Token Help?

Apr 08 2011 Published by under colleagues, women in science

This week in the FSP blog, I described a couple of incidents involving Women As Tokens in science: something I overheard, and something I experienced. In the latter post, a male commenter wondered what he and like-minded colleagues could do to help in situations such as the one I described (in short: during a meeting of a small working group in which I am the only woman, a senior professor mentioned twice, apropos of nothing, that the only reason I had been invited to join the group ~6 years ago was because I am female).

When I find myself in these situations, I may or may not confront the person making the offensive statement, depending on the situation and my mood. If I decide to speak up, I typically employ gentle but not subtle sarcasm. In the situation I described recently, I did not say anything.

None of the men in this particular meeting said anything either. Did I want them to? In this case, it didn't matter to me. I am a senior professor, I don't need allies in this particular working group, I have just as much "power" in this group as the person who explicitly noted that I am a token, and I have confidence that my work in this group is useful. In fact, I do have an ally in the group, but he wasn't at this meeting.

Would I have minded if one of the men had stepped in and told Professor Not-A-Token that his comments were inappropriate? No, I would not have minded. In fact, there are many situations in which it is very helpful for men to speak up in these situations. It can turn the tide of a discussion from being an unconstructive one in which women are isolated and insulted into a more inclusive one. And it can show the apparently biased person that their views are not widely held, perhaps inspiring them to refrain from making obnoxious comments in the future.

Perhaps some sympathetic men stay silent because they don't know what to say. Even if they have no fear of angering the person making the obnoxious comments, these other men may not want to sound patronizing to the woman being insulted, or make it appear that a woman needs a man to rescue her.

Every situation is different, but just to take the example of my recent experience, I would not have minded if one of my senior colleagues had said something to Professor Not-A-Token, such as "That's irrelevant. I'm not sure why you are even bringing that up." Or this hypothetical ally could have alluded to the fact that our working group strives for geographic diversity by noting which group member is the token person from a particular continent.

During an incident such as this, I certainly wouldn't want us all to dwell on the issue, unless it was clearly a major problem interfering with the functioning of the group. Just a brief "You are alone in your obnoxious opinions" kind of comment or two from the rest of the group would be sufficient to get us all back on track and perhaps convince the jerk that further comments about token women were not welcome by anyone.

But that's just one example. Perhaps readers can contribute other examples of when allies stepped in with an appreciated comment or could explain what they wish someone had said during a situation of this general type.


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31 responses so far

  • Clarissa says:

    If this happened to me, I would have left immediately and not returned until every member of that group offered a public apology to me.

    • Gecko says:

      That would be a really stupid thing to do in some cases, maybe this one. There are some situations in which you can make a more powerful statement by being professional. This is not equivalent to being a doormat and letting people insult you. In the right situation, being professional and focusing on your job is what gets you the respect of the others and can make you feel more in control of the situation. If a woman makes a strategic decision not to confront an obnoxious male in a situation like the one described, it is not weakness, it can be very smart. There are times to confront, but then there are times when it would just seem like a useless tantrum and everyone loses.

      • Zeeba says:

        I fully agree with Gecko, sometimes being professional in the face of people making sexist statements just makes them look profoundly stupid. It also ends that conversation and leaves their stupid comment hanging in the air, making them look even stupider.

  • Marie says:

    My favorite story on this topic - in a research meeting, I was talking to FemaleUndergrad and asked her if she was attending WomenInOurField conference, and mentioned that the department had funding to send female undergrads if she wanted to attend.

    MaleUndergrad said something to the extent of, "No fair!"

    Without missing a beat, the (male) leader of the meeting said, "Yeah, let's start a guys only conference! We'll call it TopConferenceInOurSubfield!" The subtext: the normal science conferences practically are guys only, so get over the fact that the women have their own shindig. It was awesome that he shut it down so quickly, saving us women from having to take a defensive position.

    Then we moved on with our meeting.

    • MathTT says:

      I was recently judging our state's high school science fair. I was also selecting girls for a special award from a women-in-science type organization. The head of the whole damn thing said, loudly, "why don't we have boys only awards?" I replied that all the awards had been de-facto boys only for a very long time, and we were just trying to give some encouragement to counterbalance the discouragement that girls in science sometimes experience in middle & high school. (I should add... we specifically don't give the award to the girls who are among the top projects, but rather to those who perhaps live in more rural areas with fewer resources, yet did really good work on their own... not via some fancy, schmancy private school or NIH internship... these girls really do need the encouragement.)

      He persisted, so I finally said, "yes, clearly by the *one woman* at the math / cs / physics / astronomy judges table and the *no women* at the engineering judging table, it's clear that equality has been achieved! That kind of shut him up, but I think it also made him mad. I'm really, really glad this was not someone in my department.

      It happened a couple of weeks ago, and I'm still kind of seething. (And none of the other men at my table piped up at all. Thanks, guys!)

      • I have no problem with science fair awards for girls only, but locally there have been more female than male winners at the county level for at least 10 years, so it is not clear to me that girls-only prizes at the science fair level are the most productive way to get more women to continue in the sciences.

  • Anonymous says:

    A simple "That is not appropriate" would be good enough for me.

    When I was new faculty, a senior jerk used to go out of his way to make inappropriate, suggestive, or just plain rude comments to me, often in front of other senior faculty. It still makes me sad that none of my otherwise well-meaning colleagues ever challenged him. It would have made a big difference to me at the time. I'm tenured now, and the jerk has retired, but I still have a low opinion of those colleagues for their lack of support.

  • FrauTech says:

    I know this isn't about what we *don't* want, but when a guy pipes up in a "hey hey, you guys" or "hey come on now" general sort of way, it tends to come across that he's trying to play mediator between the douchebag and me who's said/done nothing. And that's irritating. Like my being a woman is in an of itself equally as combative as douchebag who decided to say something.

    But I don't expect a guy to be any more witty and eloquent than I am. If he looks at the douchebag and says something like "Really?" that's probably enough for me. And more than I've ever seen. But then I really have no examples of somebody ever stepping up to the plate on my or any other woman's behalf.

    • Cara says:

      Which is unfortunate, because it really would be more courageous for a man to say, "Knock it off, Bob" than to silently go along for fear of being called a...well. You know.

  • hkukbilingualidiot says:

    I've had the whole package, from token presence to downright discrimination. However, I took it by the chin and tolerated it. For 6 months, I did, without cracking and just kept my silence until they realised how absurd and childish they were. Then one day, with a very gracious thank you note, and an impeccable presentation to wrap-up my time there, I left. Now, with the confidence of knowing that I've been through it all, I'm known to be tough and now it's me who choose the jobs and not the jobs that choose me!

    • hkukbilingualidiot says:

      Though of course, at the time, I've had several apologies from junior male staff for the inappropiateness of those up-above which made my hard-kept silence worthwhile.

  • GMP says:

    Interesting how few comments this post drew. I guess people really don't know what to say to show solidarity. And most people are really confrontation-averse and don't want to get into it with a jerk. Now if you were the wife or a daughter of one of the men in the room, they might have spoken up. But, otherwise, I must say I am not surprised they kept to themselves.
    A few times in the past when I have responded, quite irritated, to sexist or otherwise dismissive comments, I was actually reprimanded after the fact by some senior colleagues that it's bad form to lose temper or in any way show you were upset or hurt by the comments, and that everything is best turned into humor. I hate it that whenever a female shows anything but perfect restraint, she's being "hysterical."
    What's my point? Most people avoid confrontation unless their own stakes are very high; I have yet to see a man (or a woman, for that matter) jump to my defense after a verbal slight by a third person. I am afraid that, if you want somebody put in their place, you have to do it yourself.

    • Anonymous says:

      Oh, GMP. You just need to develop a sense of humor!

      Seriously, I think you are right that most of our silent colleagues are simply trying to avoid confrontation. After all, once you are tenured, you are going to be surrounded and interacting with the same people for years, if not decades. So they are that much more confrontation-averse.

      But aren't we their colleagues as well? Don't they realize that they piss us off when they give these jerks a pass? Is it so hard to believe that we female junior faculty will also be around for years?

      • GMP says:

        Anonymous, you made an excellent point. Yes, junior female faculty will indeed be around for years. Don't silent colleagues realize they are pissing us off by giving jerks a pass? They do, but here's the real beauty of the situation -- we (women) simply do not incite enough fear. People routinely decide that it's much more important not to antagonize a sexist male jerk (probably because jerkiness transcends sexism, and these people are difficult all around) than it is to risk antagonizing a non-jerk woman. However you slice it, jerkiness always wins. Sigh.

        • Cara says:

          They have nothing to gain by speaking up.

          They get the "boy" pass by being silent.

          They get ridiculed for sticking up for a mere woman unless they're sleeping with or related to her...and even then they're called unprofessional.

          So. If a man really wants to prove his bravery he should at least let the other guys know that he doesn't agree.

          But then, guys who feel the need to prove their bravery often DO agree with the rest of the He-Man Woman-Haters club because they resent women taking away their free ride to feeling big.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I cannot picture anyone making such a comment about any of my female colleagues, or being glad that they had, after said female colleague had finished sorting them out.

    • MZ says:

      But that's part of the point, isn't it -- why should it always be the female colleague that has to "finish sorting them out?"

  • BeadyEyedAcademic says:

    I am not in the sciences, but I am in a humanities field that is similarly dominated by men. I hear similar comments to these all the time. One colleague basically told me I got my job because I'm female. In the last month I've even heard several jealous comments from colleagues referencing the fact that I have a semester off of teaching due to maternity leave!

    (As an aside, here in Canada fathers are equally able to take up to 35 weeks of paid parental leave. Mothers get an extra 16 weeks, due to their need to physically recover from giving birth. )

    My question on this topic is this: These same men (at least the ones I know) would never openly criticize awards or programs that encourage ethnic and racial minorities in academia. Why is it that supposedly liberal-minded academics who are largely in favor of pursuing greater racial and ethnic diversity in their fields are so threatened by attempts to achieve more gender balance in academia?

    • BeadyEyedAcademic says:

      I should have also noted, in reply to the specific question asked, that the only support I've gotten in these situations has been met with rolling eyes and barely concealed chuckles. Why? Because it's come from the other token woman, who's seen as an out-dated, second wave feminist who discriminates against men.

    • Eli Rabett says:

      Yes they would.

  • Avery says:

    I agree with the folks who've said something along the lines of "Really?", "That's inappropriate. Moving on." as both of those are supportive, straight to the point, and are less likely to be taken as simply conciliatory. Personally, I wouldn't mind a "Hey, whether she got in as a token or not, she does some damned good work, so how bout we get back to it, huh?" either, but that's a little more belligerent than is necessarily professional and probably a little much for a couple snide comments.

  • MaleGraduateStudent says:

    Comments like these have come from a grad student in my research group to a former female postdoc in our lab. He was upset because she made more money than him even though he "worked harder." The post doc and I both destroyed him.

    I'll never put up with that shit. I don't care if a female colleague of mine isn't confrontational and would rather just ignore the slights and let them continue. I'll be professional, but I will shut the person down.

  • female grad student says:

    In some situations, I've had male peers try to back me up, and in some they haven't. Every single time they've chimed in, I'm greatly appreciated their comments, even if they failed to convince the person or their comments were the perfect thing to say. It's better in every way if you and the jerk-faces know that there's more than just you in your corner.

  • melody says:

    it's because of the mass silence and apathy from onlookers, that bullies and jerks continue to pick on their targets. if enough social pressure is placed on the bully to make him uncomfortable, he will have motivation to curb his behavior.

    Behaviorism shows that behaviors that are reinforced tend to repeat while behaviors that are consistently not reinforced, or which are consistently punished, tend to decrease. Imagine if every time the bully-professor made a sexist comment, everyone in the room got on his case to where it made him feel uncomfortable. Every single time. You can bet that soon he will keep his sexist comments to himself or maybe even come to believe his attitudes are wrong (human nature is such that being repeatedly exposed to the same message relentlessly eventually increases our susceptibility to believing it...this is often how minds are changed....advertisers and politicians and religious leaders use this tactic all the time).

  • K says:

    I'm a token woman, so I hear these things a lot (especially when I try to make sure that our female students are considered for awards other than the one that's especially for female students). I do get support (from about 1/3 of my department), but it's exhausting to deal with the same comments for years and years and years.

    I'm trying to think of things that the allies have said that have been useful. Probably the most useful thing has been "shouldn't we consider Female Student X for this award?" - it's nice when I don't have to be the one pointing out potential discrimination all the time.

    But the most useful thing I've heard from an ally is "K's right," when I've said something.

  • Nicole says:

    My department chair is awesome. He just says, in his Southern drawl, "I really don't think that kind of speculation is appropriate." And that's that. A couple of my male senior colleagues do complain about him later out of earshot, but I just raise my eyebrows. He does make them double think about what kinds of things they put in emails-- one of my senior folks has asked me to look over an email for appropriateness before he sent it to the rest of the search committee.

  • lauren says:

    Yeah, a low-key "What?" or "Really?" from a male colleague is nice.

    Example: At a job interview (!) I had a guy ask me how old I was and then say, "Oh, you look younger than that." I guess to be charming?

    His colleague across the table snorted and said, "Now moving on to an actual appropriate question..."

  • Sarah says:

    My only advice to male colleagues would be that if you have decided you want to say something (and as everyone else has mentioned, pretty much anything would do the trick) to wait a few seconds first to see if I am going to respond. As FSP pointed out, sometimes the woman in question will deal with it herself and sometimes she won't (depending on a variety of factors), but it irks me a little bit when men in the room assume that they need to "take care" of the situation when I am generally perfectly capable of taking care of it myself thankyouverymuch. There are plenty of other opportunities for the men to step up and deal with all the sexist garbage that goes on in science, but if the comment is directed towards a specific woman (who is in the room) give her a chance to deal with it herself first.

  • Isabel says:

    "I'm trying to think of things that the allies have said that have been useful. Probably the most useful thing has been "shouldn't we consider Female Student X for this award?" - it's nice when I don't have to be the one pointing out potential discrimination all the time.

    But the most useful thing I've heard from an ally is "K's right," when I've said something."

    Yes!!! Pointing out obvious inappropriateness is only the beginning of what "allies" should be doing in these kinds of situations.

    The comments referred to in the OP were so blatantly offensive I would find them awkward to ignore.

  • anon says:

    During meetings or conversations at conferences, etc, I have been interrupted by male colleagues. What's worse is when the person to whom I'm speaking then turns and responds to the interrupter.

    In a recent group meeting, I was interrupted by senior director guy as I was speaking (in turn) to a male guest at the meeting. I was VERY impressed by the fact that this guest ignored senior guy and responded to me instead. It's a subtle dynamic, but I notice this shit.

    Ben Barres wrote about this in a commentary in Nature a few years ago. He noticed, among other things, that after being transgendered to male, he was no longer interrupted by men during conversations: