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Viral post: Is science is in the eye of the beholder? [Hint: NO]

December has proven to be an extremely busy month for me, so with my monthly Women In Astronomy blog post due, I again turned to my friend and colleague Renee Hlozek, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University, to write a guest post in my stead. And damn if her post didn't go instantly viral, taking the #4 most-read spot among WIA blog posts by garnering 3600 reads in the past week. So I figured I'd repost it here just in case any of my readers missed it. 

Take it away, Renee!

Side note: The past couple months haven't been great for women in science and science journalism. This post links to all the stories of racism and sexism as as experienced by Danielle Lee (#standingwithdnlee!!) and the sexual harassment allegations made by Monica Byrne and Hannah Waters. To be honest, I am pretty overcome by the stories of late. I (like a surprisingly large number of female scientists I know) have experienced sexual harassment, albeit of a rather different kind to that discussed in the articles. While I have lots of thoughts on the pieces, I'm going to save those thoughts for another time and discuss something perhaps a little less obvious. I was actually pretty nervous to discuss even this one for fear of the usual comments it might elicit, but that makes me all the more decided to do so.

We all have bias. If you think you don't, try this eye-opening test on implicit bias from Project Implicit. It'll make you think. 

But while we're getting much better on average at identifying obvious forms of bias and sexism (at least I feel there is forward momentum!), one form of sexism is much more subtle: benevolent sexism. Rather than just giving a definition of the term, I'm going to try and relate what happened to me as an example and explain how this well-meaning person made me so angry and frustrated that I had to take a few (many) moments away from my colleagues to calm myself.

I was seated and ready for an early meeting with a person in a position of power. He was meeting with me to perform a standard background check on a colleague. As a South African, I've never done one of these in the US and so I was a little nervous and wanted to be as professional as possible (I even tidied my office!).

As I saw him walk past my door, I rose to greet him, and offered him a seat. He thanked me for making time to see him. 

And then he said:

"Hm. Well, you're too pretty to be a scientist! I came here expecting you to be wearing tiny glasses with your hair in a bun."

Yep. True fact.
And you know what I did?

Ugh. Less of this, please.
I shrugged and did my best at a cold stare. Now a week before, some stranger had made a similar joke to me and I had absolutely blasted him in my slightly-over-aggressive way. But here I was, on home turf, and absolutely mute. I felt that if I said anything to him, it might jeopardize my friend and colleague's background check. Or I felt shocked. Or something. To be honest, I wish now I had been able to say something.  I've since emailed him to explain that I found it offensive and he apologized saying that he truly didn't mean to offend me, and I believe him. He was, however, extremely surprised that I could take offense at his comments. It took quite a lot of explaining to describe how it made me feel and why it was damaging to our professional encounter. I don't want to have to keep having this interaction with 'well-meaning' people. Really, I don't.

After an outraged outburst to a close male friend and colleague at work (thanks for listening Jeremiah!) I posted a rant on Facebook. What surprised me even further were some of the comments, which suggested that he was just trying to give me a compliment, and that he meant well, actually. Now I am sure that this man actually was just trying to give me a compliment (and he has since apologized after all), and yes, it is always nice to feel attractive. 

So why am I upset, so much so, that over a month since it happened, writing about it makes my heart race? 

Well, firstly it is completely unprofessional to discuss what I look like in a science meeting. This man is a complete stranger and nothing about the meeting warranted a discussion on our bodies. But even so, he actually didn't compliment me on my dress style. What he said was that my body or what he defines to be attractiveness in me was outside of the expectations he had for a scientist, and he felt called to tell me that.

Let's unpack this a bit. First of all, that far that he openly admitted that he has a stereotyped idea of what a female scientist should look like is wrong. One may have a stereotyped idea of what a female (or male) scientist looks like. While I might like to, I can't actually even stop anyone from being internally biased by those stereotypes.  But what really is not okay is for you to share them with me. Often the way this happens is through a conspiratorial 'wink and a joke', like I should actually enjoy the fact that he shared this stereotype with me. 

So what can we do about this? In general I shy away from "to-do" lists, since I think that that sometimes makes people over-cautious in the work place, and I don't think that is a good thing, but I actually think a few tips might help in this case. Because a few common sense things to think about before you say anything can make all the difference. So before you speak, think:
  • What is the relationship between you and the person you are about to compliment? The way I will tell a friend he looks good (with something like: "looking sharp!") just isn't the same way I would tell the head of department that I like his or her shirt. If they are one of your students, then think about if it is appropriate.
  • Have you thought about what you are saying (i.e. the words you are using)? For example, saying that you like the color of someone's shirt is great, saying, "that shirt fits you so well" is less so. The first comment refers to their dress sense, the other to their body. The previous point is relevant to this too - because if you are close friends then they may not be offended. If in doubt, err on the side of expressing a compliment in a less rather than more familiar way. And that doesn't mean shying away from saying anything!
  • Have you thought about how the comment will make them feel, versus how it would make you feel to tell them? This one is subtle, but for example, perhaps I see someone wearing nice heels at work saying "wow, those are great heels" is a compliment to them, but is also based on fact. Saying "wow, why are you so dressed up?!" might make them feel like they are exposed, and is also based on my value judgement about how one should dress in work.
  • If you are surprised (pleasantly or otherwise) by having one of your stereotypes challenged that is great - but don't delight in telling the person who challenged them that. What if I notice that the man giving the seminar has a much more 'athletic' body type than that of a typical scientist? What if I notice that the female speaker has a very creative dress sense? I keep those comments to myself and make sure I pay close attention to their science talk. We won't do anything to increase diversity in our field if we keep highlighting the differences between our expectations of people and their reality. No one likes to feel like a show pony.
I actually do think we can navigate to a place where we can be friendly and relaxed while still being thoughtful about our interactions with other scientists. We just need to think for that fraction of a second before speaking in these cases. And then I won't have to keep making excuses for men and women that are trying to 'be nice' and 'mean no harm'. Until then, I'm going to go paint my nails while I wait for my code to compile.


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