Wednesday, September 10, 2008

And now for something completely different

Okay, so I've been mulling over this one for awhile, but frankly I was too lazy because it's a somewhat involved post... and let's face it... scientists are lazy. If we weren't totally lazy, why would this exist?

As some of you may remember, I attended a week long scientific conference back in June. As at most scientific conferences, the talks and poster sessions ran rather late into the night (seriously, 11:00 is late for me these days... my toddler wakes up at 6:00!). And, as at most scientific conferences, a good percentage of the attendees would go socialize and talk shop at the bar after the sessions closed.

At the close of the last session, one of the conference organizers (a relatively big name in my little subfield... let's call him Giant Perv) announced that the entertainment for the evening would be a (crappy) DJ spinning (crappy) tunes at the bar.

So I get to the bar with my labmates and a couple of other girls and we get ourselves a couple of beers. After about 10 minutes, Giant Perv walks up to our table and starts trying to get us on the dance floor. I figure he's just worried that the entertainment is a flop (which, um, hello? I'm not dancing to Men At Work). So we beg off saying that we'll dance in a little bit. Giant Perv accepts this and heads over to the next table of hapless grad students.

As soon as Giant Perv leaves the table, one of the women I am with tells a horror story about the last time she came to this conference... apparently Giant Perv likes to hit on grad students and post docs, using the dance floor as his opportunity to grab a little a**. She said that last time she was at this conference, he had literally dragged her onto the dance floor.

When it was time for our second round, one of the grad students and I went up to the bar to order more beers. As we're walking past the dance floor towards the bar, Giant Perv grabs my forearm.

Time for that dance he says. I try to beg off, but he literally isn't taking no for an answer. He's grabbing my forearm for godssake and pulling me onto the dance floor.

What I didn't realize was that by "dance" Giant Perv meant "swing dance". To Shakira.

I did a lot of swing dancing in college, and I'm not half bad. I can rock a pair of three-inch heels and make it look good. Nonetheless, I was not super stoked at the idea of dancing with this guy. But rather than make a scene or yank my arm away, I danced.

As we danced, I felt that old uncomfortable feeling of dancing with a stranger. Where do you look? What do you say? As I prayed for the speakers to explode, I tried to concentrate on where to put my feet.

I'm a terrible follow I said, laughing uncomfortably.

You're not in control here he said. I'm not going to let you tell me what to do.

Um, creepy much?

When the dance was over, he complimented me on my dancing, on my dress, asked me if I wanted a drink. I said no. I was so uncomfortable that I decided to leave the bar altogether.

Why wasn't I able to say no when this guy pulled me onto the dance floor? I didn't want to make a scene, didn't want to alienate this guy. He's in my sub-field. There's a very good chance that he'll be a reviewer on my future paper (for which I have yet to collect data). So I sucked it up, danced with him though I didn't want to. And when he continued to make me uncomfortable, I had to leave.

But in fact, I did say no. He chose to interpret my refusal as coyness instead of discomfort. He chose to continue hitting on me as I was trying to leave.

In every field, there's a guy like Giant Perv. The guy with the reputation for hanging out with all the young, female grad students. Who use conferences as an excuse to flirt with or otherwise harass women who are younger than them. Guys like Giant Perv use the power differential between Established Scientist and Lowly Grad Student (or Groveling Postdoc) to get a little action.

And frankly, guys like Giant Perv can get away with it. What recourse is there, really, when a female student or postdoc is harassed at a conference (or even at their home institution)? There are rarely any consequences for bad actors.

No big take home message here, it just sucks.


Hanna said...

Hi, I'm a lurker -- I finished my PhD in spring, new to the postdoc thing, thinking about having a baby, etc. Anyway, thought I'd delurk and empathize by sharing an even more yucko story:

I'm in an applied physics subfield, and we have two main conferences each year. At one of them, the various universities that send big groups of researchers have taken to hosting theme parties each night. The unifying theme is nerdy people getting very, very drunk.

At one of these parties early in the week, a senior researcher spent a lot of time talking to one of my friends. No one thought anything about it -- not even her. And no one thought anything about it the next night, at a slightly more drunken party, when he started talking to her again. But as the night went on he started telling her increasingly personal stuff about problems with his wife, etc. Then he started asking her what she was doing later, and if she would like to meet him at the hotel hot tub. She managed to extricate herself without causing a scene, and everybody made a point of keeping him away from her for the rest of the party. But it didn't end there. Later that night, he called her cell phone repeatedly, telling her he was at the hot tub, asking when she was coming, etc. Even though she was horrified, she still tried to refuse *politely.* Finally, she had to turn off her phone.

It was super creepy, particularly since we all have a professional relationship with this man. (That's why he had her phone number.) A few months later at another conference, he offered me a job. Yikes. I think I managed to be politely evasive.

Jennie said...

I hate that feeling. I know when women friends tell me creepy stories I think, Oh I would have said no, or call him out, or punched him in the face, or I have some rational way of getting myself out of that situation because I'm a strong women. But the fact is this situation has happened to all women (myself included) and we fall victim to the situation because in the heat of the moment we feel vulnerable and powerless. Then afterwards we feel stupid for not being able to stop the situation. Since I know Giant Pervs aren't going away the only solution I can think of is practicing. Get together with other women, hold workshops where you pretend Giant Perv is coming on to you or making you dance with him. What is the proper response? What won't get you fired or delisted? Off the top of my head I can't think of anything.

Anonymous said...

I went to a meeting where we (bunch of PhD students) went to a restaurant after talks, but the only place to sit was in these booths in the corners in little separate rooms. So, a bunch of us friends piled in a booth. Along comes Dr. Old Man Creepy. He pulled up a chair and sat across us boothers for a while. I was way in the middle, and had to sneak out to pee, came back and decided to sit on the end to make things easy. Little did I know that a few minutes later, Dr Creepy would give me the "scoot" sign to push in so he can sit next to me because he couldn't hear? Within 1 minute, his hand was on my thigh and it stayed there wayyy tooooo longgg (past a millisecond). I gave him the look of death. I moved my leg. I turned my back to him. He grabbed my arm!, moved my drink and plate around?, and he wasn't drunk. I got the hell outta there. 2 months later, he called my PhD advisor about writing a grant with him and ME. I gave my advisor the 411 and he was stunned. I don't care if that grant was a billion $$ - no way jose. My advisor told him we were busy writing up a grant already (lie) and that I was heading into another direction (yeah, opposite of Dr creepy). This past year's meeting.... I literally RAN AWAY everytime he was within view. and I mean RAN. I even ducked behind a table once. ducked, yes. like a ninja. It ain't right.

mama of the valley said...

I think every woman who has ever worked has a story like this...

I chalk it up to a much larger problem that many older men tend to have - a belief that any young woman who is even remotely nice *wants* them.

EcoGeoFemme said...

So super sucky. And unfair. And gross. And it makes us feel like we did something wrong somehow.

I do know one older, very important man in my field who likes to hang out with students and post docs, usually stays late at the bar, sometimes gets drunk. Once I even danced with him and although it was not at all creepy, it was very awkward. But this guy is so much fun, and it turns out that it's awesome for the students to have access to someone of his status at conferences. It sucks that the Giant Pervs of the world give nice men like the one I know a bad name and make women skeptical of the their motives. Poo.

Jane said...

Ugh, ugh, ugh. ecogeofemme just made the point I was about to, and it sucks that we have to waste mental and emotional energy dealing with this crap. I'm fortunate in that my creepy encounters with senior people have been few and far between, but there's a particularly creepy one *from my college days* that still makes my skin crawl when I think about it.

Jenn said...

ugh that does suck. what a creep. I hate power imbalances and feeling like you have no recourse.

Janus Professor said...

Check out Dr. Mom's Thursday May 31, 2007 post for an awesome story that complements this one. I tried to link, but am being computer ignorant right now.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Ugh. I've had older (usually drunk) PIs stare at my chest before, but never anything like this in a professional situation.

The sad truth is that there is very little that a younger female can say to one of these men that will actually get through to them. We need to get senior males on side too. A guy who thinks it's OK to behave this way with female students/postdocs won't listen to one of them, but might listen to a male of similar status.

Anon (2.35pm) getting her PI on side was a great idea. More senior male scientists need to step up and let their pervy colleagues know that this is not acceptable behaviour. Maybe a delegation of females approaching a sympathetic senior male, and asking him to have a word or two with the offender, might work...

Candid Engineer said...

Gross. You did what you could.

Anonymous said...

""I am not now to learn," replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, "that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long."

Mr Collins, on learning that Elizabeth Bennett refuses to marry him. 'Pride and Prejudice', by Jane Austen, circa 1815.