strictly platonic sense, women make fantastic friends) and so will academia, and the world as well.