Hostile Environment - Examples

So, what would be an example of someone creating a hostile environment in the workplace or educational setting?

An example of "frequent, non-trivial acts of a sexual nature" might be, oh, say repeatedly raping your lab assistant nearly 80 times. The rapist in this case was R. Igor Gamow, "a prominent inventor and chemical engineer who was fired by the [University of Colorado] in 2004 for 'moral turpitude.' " The multiple rapes took place between 1995 and 1998. (See The Chronicle of Higher Education daily news, May 5, 2006.)

Or, as Kay Weber alleges in Weber v. Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, having jock straps and condoms placed in your mailbox and having derogatory sexual comments including your name written on a public blackboard. Among other things.

Now, astute longtime Zuskateers will recall that when I first reported on Mr. Gamow's crimes against his lab assistant (she had to submit to his rape or lose her job - and in fact she was fired, later rehired, during pursuit of her case against Mr. Slimow) I also referred to a report that had just been released around the same time, the Extraordinary Women Engineers report. My comment on the report:

I agree that there is a problem of perception. I just don't agree that the [report] completely describes the problem. Or even a major portion of the problem.

A major, big, huge, hulking portion of the problem is the men who think that engineering is their profession. And who think that women are sexual objects. Not all of them are as virulent as our Colorado Chem E rapist above. But many men still think of women as some sort of walking, talking window dressing - something that pretties up an otherwise drab engineering lecture hall, or adds a little spice to the electronics lab. You know, like the cheesecake calendar on the wall of your office/lab, only without the boob jobs and wearing more clothes.

If there were even one-tenth the amount of talk about how to change the caustic culture of manly men and their sexism as there is about how to enlighten those clueless women as to the wonders that a life in engineering can bring, then I might agree that we were on track with outlining the perception problem.

And as I described in my post on the most recent AWIS Washington Wire, there is yet another report saying it's the career-life balance problem keeping the women out of science.

I would like to quit reporting on any more fucking reports about what is wrong with the women that they don't go into these fabulous science and engineering careers - we need better marketing, it's a perception problem, it's a career-life balance problem, it's the two-body problem problem, it's the biological clock problem. It's NOT the women, dammit. It's the goddam harassers and rapists. All the other stuff is stuff that has to be dealt with in any profession. But in how many professions do you still have to deal with jock straps and condoms in your mail box? Or being raped as a condition of your employment? I want to see some reports about what the men are going to do to clean up their dismal behavior and make the workplace a little less hostile.

Save your fingers and don't bother typing your comments about how these must be extraordinary cases and it isn't like that everywhere. It's like that everywhere. You just aren't hearing about it. Most of it never gets reported and what does, barely makes it into the news. How many of you know about the prominent California scientist convicted of sexually abusing a young girl for five years? Doesn't ring a bell? What about the U. Penn Wharton economist arrested with DVD's of himself having sex with young boys? Stay tuned. Meanwhile go pour yourself a nice big glass of Absinthe. If you haven't had any Absinthe lately, you definitely aren't qualified to tell me how it is everywhere.

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I want to see some reports about what the men are going to do to clean up their dismal behavior and make the workplace a little less hostile.

Eh? That is not even possible. If we could do it, we could also agree to drive more calmly, eat healthy and stop killing each other in meaningless wars. Some of us are just garden variety jackasses, as opposed to specialized jackasses who just treat women badly.

I also don't think it's because of harassers and rapists unless you have proof that there aren't as many in law, business & medicine: iirc in a previous post you said that women went into those fields in larger numbers.

I didn't enjoy the fact that there were so few women in our engineering classes. But, I can't imagine that a lot of my mates, who spent the majority of their spare time playing video games, reading fantasy books and doing other nerdy stuff, were more likely to be stalkers and rapists than men who chose other professions.

Oh for crying out loud, that is the most pitiful excuse I've ever heard. "We can't behave as decent human beings towards women because we can't drive calmly, eat well, or not have wars. It's nature baby, you can't fight it." I have already described elsewhere what I think of that particular excuse. I can't believe that (some? many?) men think so poorly of themselves that they are willing to declare themselves genetically unable to behave decently.

If men themselves cannot do something about the problem of harassment and discrimination in STEM educational and workplace settings, then who the hell can? I absolutely will not tolerate hearing the most powerful group declare itself to be powerless against the problems of harassment and discrimination. Must. Barf. On. Someone's. Shoes.

I suggest you go chat with some female colleagues in the humanities or social sciences and ask them if they are routinely dealing with problems like Kay Weber describes in her complaint, or with being forced to submit to rape to keep a teaching assistant position. The kinds of things that go on in engineering and science settings were done away with twenty or thirty years ago in most other workplaces. In the humanities and social sciences, my female colleagues have the luxury of dealing with issues like professors who don't support their desire to work on feminist dissertation topics or who don't respect their work on queer theory. They aren't being hounded out of their fields by cretins who still engage in the most egregious and blatant forms of sexual harassment you can imagine. Just today I learned of a young woman who was advised against even applying to a particular STEM department for graduate study because the professors felt that, as a female, she would not fit in with the department. Literally, that was their reason. Ovaries and a uterus = doesn't fit in with our department.

To me sexism is yet another flaw. I am not saying that we won't fix it. I just don't see sexists disappearing in isolation. If we fix it, we'll fix it for everything including racism, greed, substance abuse, etc.

I have talked with a sociology grad student and a counseling grad student both female, one a relative. Both were harassed in grad school by male professors. (in the 90's) Quit yelling about men -in engineering- and yell about men -in authority- especially academics, abusing their position. Unless you can tell me some reason why engineering is different. I grew up with a professional mother in health care in the days before that was common, and all I had to do was stay at her workplace to see issues when I was a kid in the 60's. Medicine now seems like one of the areas making progress, as far as I can tell.

Oh, that's really funny! Telling Zuska to quit yelling about sexism and quit yelling about men is like telling the sun to quit shining. Apparently you do not pay close enough attention. (1) I yell about men in authority who abuse their authority. Not just in engineering! In science, too! (2) I consider every man who is not part of the solution, to be part of the problem. Every woman, too, for that matter. (3) On average, much, much worse things go on in engineering and science departments and workplaces than the equivalent humanities and social sciences settings. This doesn't mean no women in humanities or social sciences will ever be sexually harassed. Citing one, or several, examples of such harassment does not invalidate the experience of women in science and engineering. (4) Koray: Again, I have no patience for this "we can't fix sexism until we fix everything" attitude. That approach breeds hopelessness. By conflating all problems and insisting that they all have to solved completely, simultaneously, one becomes paralyzed and incapable of taking any action. I insist that we fight whatever battles we can, wherever and whenever we can. If the only place you can make clean of sexism is your lab group, then make your lab group clean of sexism. Think globally, act locally. It actually means something. If someone in your faculty meeting says something incredibly sexist, don't leave it to the women faculty to challenge the moron - speak up and say "I can't believe you said that, Professor FearsWomen." For God's sake get off your asses and do something positive.

Either I am incapable of writing what I mean, or you're reading it wrong. I've *never* said anything along the lines of being incapable to evolve as a society of men to eliminate our flaws, or inable to act locally. I also didn't suggest that all problems be conflated.

I was merely pointing out a similarity. There are laws in place against sexual harassment and racism. There are individuals breaking both kinds of laws. What you apparently want from us is not just to enforce the law, but to eliminate the bad apples completely. I don't know the solution to that. I only assume that if we do have a solution, we will use it to eliminate all kinds of bad apples, not just the sexists at work.

Well, this is what you said. You quoted me saying

I want to see some reports about what the men are going to do to clean up their dismal behavior and make the workplace a little less hostile.

and then you said

That is not even possible. If we could do it, we could also agree to drive more calmly, eat healthy and stop killing each other in meaningless wars. Some of us are just garden variety jackasses, as opposed to specialized jackasses who just treat women badly.

Which sounds awfully like saying men are inherently jackasses who are incapable of changing their behavior re sexism unless/until ALL their bad behavior (wars, poor eating habits, driving aggressively, etc.) are changed simultaneously. How are these magical changes to occur if you don't start somewhere? A good place to start might be, when you see the man next to you behaving like a jackass toward a woman, call him a jackass and tell him to knock it off. You don't have to wait until your own driving habits improve. Although you might find, if you stick up for women a little more, that you just might feel a little less aggressive on the highways. Who knows?

I am a male assistant professor of physiology in a medical school. I have three post-docs and two post-baccalaureates working in my lab. Only one of these trainees is male (a post-doc). I treat each of them with respect and, as far as I am conscious of, without distinction as to gender.

Other than my own behavior running my own lab, what else do you suggest I could do to help equalize the playing field for women?

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 07 Sep 2006 #permalink

No, I meant that something like men's gathering to change male behavior worldwide and publishing a report is impossible. It won't work. What may work is perhaps better early education and balancing income levels, better communities, etc.

What also won't work (imho) is to tell a man to tell a jackass to knock it off. I can't imagine myself succeeding at making a grown-up racist stop being one by telling him that it's bad. A lot of these bad apples do know perfectly well that what they do is against the law.

I can't imagine myself succeeding at making a grown-up racist stop being one by telling him that it's bad.

Maybe not, but if there are kids watching (and there are ALWAYS kids watching, taking their cues from whatever they see grownups doing) they will learn that racism is bad, that adults don't tolerate it even between each other -- instead of learning that overt racism is just fine, since no one ever speaks out against it except on TV.

You're not necessarily trying to get the asshole to change, but to reinforce, in the asshole's mind and in the minds of anyone nearby, that racism is unacceptable.

Likewise sexism: by telling someone to quit harassing their victim, you're creating an environment that's hostile to sexism and in which it's less likely to take place. By saying nothing, you're allowing them to continue to think they're doing nothing wrong and contributing to the general tolerance of sexist behaviour.

That's why speaking out is vital. It takes refusal to tolerate bad behaviour from an abstract thing that the fluffy libruls on TV talk about to a personal, immediate part of everyone's daily environment.

PhysioProf: congrats and three cheers for making an effort to run a gender-friendly lab group! Zuska applauds your behavior and wishes more profs would emulate you. What else can you do to help equal the playing field? You have to consider what you have time, energy, and inclination to do. Can you accommodate undergraduates in your lab as volunteers to gain research experience? Are you interested in volunteering with outreach programs for young girls to encourage them to consider careers in science and engineering? Perhaps a group on your campus already runs such a program; they are always looking for faculty and postdoc/graduate student volunteers to help run hands-on activities for young girls at their workshops. If you can come up with an idea for a workshop activity that is even better. If there is nothing like that on campus, contact a local Society of Women Engineers chapter or Association for Women in Science chapter or your local Girl Scouts Council and ask what kind of outreach activities they have going on, or in the case of the Girl Scouts, what local troops you might volunteer with to help lead some science activities. What about offering to speak to some classes at a local school if they have a career fair - making sure to talk to young girls? Bring along your postdocs as role models. Young girls like to hear and see that women in science lead normal lives and dress like normal people, have normal interests like sports and having pets and that they can wear jeans to work and so on. If you have a women in engineering or women in science program on campus they will be the source of a wealth of information on how you can get involved. If outreach is not your thing - then just simpler stuff, like speaking up whenever you see a guy behaving like a jackass. Or writing a letter to a local newspaper whenever yet another article comes out purporting to explain why women are biologically incapable of doing science and math - write and debunk these pernicious studies. It can be little things, that take little time. But every little thing that everyone does, added up over time, becomes a great big deal of things, and starts having a cummulative impact. Does this help? I hope so.

Koray, you are just bordering on getting your shoes puked on. Do you really mean to sit there with your arms folding, pouting and telling me it won't work for men to stand up against other men and call them out on their sexism and racism? If you can hound each other into homophobia - and you seem able to do that exceptionally well as a lifelong pursuit - then I think you could also figure out how to, in some minor way, occasionally hound some guy into not behaving in a sexist manner for at least the five minutes while you are present in front of him. It's called shaming, and you all know how to use it effectively for the nefarious intent of making manly, homophobic men out of the boys. So don't tell me you couldn't take the same weapon and use it for another purpose, because you could. If you WANTED to.

Those are all excellent things to think about.

"Can you accommodate undergraduates in your lab as volunteers to gain research experience?"

Actually, I already have a female undergraduate working as a volunteer in my lab, who I forgot to mention in my earlier post.

"speaking up whenever you see a guy behaving like a jackass."

In my 15+ years in the biological/biomedical sciences, I have never witnessed an instance of overt gender-based jackassery. I don't doubt it exists; I just haven't witnessed it.

What I have noticed over and over again is something more subtle--and perhaps more pernicious. This relates to the typical male versus female conversational styles. On average, men seem to be much more willing to interrupt someone who is speaking and to do other conversationally aggressive things to ensure that they are heard. I think this puts most women at a disadvantage in conversational contexts in science: seminars, committee meetings, lab meetings, conferences, etc.

One instance involves a fellow assistant professor in my department, who is female and started her position the same day that I did. Our department has many more male than female faculty, and the conversational style at our faculty meetings is very male. On one occasion, my female colleague was trying to make a point, but was just being drowned out by some of the other faculty. They were not treating her any differently than they treat each other, but she was clearly less able to "hold her own" in that atmosphere.

I am a pretty aggressive conversationalist in these sorts of contexts, so I took the floor by interrupting, and said, "I think [Dr. Female Asst. Professor] has something to add that we should listen to". I never discussed this afterwards with her, although we have become very good friends since we started as faculty.

What do people think about what I did? Was it patronizing and condescending to my female colleague to--without her explicit request--use my own verbal aggression as a proxy for her? Was it ultimately weakening to her position vis a vis the rest of the male faculty? Or was it a good thing for a male colleague to do to allow her voice to be heard?

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 08 Sep 2006 #permalink

Here's an example for you, Zuska:
Strippers at a government sponsored climate change conference in Australia.

And, while I'm at it, I'd like to give a shout-out to Broadsheet and her idiotic and unhelpful commentary on Salon:
"Don't get your panties in a ruffle". Broadsheet, only one question comes to mind. Are you a complete moron???? I hope your next journalism conference features you sitting there in the minority, working hard to get respect, while watching strippers. Thanks for nothing you traitorous ass.

a female scientist.

By another chick … (not verified) on 08 Sep 2006 #permalink

Physioprof, that's exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about - speaking up when your male colleagues are being an ass towards a female. Interrupting and talking over female colleagues is classic ass behavior and even if they do it to each other, it's worse for women because on average, women have not developed the skills to interrupt the men and talk over them. And if they do, then the men say privately to each other "god, she's such a bitch". So your comment was most appropriate, and I think the fact that your female colleague has become good friends with you speaks to that. You lent some authority to her and that's always cool in Zuska's book.

Physioprof & Zuska, Thanks for covering that conversational style thing. Coming to a mixed gender grad school after four years at a women's college was a shocker for just that reason. I'd been used to being treated respectfully and not being interrupted, as well as being credited with ideas I broached first. The first day of my first seminar left me fuming. Fortunately, I'd grown up in a house with a lot of discussion where I'd learned to hold my own, which is not true of many women. This is definitely something that needs to be addressed in classes and in meetings. Guys, didn't your mom teach you not to interrupt? Women, speak up! The guys worth knowing will get over the "She's such a bitch" thing or won't think it at all. And Physioprof, thanks for the support too.

PhysioProf, here's another idea: invite women speakers to your department. The author of the linked post says

I always hope that when I'm invited to give a talk that I'm invited at least partially because someone is interested in my research, and not just to provide gender diversity, although I don't mind doing the role model thing as well.

In my experience, a few minutes with PubMed will get you a list of women doing good work in pretty much whatever you're interested in.

My female colleague I mentioned and I are the co-chairs of our departmental seminar committee, and we do make a strong effort to invite female speakers. In her field, membrane protein structural biology, this is difficult, but in mine, neuroscience, it is easy.

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 10 Sep 2006 #permalink

A sorry tale, that doesn't reflect that well on most of those involved: Years ago, when I worked at a leading UK lab, I heard, from a female colleague, of heinous abuse of position - soliciting sexual favours in return for professional preferment etc. - by a senior male colleague. I raised this issue with management, at a high level, and found myself under significant pressure to reveal the name of the irresponsible wretch who was besmirching the name of such a fine fellow. And the outcome? Everyone involved left, and all lived happily ever after elsewhere. A bad business though, that haunts me to this day. It has to be said that I have heard tales quite as toe-curling about similar conduct in many other walks of life - e.g. the UK deputy prime minister and his secretary. Can I think of an example where the bad guy is in fact a woman? Well, erm, whatever.