Today’s post is by a guest author, graduate student SquirrellyRed. She shares a recent experience about what happens when small acts of (benevolent) sexism add up to create a broader culture of hostility towards women.
Given Acclimatrix’s recent post on how gender equality needs to be a collaborative venture in academia, I thought it’d be helpful to share a story about what could – and in this case, did – happen when some of those points that seem trivial or harmless (especially #2) are ignored – and how the effects are amplified the further down the academic totem pole you travel.
As a PhD student in a mid-size biology lab at a large Midwestern R1 university, my group includes a team of undergraduate research technicians that I help supervise. In my lab’s case, all of the undergrad helpers are female students in biology related majors (woohoo!). They are curious, hardworking, and hilarious – a critical combination when we sometimes spend twelve hours at a time together, driving to field sites and collecting measurements. So while I’d like to tell you the rest of this story is about how hard the lab has worked to mentor and support them, unfortunately it’s a story of how the lab failed one of them this summer.
One of the students called me late one night mid-summer. I missed the call and didn’t have a chance to catch her until after fieldwork the next day. Two terrible things happened in the meantime. The first, the reason for the phone call, was that a postdoc (in the same lab), let’s call him Postdoc A, had approached her while she was working at the lab bench, while no one else was around, and asked her out. They had never previously spoken, and he refused to take no for an answer. Once he had her phone number, he sent more than a dozen text or email messages that evening, some explicitly about her body. Failure #1. So many lines were crossed there, regardless of whether or not you think it’s okay to ask out one’s colleagues (remember – they weren’t friends, he’d never spoken to her before).
The second thing that happened is that another postdoc in the lab, let’s call her Postdoc B, invalidated the student’s concerns about the incident when she shared the details. The student was upset, humiliated, and convinced that she should quit because when push came to shove, she was a lowly undergraduate and Postdoc A was, well, a postdoc. Postdoc B told her that “nothing had happened,” mostly because she hadn’t been physically assaulted. Failure #2.
What matters is that this student was being told, in multiple ways, that it was okay for her to be objectified and considered first as a potential romantic interest, instead of a coworker. That she was a female and a sex object before a scientist. And more importantly, there are subtle-seeming power dynamics, in this case postdoc and undergraduate status, that made the situation feel unsafe to her – so much so that she wanted to quit! She feared that every time she was working in the lab that Postdoc A would be looking at, and judging, her body.
Sadly, the situation only got worse from there. The student was dissatisfied with Postdoc B’s feedback, and after talking with me, felt comfortable with me reporting the incident to the lab PI. When told, the PI claimed it “didn’t count” because I wasn’t in the student’s direct chain of command; he claimed it was hearsay. The student would have to tell the PI – her employer and senior thesis research supervisor – herself. Moreover, he claimed that he’d just met the student about her project and “she seemed fine; she didn’t mention anything.” Well, sure. But imagine being twenty and having to tell your advisor the contents of those messages, to have to share what Postdoc A thought about her body verbatim in order for this incident to even be considered worthy of taking action. The student wants to be a student researcher first and foremost; she did not want to have to relive the humiliating situation or imagine that her advisor might be evaluating statements about her body. Failure #3.
In the end, the student had to talk with the PI. She told me she felt okay with it, in part because several female graduate students were willing to listen, help her articulate what made the situation feel unsafe, and support her in taking whatever action she wanted to pursue. The PI took no action, further reinforcing the (false!) idea that it was okay for a colleague to be talking about the student’s body. Failure #4. At the very least, using this as an opportunity to establish and clarify parameters for appropriate interaction as a lab group could have been a great outcome of this incident, but that did not happen either. Failure #5.
So to those who would say ‘what’s the harm in telling a coworker I think she looks good?’ consider this situation. Because I really think that Postdoc A doesn’t consider himself a creeper. (Although turns out he’s done the same thing to other female undergrads and grad students in the building…) To this day, it’s not even clear if he knows that there was any fallout from his interaction with the student. He probably really doesn’t understand that the multiple, tiny choices he made about how he approached her, what he said, and his refusal to listen to her ‘no’ led the student to feel unsafe and preyed upon. I bet he definitely never imagined that she was about to quit as a result. If asked, he would even probably say he considers females as smart as men and that he respects and likes his lab colleagues. But if that’s really true and if he (and everybody) wants to make the academy a safe space for women at all levels of scholarship, there’s no place for commenting about women’s bodies, however harmless the intent.
SquirrellyRed is a graduate student in biology at a big R1 university in the flyover states. Not (yet) a dissertator.
EDIT: The title of this post originally read “trivial” instead of “everyday” sexism. When I (Acclimatrix) wrote the title for SquirrelyRed’s post, I was aiming for the idea of casual or everyday/commonplace sexism, and my choice of “trivial” really misrepresents what happened here — as well as gave the false impression that sexism can be trivial (which I don’t think any of us here at TSW agrees with). My apologies!