I’ve sensed some ‘what’s-the-big-deal’-ness in response to recent discussion about inappropriate behavior at the recent Evolution meetings, so I want to explain why I take this so seriously. I think you should care too, assuming you are interested in making science more diverse and inclusive. I’ll speak from my own experience here, making this a perhaps uncommonly personal post. First, I should say that I have been lucky throughout my career to have exceptional mentors (both men and women) who strongly encouraged my interest in science and always made me feel supported. But early on, it became apparent to me (and my female peers) that being a woman in science was going to present extra challenges. None of my experiences are unique and I have colleagues who had a much harder time*. One thing it seems like we all discovered was the amount of caution that was needed in interacting with male scientists, especially senior ones. Being friendly was sometimes taken as openness to flirtation, which could escalate to unwanted touching or worse. So as young woman in science, I learned how to tread carefully and how to be friendly but divert conversations when there were red flags. I learned what the flags are (“looks like you’ve been working out!” or “why is someone like you single?”**). I learned to avoid places and situations where inappropriate behavior is likely to happen, even if it meant sometimes missing out on networking***, and I found friends with whom I could safely discuss these issues. Friends who understood that it’s not as simple as ‘not putting up’ with bad behavior, especially from senior scientists in a community that is so tightly woven through letters of recommendation, reviews, grant panels, and committees.
For me, these social acrobatics became part of the fabric of interacting with other scientists. Another skill like presenting posters, or making aesthetically appealing slides. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized how much mental and emotional energy I wasted on these acrobatics as a younger scientist. Energy that I could have devoted to science or something else! Energy that some of my peers never had to spend****. Now that I am a faculty member, inappropriate behavior towards me has become less common, but I worry for my students and other young scientists. I wish I could prevent unprofessional behavior from clouding their experiences. I wish I could save them from the wasted energy of handling those who behave inappropriately. I wish I could keep them from ever having to become social acrobats themselves. They shouldn’t have to. But it doesn’t seem like things have changed that much in the 16 years I’ve been in this field. For my mentees, I try to prepare them, let them know that I know it happens, welcome them to come talk with me about their concerns, and ask them to brainstorm with me on how to make things better. With regard to the Evolution meetings, the Society for Systematic Biology has called for suggestions. I’m hoping that together we’ll come up with ideas that could actually move the needle.
*To get a sense, peruse the nearly 900 responses to Gina Baucom’s post about crappy things said to or about women in academia.
**I know that these may seem incredibly obvious but when it’s someone senior, someone you respect, and someone that you would never imagine would hit on you, it takes a while (at least for me) to realize what it is. I have learned now to look past rank and listen to my gut.
***If we want access to science for everyone, no one should have to make these choices.
****These are my experiences but I imagine the same goes for other underrepresented groups in STEM.