Conference welcome drinks. In other words, the awkward moment when you realise you don’t know anyone, and that you are standing by yourself in a corner. I live to dread these moments. At my first conference, a man in his seventies came to talk to me and tell me how I would not amount to much in Australia with an English accent. He was not trying to be funny (though I wish he was). He then went on to tell me that if Australian asylum seekers were committing suicide in Nauru processing camps, let them. At least they wouldn’t make it to Australia.
As you might imagine, I felt completely out of my depth. I was new to the country, new to the research area, and new to this group of people. I didn’t know what the rules were, whether this person was important or not, and simply decided to politely excuse myself and walk off.
But this got me thinking – why did he think it was ok to tell me, a complete stranger, this? Was it because I was 24? Was it because I looked Indian? Was it because he could tell I was too polite to tell him to eff off? Or was it a power game?
I will never know the answer. But since then, I have been to a lot of conferences. Men of varying ages and nationalities have come talk to me, and let me ask them about their research, but not asked me about mine, jumping straight to questions such as: How old are you? Do you live with your parents? Are you a good cook? I even had someone tell me, quite drunk: “I originally thought that because of your English accent you would be stuck up, but actually, you are quite cool!”
Wow. Thanks person that I barely know.
I have also had men I barely know put their hands on my waist at workshops. Or just happen to brush against my bum. I have had comments about wanting to see me in a bikini, or about how nice my legs look.
It all seems harmless, but the man who asked me if I was a good cook, later started stalking me home. I had to go back to my office. That is when it all becomes much less harmless.
Recently, I discussed this with a colleague and he suggested I should use it to my advantage. That these were small fry and that I should be more strategic about which men I talked to at conferences. After all, a little flattery and a smile could potentially take me places. I think it was meant as a compliment, but it upset me. This is someone who lectures on unconscious bias in Science.
I haven’t followed his advice. The problem is that I don’t think of men as tools to be manipulated. I think of them as colleagues who do cool research, the same way I think of women as colleagues who do cool research. Quite simple really, and I don’t understand the need to pretend like men are so stupid they have no control over their thoughts and actions. It’s just untrue, and provides a get out of jail free card.
Somehow #everydaysexism is portrayed as an insurmountable societal issue. Yet, to me, there are some obvious and simple solutions. One, do not put your hand on someone else’s bum. Male or female. Two, do not ask anyone whether they are a good cook at a science conference. I could go on endlessly, but you probably get my point.
If ever at a loss about how to approach a woman at a conference, I would strongly suggest asking her about her research, and taking it from there.
I think that as a research community, we need to make more of an effort to acknowledge that sexism happens every day. We need to collectively make an effort to understand, if we are rejecting a woman’s paper, or not offering her a job – is it because of an unconscious bias?
Too often male scientists are unaware of the way female scientists are treated, while female scientists are all too blasé about it – It’s just another awkward day in the office.
Now, I think of conference welcome drinks as Russian roulette. You never know who you will talk to. Sometimes it’s excruciating, but sometimes you meet some very interesting people who change your view of Science.
I met the old man who thought I wouldn’t amount to much recently at a conference, and casually mentioned how hypocritical I thought Australian immigration policy was, given what the European settlers did to the Aboriginals. After a while, he politely excused himself and walked off.